Mathew Brown – The Rugby Channel Column
Back in July when the fixtures for the Guinness Pro12 were announced the competition designated six ‘Big Weekends’ throughout the season.
These rounds would focus on intra-union derby matches with some of them to be played at larger venues to accommodate heightened fan interest.
The first of those weekends is now here and it does indeed contain matchups that are hugely significant as the teams pass the quarter pole in the race for the title.
To get fully ready for what promises to be a thoroughly entertaining weekend, check out last week’s highlights on TRC Report #21.
For the first time in five contests Connacht actually sort of looked like the team that won the 2015/16 Guinness Pro12. That’s not to say that they were totally back to the form that saw them lift the trophy in May but they did provide glimmers of hope to their fans at the Sportsground.
One such moment was the late first half try started by a quick self throw-in by fullback Tiernan O’Halloran and finished by quick hands out to lock Quinn Roux. That kind of play is what Connacht will need lots more of if they are going to regroup and climb back up the ladder.
Connacht’s Friday night performance can partially be attributed to the relative strength of the opposition, who understandably put in a somewhat disjointed effort.
Edinburgh went into the match with a new coach after Alan Solomons resigned earlier in the week and was replaced by former Scottish international and Edinburgh stalwart Duncan Hodge.
Connacht will get no such break this week as they square off against the squad at the top of the table, Irish provincial neighbors Ulster.
If you tuned into this one expecting to see a free-flowing tryfest, no such luck.
If, however, you wanted to see smashing hits, outstanding defensive screens, and amazing, try-saving cover tackles then you got exactly what you wanted.
Ospreys looked dominant right out of the gate, scoring a five pointer a little more than five minutes into the match and seemed like they were fully in control and ready to rumble.
But that’s when Ulster regathered their composure, played the match according to their conservative gameplan, and relied on the boot of their outhalf to lead them to victory.
This Ulster squad is solid and undefeated for good reason; they leave it all on the pitch defensively and they play smart rugby.
Jared Payne and Louis Ludik both saved tries with great tackles, Ruan Pienaar quickly booted an aggressive touchfinder that put his side into Ospreys territory late, and Jackson kept his cool after a couple of easy misses to slot the match winner.
This week the Ulstermen head to Galway to face a resurgent Connacht in what promises to be an outstanding clash.
In Connacht’s run to the title last season they lost only seven matches but two of those were to Ulster.
If Connacht has indeed snapped out of their opening month slump there would be no better way to confirm it than to knock off an unbeaten side that they haven’t defeated since 2012.
The question for them on Friday night is how will they penetrate Ulster’s defense?
It’s going to take a massive effort from their forwards to secure and maintain enough possession to give the backline sufficient opportunity to probe for weaknesses.
Ulster are a confident unit at the moment and have every reason to treat this fixture with the respect it deserves.
A first loss now, a week away from Europe, would be a supreme momentum killer and I highly doubt that Director of Rugby Les Kiss will tolerate any slackening of preparation or concentration.
Ulster as usual will want to throttle Connacht’s chances with ball in hand before they have a chance to develop, and thus force them into unfavorable situations.
I’m excited and ready for The Rugby Channel’s first match of the Big Weekend and can’t wait to see this one get underway!
These two teams couldn’t have had more different experiences last week in Round 5.
Leinster finally had to play an eighty minute match in a very tough venue against a determined and previously unbeaten opponent who could very well have toppled them had a break or two gone their way.
Leinster’s hard-fought, come from behind 16 - 13 win over Cardiff certainly will have toughened them up after a string of solid half-performances in the opening rounds.
With flyhalf Jonathon Sexton rounding into form after his return and lock Ian Nagle making it through his first week back from injury unscathed, Leinster may be at their strongest so far this year when they meet their traditional rivals on Saturday.
Munster put on a seven try scoring clinic in front of a large friendly crowd at Thomond Park versus a side firmly anchored to the bottom of the table.
Munster’s crushing of Zebre 49 – 5 allowed them to get their reserves some game time, excite their supporters, and work on communication in their defensive structures.
Even though this is a Leinster home match, expect an enormous amount of enthusiasm from their multitude of Munster fans who’ll make the trip to Dublin in what should be a huge crowd at the Aviva Stadium.
This one has the potential to be a classic, quite possibly the match of the campaign so far!
LOUGHBOROUGH V EXETER
The Rugby Channel is proud to bring you an outstanding new competition, the National League of British Universities & Colleges Sport.
It features the eight strongest schools in Britain - as determined by their performances over the last few years – playing for the right to be crowned champions at Twickenham next March.
The institutions involved are University of Bath, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Durham University, University of Exeter, Hartpury College, Leeds Beckett University, Loughborough University, and Northumbria University. Roughly four from the north and four from the south.
Up first on the fixtures list is a rematch of last year’s final between Loughborough and Exeter.
I’m looking forward to checking these matches out as they are sure involve plenty of talent and all the passion that comes from wearing the jersey of your college or university.
The Rugby Channel’s coverage of the Greene King IPA Championship kicks off this week with a sixth round clash between Richmond and the Ealing Trailfinders.
Recent champions of this competition include current Premiership members Worcester, Newcastle and Exeter.
Formerly National League One until 2009/10, this is a fully professional part of the RFU Championship set-up and contains lots of talent, historic clubs and rivalries, and plenty of local passion.
The Mitre 10 Heartland Championship postseason is coming into focus after results this week.
Remember how this works. The top four teams will play semifinals for the Meads Cup and the fifth through eighth placed teams do battle for the Lochore Cup.
One of my favorite moments from this week’s show is a try scored by East Coast in their match against Buller where a back passes to himself. Be sure to check it out.
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The 2017 RBS Six Nations promises to be a battle royale with British & Irish Lions places on offer and at least four countries harboring serious title hopes. You can watch it for less than a dollar per week.
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