Round 10 of the Guinness PRO14 certainly delivered and before a two-week European interlude some of the big guns laid down a marker.
Whether it was Glasgow Warriors making it ten in a row, Munster and Leinster picking up bonus-point successes, or the Toyota Cheetahs maintaining their strong home form, there was lots to take in.
1. Finn Russell may be departing for pastures new but, in 28-year-old Peter Horne, Glasgow Warriors already have an excellent replacement and he showed exactly why against Cardiff Blues. Horne orchestrated the Warriors backline expertly at Scotstoun, supplying an exquisite cross-field kick to Sam Johnson for the hosts’ first try of the evening. He showed his passing ability and vision when he supplied Ruaridh Jackson for another try and looking very comfortable from the kicking tee. Just as comfortable in the centres, he and Adam Hastings both look like more than capable options in the fly-half jersey next season.
2. The Warriors now have a perfect ten from ten record in the Guinness PRO14 but this win wasn’t as simple as the scoreline may suggest. The Blues led 10-0 early on and had they kept 15 men on the pitch could easily have pushed the Warriors even harder – they led early in the second half despite their man disadvantage thanks to a Jarrod Evans penalty.
3. The Blues meanwhile are now ten points off third-placed Cheetahs in Conference A and will be disappointed not to have got anything from this fixture. They lacked cutting edge in attack but it was their discipline that ultimately cost them as Taufa’ao Filise was shown a red card and Olly Robinson saw yellow as the Warriors piled on the pressure. There is still a long way to go, but the Blues will be conscious that they cannot let the Cheetahs stretch much further away.
1. Characters are made by the way they react from adversity – and it will be interesting to see how Christian Lealiifano comes out of the blocks next time out. It was his try that snatched a share of the spoils for Ulster, only for his own kick to sneak wide of the upright in the bid for victory, a high to low within seconds. Of course when we talk about character, Lealiifano has it in bucketloads. His recovery from cancer to return to top flight rugby has been remarkable. By comparison, getting over the frustration of a missed kick should be a doddle.
2. The Dragons fight has always been well-documented but they showed they have the firepower to match the desire. Liam Belcher, Angus O’Brien and Ashton Hewitt all struck late in the five-try showing, almost a quarter of their tally for the entire campaign. Hewitt, in particular, was a breakout performer last year. Having seen his regional teammate Hallam Amos shine out wide for Wales, he’ll be keen to follow suit sooner rather than later.
3. Any team in any league is reliant on their home form, but December will see that stretched to new levels for Dragons as they play each of their five games in familiar surroundings. The time before Christmas is always a tester, but with recent victories against Scarlets (in the Anglo-Welsh Cup), Southern Kings and Connacht at Rodney Parade, this draw could be more vital than just the points on the board.
1. The battle between Nathan Fowles and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne for the scrum-half jersey at Edinburgh is intriguing and both staked their claim at the Southern Kings. Fowles was measured and controlled, helping Edinburgh dominate the match, while Hidalgo-Clyne was incisive and dangerous as he scored a hat-trick. Gregor Townsend gave the nod to Fowles for the November internationals as his third scrum-half but Hidalgo-Clyne will be desperate to force his way back up the pecking order.
2. Carry on like this and Edinburgh could be in the play-offs at the end of the season. Through ten games they have won six, lost four and sit 13 points clear of Benetton Rugby and have closed the gap on Ulster to seven – highlighting the impact director of rugby Richard Cockerill has made. We will learn more about how far they can go in their next two Guinness PRO14 games, when they face rivals Glasgow Warriors twice inside a week in the 1872 Cup.
3. The Southern Kings won’t play again in the Guinness PRO14 until they make the return trip to Scotland’s capital in early January. They may not have many points on the board but their improvements are there for all to see and if they can iron out the creases in the next few weeks then they will be a force to be reckoned with in Edinburgh.
