The New Year’s weekend saw 12 of the Guinness PRO14 teams in action in Round 12 with plenty of local rivalries taking centre stage once again.
Benetton completed a festive double over Italian rivals Zebre while Glasgow Warriors’ victory ensure the 1872 Cup will go to a decider in Round 21.
Here’s the key points you need to take away from the weekend’s action.
1. After Saturday’s triumph Benetton Rugby can claim the bragging rights in Italy. The men from Treviso claimed a 27-14 win over Zebre just before Christmas and completed the double at the weekend – albeit by a narrower margin.
2. New Zealand-born Jayden Hayward is an undoubted star of this Benetton team and the full-back caught the eye with a couple of moments of class in the game. In the first-half a last-ditch tackle and in the second a crucial try which was the fruit of excellent footwork when Zebre’s defence looked on top.
3. Zebre fly-half Carlo Canna looks more assured every week. The 25-year-old has been in the Zebre and Italy team for several years now and is crucial to both. Canna kicked two first-half penalties against Benetton and had a huge hand to play in Mattia Bellini’s try, with his two breaks creating the opportunity.
1. Glasgow were tested mentally at Scotstoun and Dave Rennie will be pleased with how his side negotiated a tough task. Wounded from last week’s defeat, the Warriors showed resilience in shutting out Edinburgh’s attack. The game was dealt a curveball with the interruption and stadium evacuation following a fire alarm, but far from being put off their stride, Glasgow only improved in the second period
2. Where Edinburgh’s heroic discipline was one aspect of their display last week, this week they were found wanting. Richard Cockerill will want to cut out the number of penalties they gave away – the referee penalised Edinburgh 17 times – as they put themselves on the back foot on several occasions, halting any momentum they may have built up.
3. Edinburgh were missing several big names in the pack and the Warriors took full advantage. Zander Fagerson turned in a man of the match display at prop, one of several in the hosts’ front eight who impressed on the day, as Glasgow overpowered a less experienced opposition.
1. Effective in defence and attack, James Davies once again demonstrated a Welsh international call up is surely not far away with a man of the match performance for Scarlets. A rugby 7s silver medallist at Rio 2016, Davies pulled off a huge steal to stop the Blues charge at one end before also bursting upfield on another occasion which eventually led to Rhys Patchell’s winning try.
2. The day may have ended in defeat to their Welsh rivals but there was at least reason to cheer for the Cardiff Blues faithful as they witnessed a try-scoring return for Ellis Jenkins. The flanker had yet to make an appearance this season after tearing a hamstring tendon but stepped off the bench as an 11th-minute replacement for Nick Williams before crossing ten minutes later.
3. There was a familiar face in the crowd in the form of the sidelined Sam Warburton, although it was not just a knee injury update Cardiff Blues fans were interested in. The 29-year-old Wales and British and Irish Lions flanker was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. Warburton also confirmed his realistic playing return would likely come next season after getting a solid pre-season under his belt.
1. Scott Baldwin’s 2017 may not be a year that he looks back on with fondness after he was bitten by a lion in Bloemfontein and then dropped from the Wales squad in November. But the hooker stepped up at Rodney Parade and won the personal duel with Dragons’ opposite number Elliot Dee. His try capped off a man of the match performance.
2. With Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman taking the bold decision to drop Gavin Henson and play young Arwel Robson at fly-half – the 20-year-old did not disappoint. In difficult conditions he acquitted himself well against British & Irish Lions fly-half Dan Bigger. His distribution was good and his kicking accurate so Dragons can take comfort from the fact they have a player who has a bright future ahead of him.
3. After winning for just the third time this season, Ospreys should enjoy this victory. The margin of victory could have been far greater though and they won because their big players, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar and Justin Tipuric, all stepped up when it mattered.
1. Leinster rang the changes – 13 in total from the Boxing Day win over Munster – but any hint of disorganisation after such a massive change of personnel was not forthcoming. The hosts kept their discipline heroically in the final stages to cling on for victory, throwing body after body on the line – dedication and execution that will no doubt leave coach Leo Cullen delighted.
2. In incredibly blustery conditions in the Irish capital, success with the boot would be even more precious and Jonathan Sexton’s experience and class shone through. All his kicks required a team-mate holding the ball on the tee during his run up and he missed only once – a nigh-on impossible punt from the left touchline – clocking up 11 valuable points.
3. Connacht faced a Leinster side who, despite the changes, boasted the like of Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose and Sexton in the starting 15. Despite facing a team unbeaten in two months, two quality tries gave them a real chance of causing an upset. They showed good creativity and responded well to each setback, never giving the hosts time to settle or enough of a lead to let the game get away from them. Positive signs of quality and character going forward for Kieran Keane.
1. John Cooney has not taken long to settle into life in Belfast and his man of the match display led Ulster to a turnaround win over Munster. The scrum-half has reinvigorated himself at Ulster and is in real contention to be Conor Murray’s back-up come the Six Nations. He came close to scoring two tries and was impressive from the tee and fired up the Ulster pack.
2. Two defeats in a row in the Guinness PRO14, both in inter-pros, is not an ideal first Christmas for Johan van Graan and Munster. Ulster scored four tries after the interval to claim victory but the red card to Sam Arnold was the killer blow for the visitors.
3. Craig Gilroy had to wait to make his return from injury for Ulster this season but the winger has been deadly ever since his return in November. Another double against Munster on New Year’s Day means he has five tries in his five Guinness PRO14 games this season. And while competition for places on the Ireland wings is fierce, Joe Schmidt will find it hard to ignore the dynamo come the Six Nations.
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