Guinness Pro 14 Round 21 Review: Irish Provincial Derbies

The regular Guinness Pro 14 season is over with minimal surprises in the final playoff shakeup. In this blog, Hawkeye Sidekick will review the Irish provincial derbies where Connacht Rugby gave John Muldoon and Andrew Browne a resounding send off with a a seven try demolition of Leinster Rugby. In the other fixture, Munster Rugby assembled squad fought back to secure a 24-24 draw with Ulster Rugby who were eliminated from the Guinness Pro 14 playoff race.

A resounding Connacht Rugby performance fitting for the day that was in it. An emotionally charged Sportsground crowd paid tribute to the service and commitment of John Muldoon and Andrew Browne who are hanging up the boots.

For Muldoon, it was an incredible send off in the week leading up to this fixture. The social media videos of appreciation and gratitude to the Portumna native were on point. It was setup for Connacht Rugby to produce a performance for their departing players and what a performance!

This performance should  be the blueprint for Connacht Rugby next season. The intensity, work rate and organization were on point. The defensive line speed exposed in recent weeks was a different animal yesterday. Connacht’s defensive line speed gave Leinster Rugby no opportunity to set a platform.

The breakdown work by the hosts also caught the eye; a couple of marquee breakdown wins on Leinster possession creating momentum. The ability of Connacht Rugby to slow Leinster Rugby ball down at ruck time also a key facet of the win yesterday.

The seven try haul yesterday illustrated what Connacht Rugby are capable of when they are accurate in all facets of play. Delahunt had a stellar game; the hooker sniping around the fringes with ball in hand and was pivotal in the opening try. Leinster Rugby switching off around the fringes and Delahunt had made thirty meters.

Jack Carty at ten was excellent and his game management along with Marmion gave the side composure throughout and they picked their cue to unleash Niyi Adeolokun out wide to score the opening try of the afternoon and it was not going to stop there.

Tiernan O’Halloran (132 meters gained) who was prominent coming into the line scored a try borne of good game reading as he was able to identify James Lowe pass to Noel Reid. The finish was routine but the manner in how the player identified the opposition play, executed it was a highlight reel moment. Delahunt was again a key cog for the third try; another gain line break around the fringes for Marmion to touch down. 21-3 at the break. No time to ease the intensity and so it proved.

The second half was a procession as Leinster Rugby were becoming increasingly stretched out wide. The fourth try was a superb score; a sweeping move from one end of the pitch to the other. Farrell who has had a standout season for Connacht Rugby this season with a thirty meter gain line break. The quick ruck ball and passing out wide to that man Delahunt again who had the skill set to flick a pass to Niyi Adeolokun on the sideline to run unopposed for the bonus point try.

Connacht Rugby were now rampant and another try highlight good tactical nous and execution. Carty identifying space behind a now passive Leinster Rugby defense. O’Halloran’s run was made to perfection; good pass to the supporting runner Marmion to score. 33-3. Take a photo of that scoreboard; not many teams put a score on Leinster Rugby and this was what it was; a rout. The Blade try was more of the same; gain line breaks created from quick ruck ball. The conversion was taken by John Muldoon, the ball is still in orbit, the conversion was good. Perhaps another coaching role for Muldoon to fulfill for Pat Lam at Bristol next season?

An incredible send off for the players leaving the club. An end of an era at the club with the likes of Muldoon and Browne leaving the club. The coaching staff, players (existing and new) will regroup and this performance needs to be referenced as the level that the side need to aspire to. Their physicality, work rate, game management were outstanding yesterday and Kieran Keane knows that his charges can execute a high octane expansive rugby game plan. Interesting times at Connacht Rugby next season!

Let us not beat around the bush here. The Leinster Rugby squad depth has being lauded this season; their attempts to win Guinness Pro 14 and European Cup is still on course but in recent weeks, it has become increasingly apparent that some of the fringe players are now running on empty entering the playoffs.

47-10. Connacht Rugby lauded this fixture with their superior work rate, attacking threat and ability to punish several defensive lapses throughout the contest. A lack of cohesion between the pack and back line was prevalent throughout and Ross Byrne struggled to contribute in any meaningful fashion. Carbery at fifteen tried to make things happen along with James Lowe but it was a forlorn task.

The second row performance was a major issue. Thornbury was the standout performer and Molony and Kearney were overwhelmed by the performances of their opponent. Roux was abrasive in his tackling, work rate around the fringes. Thornbury was immense; his ability to defend the maul and breakdown work to the fore. A potential Ireland summer tour newcomer?

One of those days in the office. Three Guinness Pro 14 losses in their last four league fixtures. Leinster Rugby still managed to top the conference B standings on points difference to the Scarlets but the manner of the performance for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will not be put under the carpet; accountability is required from the players who played this fixture. The defensive lapses were frequent and often and when an opposition hooker is making sixty meters in gain line breaks, something has to be said!

The only shining light for Leinster Rugby was the return of Tom Daly in the three quarters. There was a couple of misreads but Daly’s work rate was good and his threat with ball in hand (limited) showed plenty of upside. Barry Daly scored an excellent try to take his tally to twelve tries this season in the league. The positives from yesterday are in short supply. Move on and hope that the European Cup squad are not inflicted by the end of season lethargic disease sweeping through the fringe squad players right now.

24-24. Thomond Park. This scoreline on any other season would have being viewed as a decent result but Ulster Rugby were up against a Munster Rugby squad consisting mainly of prospects and players around the fringes of the European Cup squad.

The performance summed up the season for Ulster Rugby. The pack led superbly well by Rory Best, Iain Henderson took control of the game in the opening period. Three well worked tries scored. Stockdale line break setting up McCloskey was a perfect response to Munster Rugby’s early try. Best scored a brace as the Ulster Rugby front five with territorial advantage started to push the Munster Rugby pack backwards at a rate of knots. McPhilips from ten was excellent.

The second half was a different story. As soon as Robin Copeland came back from his sin bin cameo, Ulster Rugby started to lose their discipline. Luke Marshall sent to the sin bin for deliberate kill the ball in a ruck with Munster Rugby primed to score from close range. Copeland did not have to be asked twice to touchdown from close range on forty-eight minutes and from leading 24-14 and looking comfortable, it was now backs to the wall.

Another contest whereby Ulster Rugby gave away the initiative to their opposition. All too familiar. The second half also saw an increasingly malfunctioning Ulster Rugby set piece. Munster Rugby were now in the ascendancy as Cronin and Archer were on top in their duels. The line out was losing primary possession; several steals as Grobler and O’Shea were becoming more prominent as the game wore on.

On another day, Ulster Rugby could have won this fixture with late penalty awarded to the visitors but given their predicament, they needed the elusive fourth try but another malfunctioning line out caught by Grobler who then advanced forty meters down the pitch signaled the end of Ulster’s hopes of winning the game and also securing a top three Conference B berth.

A new head coach is apparently locked in. Rumors of Jim Mallinder joining have intensified in recent weeks but no official announcement for another couple of weeks. The need to recruit for the side needs to happen now. The nine position needs to be examined. Cooney and Shanahan are the nine options now. The ten position needs coverage with Paddy Jackson’s departure. The front row should be boosted by the arrival of Marty Moore. The back row boosted by the arrival of Jordi Murphy and of course there is a three quarter slot to be filled with the departure of Stuart Holding.

A key fixture against the Ospreys now beckons for Ulster Rugby. A loss here and it is European Challenge Cup Rugby next season, not a tournament which will entice prospective players to join. A critical few weeks ahead for everyone connected with Ulster Rugby!

A honorable draw for Munster Rugby given the personnel changes for this fixture. The opening period was a mixed bag; two good pack led tries from Williams and Scott in the opening period but Ulster Rugby were dominant for long periods and had built a ten point lead at the break.

The performance in the second half was much improved; the work rate around the park increased significantly. Good pack platform created for the Copeland try. The set piece was advantage Munster in the final quarter and Ulster’s line out was malfunctioning at a rate of knots.

Several standout performers from Munster Rugby. Grobler departing the club at the end of the season was immense; his work rate and physicality to the fore. His ability to disrupt Ulster Rugby in the second half was outstanding; his maul defense and line out steals complementing Darren O’Shea’s performance in the second row.

Oliver’s mobility on point at seven; good breakdown work. The half back partnership improved as the game wore on. Williams / Hart improve their ruck ball distribution to Hanrahan who was then able to unleash Arnold and Goggin. Nash, Fitzgerald and Sweetnam were all dangerous with ball in hand.

Stephen Fitzgerald was the shining light and offers huge potential upside for Munster Rugby next season. His electric pace and ability to find the soft defensive shoulder resulting in several gain line breaks. Eight carries for eighty-two meters speaks volumes.

The youngsters in the side really stepped up to the plate. Nash had nine carries for forty-six meters. Arnold had fifty-three meters from ten carries. Sweetnam enjoyed fifty-nine meters from five ball carries. Plenty of positives.

The first team charges come back into the team selection fold next weekend for the visit of Edinburgh Rugby but the squad players and prospects have put their hand up for selection. A nice selection headache for van Graan and management to mull over this week.

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