1. The key to Munster’s success was their kicking game, led by fly-half Ian Keatley. But the returning international was not the only one putting boot to ball, as James Hart’s box-kick led to the Irish side’s first try of the match. Keatley then played a part in Munster’s next score, with a perfectly-placed kick putting them in an ideal position to help Sweetnam over. At a province where Ronan O’Gara became a legend for his pinpoint kicking, Hart and Keatley are following the perfect example.
2. Munster’s new head coach Johann van Graan proved very popular in his first home game with the side. The former Springboks forwards coach proved he was ready to take charge of a club as his team won their second match under his leadership, having beaten Zebre last week. And while he had already joined the team last week, this was his first official game in charge. Start as you mean to go on!
3. Things did not look so bright for Ospreys, who remain at the bottom of Conference A after losing a third consecutive Guinness PRO14 game. There were some reasons to be hopeful, though, as some newer faces stepped into the spotlight in the absence of several Welsh internationals. 18-year-old back row Will Jones was one such face and the flanker made sure his side finished on a high, scoring the final try of the game on his first Guinness PRO14 start.
1. Home form will undoubtedly prove the cornerstone of the Cheetahs’ efforts to make the play-offs in their debut Guinness PRO14 campaign – their win over the Scarlets means that Rory Duncan’s troops have triumphed in five of their six assignments at the Free State Stadium so far this term. While they now face a run of fixtures on the road in the coming weeks, they have given themselves a cushion in the race for a top three spot in Conference A.
2. Craig Barry, who replaced the injured Luther Obi, has long been tipped as one to watch and the Cheetahs man gave a stunning example of his talent with a stunning 50-metre solo try against the defending Guinness PRO14 champions. A late bloomer almost solely due to rotten injury luck, Barry appears to finally be over his fitness problems, and the Cheetahs are benefiting as a result.
3. The Scarlets have a potential star of their own, however. With their big-name players away on duty with Wales, teenager Ioan Nicholas almost bettered Barry’s try score with an excellent solo score of his own, his second in as many games. The 19-year-old looks to be a real prospect, and also has a famous relative within the rugby world, referee Nigel Owens is his cousin.
1. Leinster are known for having one of the strongest playing squads in the Guinness PRO14, but they look to have added a real gem in the shape of winger James Lowe. The New Zealander scored two on debut, displaying his sheer power for the first, and delicate footwork for the second. Anyone who had watched him for the Chiefs in Super Rugby will have known what a threat he could be and he looks to have adapted immediately to his new home. Leinster have had their fair share of great overseas recruits, Lowe already looks like he could be another.
2. 22-year-old centre Garry Ringrose made his first appearance of the season following shoulder surgery over the summer, displaying an assured performance throughout. The youngster had a big hand in two tries and danced his way over in the second half for a score of his own. As squads and teams get tested over the winter months, a fit Ringrose will be a big addition for Leo Cullen.
3. It was a tough afternoon for Benetton but Alessandro Zanni continued his return to match fitness. Repositioned in the second row this season, Zanni topped the tackle charts with 15, missing zero, in a tireless display. In what has been a relatively promising season, Benetton will be pleased to have a legend of the club back fit and firing, even in a losing cause.
1. He may lack the agility and speed of some Guinness PRO14 wingers but in Giovanbattista Venditti, Zebre have their own x factor. The Italian international bulldozed his way through three tackles to score the winning try and there are few who can stop him at his rampaging best. Having first broken onto the international scene back in 2012, Venditti is still only 27 years old. And while teammate Mattia Bellini is one of those who has overtaken him in the Azzurri pecking order, Venditti will be looking to maintain this form to return to the Test arena.
2. Connacht pride themselves on their ability to score points out of nowhere but they could not pierce Zebre’s physical defence. They dominated possession and territory in the second half but struggled to make ground as Zebre’s midfield smothered both man and ball each time they tried to break clear. That pressure forced errors and was the secret behind the result.
3. Carlo Canna has not always been the most reliable of players off the tee but when the pressure was on, the Zebre fly-half delivered against Connacht. Two first-half penalties put his side ahead and, when Connacht threatened to snatch a win, he delivered with a nerveless drop goal.
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie