Mathew Brown – The Rugby Channel Column
GUINNESS PRO14 – ROUND 13!
If you had a subscription to The Rugby Channel during the first weekend of 2018 then you were treated to an impressive tripleheader that kicked off the new year in considerable style.
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The next four stops on the Women’s Sevens Series with full and complete coverage from Sydney, Kitakyushu, Langford, and Paris. The Eagles reached the final in the first tourney in Dubai and will be looking to nab a championship trophy next time out.
The entire Americas Rugby Championship featuring the defending champion United States, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina XV. First up is Canada versus Uruguay on January 27. The Eagles kick off their defense on February 3 against Argentina XV.
The best Welsh and English clubs compete in the Anglo-Welsh Cup with the semifinals on March 10 and the final on March 17.
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Eight more rounds of thrilling Guinness PRO14 action, followed by the quarterfinals, semifinals, and the final on May 26.
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The Guinness PRO14 wrapped up its holiday/derby schedule with a trio of Welsh and Irish clashes that showcased just how deep the competition is and how fierce the battle for playoff places is going to be in the second half of the season.
The first matchup of TRC’s back-to-back-to-back Saturday was every bit as close as the final score indicated and even though the second and third games ended up with lopsided margins, they were highly entertaining contests that featured competitive rugby and were only blown open by the winners in the second halves.
Coming into this match Ospreys were the last placed team in Conference A with just sixteen points, a serious disappointment at this stage of the season for a squad that possesses so much obvious talent and international class.
Cardiff were in a somewhat better position with twenty-four points and sitting in fourth but had to be unhappy with the number of close losses they’d suffered that could very reasonably have been turned into victories with a bit more concentration and resolve at the end of those matches.
Thus, both of these sides desperately needed a win and the intensity of the confrontation was evident right from the opening kickoff.
Cardiff jumped out to the early lead with a penalty kick and a powerful Nick Williams drive over from in close but it was Ospreys who held a slight advantage at halftime thanks to an intercept five pointer and the first of three tries set up by the spot-on tactical kicking of Dan Biggar.
The Ospreys flyhalf torched the hard-rushing Cardiff defense with little chips and perfectly weighted kicks all day but the first one was especially pretty and perfectly finished by the ever present support of scrumhalf Rhys Webb.
Two more tries started by Biggar’s controlling boot near the 50th and 60th minute marks looked to have sealed the win for Ospreys but the loss of big lock Alun Wyn Jones seemed to disrupt Ospreys overall forward dominance and Cardiff came charging back with a couple of late tries to put some serious worry into the home crowd at Liberty Stadium.
A late injury to Ospreys center Owen Watkin and the resulting long delay in the 78th minute served to blunt Cardiff’s momentum but Ospreys nonetheless still had to defend for several minutes at the end to preserve their do-or-die triumph.
Every minute of this one is worth watching, particularly the tries Biggar started and the play of the Blues backrowers.
Leinster had consecutive wins in their first two Irish derby clashes but they didn’t come easy as they had to overcome Munster at Thomond Park and struggled until the death to outlast a valiant Connacht side at the RDS Arena.
Ulster got hammered by Connacht at the Sportsground then rebounded at Kingspan for a stirring come-from-behind victory over Munster in their initial provincial rivalry fixtures.
With that quartet of results in mind, both sides took the pitch in Dublin with confidence and some wariness as well.
It didn’t take long for Leinster to get in front and take a 12 – 0 advantage into halftime. Nothing was going right offensively for Ulster and their defense looked to be constantly on the verge of collapse against the very dangerous Leinster backline. Down only two tries and a conversion at half was a bit of a miracle for the visitors and they came out for the second forty looking to respond as they had last week against the men in red.
It wasn’t to be though, as Leinster quickly put the match out of reach and ended up scoring six tries to Ulster’s one, which came well after the outcome was decided.
Even with this win Leinster is still in second place in Conference B, two points behind the red-hot Scarlets. Ulster remains in third in the group but now have to be more concerned with fending off charging Edinburgh than catching Leinster.
Watch this match to get a good glimpse of just how deep and cohesive Leinster is, plus check out the gifted young fullback Jordan Larmour who looks to be the next newcomer to emerge as a star from Leinster’s back division.
Losing two on the trot is considered a very long losing streak for Munster, especially when those losses came to Leinster at home and to Ulster in a match they must have thought they had in their grasp, being up 17 – 0 at the interval.
Connacht came to Limerick having shockingly dispatched Ulster then nearly upsetting Leinster so there was definitely some self-belief amongst the former champs despite the long odds of winning at Thomond Park.
The first half was mostly even as both provinces kept the other in check but Munster’s single converted try and penalty put them in front 10 – 6 as Connacht managed just two penalty kicks despite threatening to cross more than once.
In the second half Munster’s depth and their consistent gameplan execution took its toll on the visitors. Andrew Conway’s try in the 53rd minute opened the floodgates and from then on it was all Munster as they added three more five pointers while allowing a meaningless consolation to Connacht with only a few minutes remaining.
Munster had a bit of a tough go over the holidays, losing two of their three fixtures and falling further behind Glasgow in Conference A. Some of that might be attributable to the transition in coaching and some player unavailability issues but ending this phase of the season with a solid win will help them put this minor setback behind them when the Guinness PRO14 resumes in February.
Connacht has been playing better of late but what they need most are wins to keep climbing the ladder. Their closest chaser is now the potentially resurgent Ospreys, who are just three points behind them and will be making a trip to Galway in Round 14.
It is always entertaining to watch the Munster forwards go about their business and this match was no exception. No matter how much heart and effort Connacht threw at them they just continually did their jobs and kept driving ahead, which always produces rugby worth watching.
There are quite a few interesting segments in this week’s episode but one of particular interest involves the Play Rugby USA program in Harlem that’s being run by Richard Kirkland. His efforts to reach kids at a young age who are totally unfamiliar with the sport highlight the positive impact that our game can have on both individuals and communities.
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