Guinness PRO14 takeaways: Round 2

Rich Dore
10 September 2018

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The plot thickened in the Guinness PRO14 at the weekend with seven fixtures packed full of twists and turns.

There are two teams in each Conference with 100 percent records as Ospreys, Glasgow, Benetton Rugby and Ulster Rugby each won for the second week on the trot.

There were also first wins for Dragons, Connacht and Scarlets, with Wayne Pivac’s men gaining some measure of revenge on Leinster for their defeat in May’s Guinness PRO14 final.

Here are the major talking points:

Ulster 30-29 Edinburgh

  1. Whoever replaced legendary Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar was always going to have a hard job living up to the South African’s standards but John Cooney must be approaching a similar cult status among the Kingspan Stadium faithful. For the second week in a row he won his side the game with a last-minute penalty – looking positively Pienaar-esque in the process. Having downed Scarlets in the opener, the 28-year-old demonstrated the ice running through his veins once more to snatch victory away from Edinburgh from 40 metres with the very last kick. Without those timely penalties, Ulster would be languishing in the lower reaches of Conference B instead of sitting pretty with two wins from two.
  2. Edinburgh only have two losing bonus points to show from their opening two Guinness PRO14 matches but Richard Cockerill and co won’t be too downhearted after coming agonisingly close to leaving the Liberty and Kingspan Stadiums – two of the tougher places to go in the league – as victors. Having subdued Ulster for 55 minutes, Cockerill will be disappointed that his troops let their hosts notch three tries in 15 minutes but in Kiwi fly-half Simon Hickey – signed from Bordeaux over the summer and who chalked up 19 points on Friday night – they have found a ten who appears to be impeccable from the tee and composed in attack. The home game against Connacht next Friday appears to be the perfect opportunity to grab a first win of the season.
  3. How Craig Gilroy still only has ten Ireland caps to his name remains one of the Guinness PRO14’s biggest mysteries. A man-of-the-match display from the lightning winger was capped off by a spectacular 60-metre score to give Ulster the lead for the first time with ten minutes remaining. Gilroy made a mammoth 156 metres on 15 carries, beat seven defenders and completed three offloads – no-one on the field bettering his totals in any of those categories. Alongside Australian powerhouse Henry Speight and another new signing Will Addison, Ulster suddenly have one of the most dangerous back-threes in the entire league.

Glasgow Warriors 25-10 Munster

  1. Glasgow Warriors made Scotstoun a fortress last term – winning every one of their regular-season Guinness PRO14 games at the venue and only once failing to secure a four-try bonus point – and the summer break hasn’t made the ground’s defences any less impenetrable. The Warriors simply blew Munster away with a scintillating first-half display which saw the Irishmen barely get out of their own 22. To their credit, Munster were much improved after the break but although they knocked insistently on the door, it took until the 70th minute for Rhys Marshall to finally breach the Glasgow try-line. That was far too little far too late and the hosts’ only frustration will have been not securing a four-try bonus despite having 45 minutes to get the one score they needed.
  2. Finn Russell’s departure for Racing 92 over the summer was undoubtedly a blow but in Adam Hastings, Glasgow have an inspirational replacement who’s ensured they haven’t missed a beat. Son of the great Gavin Hastings and nephew of Scott Hastings, the 21-year-old fly-half has the talent to have just as successful a career as his dad and uncle. His playing style isn’t dissimilar to Russell’s, meaning he slots seamlessly into the heart of the Warriors’ back-line, and he tormented Munster from the ten position. His wraparound and miss-pass set up Callum Gibbins for the opening try before a precise grubber kick gave Stuart Hogg the simplest of tasks to dot down for the second. His defence still needs refining but in attack, the Scotland international looks capable of matching any fly-half in the league.
  3. After blowing away the Toyota Cheetahs and not even conceding a point in their opener, Munster looked bizarrely subdued at Scotstoun. Their pack were simply overrun by Glasgow’s marauding forwards in the first half as the hosts dominated the breakdown – forcing turnovers and penalties seemingly at will. While Hastings was running the show at No.10, his opposite number JJ Hanrahan struggled – conceding three turnovers and spilling the ball over his own line for Adam Ashe’s try just before half-time. There was understandably huge excitement at the signing of Joey Carbery over the summer but it looks like the youngster may take some time to adapt his style of play to the ‘Munster way’, having come from the Leinster system. Carbery did get his first points for the province after coming on as a 44th-minute replacement for Hanrahan however, when he converted Marshall’s try.

Dragons 27-22 Southern Kings

  • Ross Moriarty is back. One of the biggest transfer arrivals at Rodney Parade in recent seasons, former Gloucester man Moriarty played in his first game of the season and made a huge impact. The No.8 didn’t score but made 10 bullocking runs for 31 metres and beat three defenders, also making 13 tackles, almost all of them stopping attackers dead in their tracks.
  • The Kings found the going tough at times last season but looked a spirited and dangerous side at the home of the Dragons. Andisa Ntsila returned and was effective, making 62 metres and beating six defenders, while predictably Bobby de Wee was top tackler with 14. The South Africans gave as good as they got all afternoon and if the game lasted five minutes longer the Dragons could have been on the ropes.
  • Dragons played Gavin Henson at fly-half last week and lost him to injury before this match, enabling Josh Lewis to take his opportunity with aplomb. The former Scarlets man effectively decided the match, registering 12 points with the boot and scored a superb try after taking a high ball at a pace rarely seen anywhere in the world.

