As promised, the second part of the Guinness Pro 14 Round 17 review. It was a mixed bag for the Italian and South African sides while Glasgow Warriors moved one win away from securing a home playoff semi-final berth. For the Dragons, it was a case of same again with yet another loss in the league.
Glasgow Warriors were at their devastating best with a 68-7 trouncing of a shell shocked Zebre Rugby. In my blog preview of round seventeen, I was concerned for Zebre Rugby; how expansive would they go before being opened up by the Warriors.
The simple answer was that Zebre Rugby did not have to go expansive to get thumped, the hosts did the needful themselves with an excellent cohesive pack and back unit performance which left the Italians at times chasing shadows.
The scoreline speaks volumes. 40-0 up at the break only a try from Canna early in the second half prevented the whitewash. The passing game at times was sublime with DTH van der Merwe prominent throughout and a brace of tries for his efforts.
If that was not enough, Zebre Rugby gifted an intercept try as well as a penalty try as their pack were going backwards at a rate of knots. Glasgow Warriors have being the form side of the Conference A from the very first game.
Warriors thoroughly deserve their home semi-final berth which should be clinched in the coming weeks. The key will be how the side keep their performances at a high level while also looking at the playoffs and resting key personnel along the way.
Zebre Rugby were taught a massive lesson in road trip performance; they failed to deliver a performance from minute one relinquishing territory and points thereafter at a worryingly rate. Two steps back in this fixture for the side.
Zebre Rugby will know that they will not face a side like Glasgow Warriors every day of the week but given the lack of fundamentals in their play last Friday night, plenty of sides would fancy running a score against the Italians which is a shame considering the progress that Michael Bradley’s side has made. The team and squad depth looked jaded here and perhaps the fatigue element is beginning to show as we approach the final quarter of the season given the inexperience in the playing group.
Toyota Cheetahs are my guilty pleasure of this tournament. They do not deviate from their game plan; it is a fast paced, expansive contest regardless of the conditions. Their third quarter performance blew a youthful Dragons outfit out of the water inspired by Sibahle Maxwane and Fred Zeilinga who crossed over for three tries collectively in that period.
The pace, power and passing selection were all superb for these tries and it opened the contest up. A vital fourth try was scored before the end to keep the pressure on Munster Rugby as well as keeping Cardiff Blues at arms length. Conference A is a race for the the second and third spots. Glasgow Warriors are over the horizon and it is now a tossup between Munster Rugby, Cheetahs and Cardiff Blues to see who fills the other two playoff berths.
I would love to see the Cheetahs in the playoffs, their brand of rugby in drying track conditions mean that they are a serious threat for anyone in this conference come May. Blommetjies at full back is sensational joining the line; his pace was a key factor in this victory for the South Africans. An exciting playoff run in beckons with Munster Rugby yet to travel to Bleomfontein.
This was always a season of transition for Dragons. The new franchise tag. A new head coach arriving at Rodney Parade needing to run the rule over a youthful squad. The last couple of months in the league has being incredibly hard; no wins in the league in 2018. There are glimpses of potential in the side; a good opening quarter failed to put the required scores on the board. Hewitt on the wing is an emerging talent, pace and tidy finisher and was again on the scoresheet.
The issue for Dragons is when they do go under the cosh, their defensive lapses and penalty count soar due to the inexperience in the squad. Cheetahs exploited Dragons defensively with their expansive ball carrying game plan. Blommetjies in particular had a field day coming into the line. Dragons had no answer in the second half even though Dee scored with ten minutes to go to make the contest interesting at the death. Experience is key and Dragons do not have it in many areas.
The recruitment process needs to identify further experienced, solid performers in the pack, center and half-back positions. Otherwise, Bernard Jackman will be walking the tightrope this time next year. It is a key period for Dragons management right now; they need to heed the players who are not hitting the standard required. Jackman gets the pass this season but this side needs to evolve next season, otherwise the fans will make their feelings known by not attending home games at Rodney Parade. Critical preparation for next season has already begun!
This was an excellent road trip win for Benetton Rugby, a defining one in that they needed to close out a contest late and they duly did so. Marty Banks provided leadership and game management to steer the side to this win. Five tries scored in total against the Southern Kings. An excellent opening half offensively from Benetton Rugby but defensively struggled particularly in that final quarter. One point in the difference but Benetton Rugby were disciplined to win the contest.
A progressive season for the Italian side and games like this should create momentum and confidence heading into next season. The pack is progressing, still not the finished article but set the platform in this victory with the opening period try burst to start the contest. The back line assisted by Marty Banks continues to evolve with ball in hand but defensively cannot lapse as badly again particularly on the Makase line break, no try but the defensive lapse would be punished by a better side.
So close yet so far again, the Southern Kings were made paid for a slow start and it cost them this fixture. A one point loss at home hurts badly and particularly when they had a man advantage in the third quarter, they failed to put points on the board. In actual fact, Benetton Rugby scored a penalty during this period to win this ten minute period 0-3 which was vital to the final outcome.
The word consistency comes into the equation with the Southern Kings. When they are accurate with ball in hand, they are an effective side. They scored five tries during this contest but the defensive side of the ball is way off the standard required.
The lack of discipline at crucial stages in the second half evident; hopefully there will be solid recruitment in this franchise next season across all units. It is required to give Southern Kings a chance to compete in this league; otherwise would suggest to the South African RFU to disband the team immediately.