Connacht 32-13 Zebre

  1. With John Muldoon having retired over the summer, Connacht are in the market for another back-rower to achieve cult status and they may just have found that man in Paul Boyle. The 21-year-old is a former Ireland U20s captain and from No.8 he got his first two competitive tries for the province in his second successive Guinness PRO14 start. It wasn’t just his tries, try assist for Niyi Adeolokun or even the four defenders he beat in the open field, the youngster was also a menace at the lineout where he consistently secured ball for his side and also stole a crucial Zebre lineout when they were deep in Connacht territory. Boyle has the versatility to play anywhere across the back row and with Connacht coach Andy Friend a big fan, he looks set for an impressive season.
  2. Having lost the first ten fixtures between the sides, Zebre had beaten Connacht the last three times they met and were also seeking a fifth Guinness PRO14 triumph in a row but they simply never got into the match in Galway. Renato Giammarioli was making metres with ball in hand from No.8 (ending with 76m from 12 carries) but overall, it was an oddly subdued display from the in-form Italians. They welcome a Cardiff Blues side reeling from two consecutive narrow losses to Parma next week and will need to show marked improvement to make it two wins from three this term.
  3. Perhaps the only other Connacht man as involved as Boyle was Caolin Blade, who had an impressive game from scrum-half. The No.9 earned his side an early penalty, started the move for Boyle’s first score as he nudged the ball ahead when Mattia Bellini spilt it and grabbed a try of his own by sniping off the back of a scrum to dart over in the corner. He also beat four defenders in his 50 minutes of action before being replaced by 22-cap Ireland international Kieran Marmion – demonstrating the depth that Connacht boast at scrum-half.

Ospreys 46-14 Toyota Cheetahs

  • Ospreys lost six times in front of their own fans last season, but they already appear much more comfortable on their own turf in the early days of the new campaign. They backed up their hard-earned win over Edinburgh in Round One with a dominant showing against Toyota Cheetahs as they ran in seven tries at the Liberty.
  • Justin Tipuric took over the captaincy from Alun Wyn Jones ahead of the new season and both players appear to be all the better for it. The new skipper was man of the match for the second week running as he crossed the whitewash twice, while his predecessor matched him with two scores of his own in an all-round classy performance.
  • While the only concern for Ospreys is over the fitness of Wales star Scott Williams, Toyota Cheetahs have plenty to mull over following heavy back-to-back defeats. The South African side also shipped 38 points against Munster and while they will be more comfortable in their own backyard, they will also hope to show more composure on the ball.

Scarlets 23-21 Leinster

  • While talk of revenge may have been in short supply in the build up to the game, Scarlets certainly started like a team motivated by the pain of their defeat in last season’s Guinness PRO14 final. They attacked Leinster from the off and after Johnny McNicholl went close, skipper Ken Owens made the 14 men of the champions pay on 11 minutes.
  • The Welsh region have turned Parc y Scarlets into quite a fortress, with their unbeaten record at home now stretching back to September 2016. The accuracy of Leigh Halfpenny proved crucial in the end, making all five of his place kicks – while opposite number Ross Byrne missed two penalty attempts – as Scarlets won by two points.
  • Leinster were bolstered by seven returning Ireland internationals and still have more players to come back. But they responded like champions after falling 23-14 behind as captain Rhys Ruddock dragged his side back into the contest, and they came agonisingly close to stealing it at the death until Halfpenny earned a breakdown penalty.

Benetton Rugby 27-25 Cardiff Blues

  1. Skill and ability is only half the battle on a rugby field. For a team to succeed, they need heart and desire too. Benetton Rugby clearly have that in abundance after their thrilling last-gasp win against Cardiff Blues, that saw them win their first two games of a Guinness PRO14 season for the first time. At times Benetton will be outplayed this season but they showed against Cardiff they will not be outfought as the home crowd cheered them to a famous victory. The Blues are unlikely to be the last side to leave Treviso empty handed.
  2. Tommaso Allan has long been recognised as one of the most talented players in the Guinness PRO14 but the big occasion has at times got to him. However, the Benetton fly-half delivered when it really mattered against the Blues, suggesting the 25-year-old is ready to go the next level. His kick in the dying seconds was nerveless and his overall performance was outstanding on a superb day for Italian rugby.
  3. Cardiff Blues made 93 per cent of their tackles in the heroic defeat to Leinster in week one but that level fell to just 78 per cent against Benetton. The conditions did not help but the likes of Monty Ioane were able to gain too much ground with ball in hand. They face Munster next knowing they can’t fall below 80 per cent again and expect to win.

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