Opposition View: Newport Gwent Dragons

The final Opposition View of the season sees Newport Gwent Dragons fan Brad Hayward give his view on our rivals to the East ahead of Saturday’s encounter at Caerphilly.

How has your season gone so far overall?

I think if we’re honest it’s been a tough season for all of us.  Early optimism with a more expansive game plan, a squad of very good young talent, and some decent results at home has been diluted somewhat with a recent poor run of results, and the obvious anxiety and lack of clarity over the very future of the Region.

With a talented, but undoubtedly thin squad, the long term losses of many of our x-factor players such as Hallam Amos, Ed Jackson, Adam Hughes, Elliot Dee and Ashton Hewitt has hit us very hard.

What has been the high point?

Some of the early season performances, especially at Rodney Parade, were very entertaining, and demonstrated the undoubted potential of a number of the Dragons Squad. Memorable were the high scoring victories against the Blues (38-28) in pre-season, and Brive (37-16) in Euro Challenge Cup.  During the Autumn, winning 5 on the spin at Rodney Parade did start to build some momentum, and create a level of confidence in our ability to compete with teams of significantly greater resources when at RP.

Josh Navidi Newport
Josh Navidi scores in that pre-season friendly

And the low point?

Under normal circumstances the heavy defeat at home to Munster (17-45) would be high on this list, but personally I must say the loss to Edinburgh just last week.  As I’m sure the saying goes, “it’s the hope that kills you”, and losing a game from 20-3 up with 8 minutes remaining was a real kick in the teeth (I’ll stick with teeth).  With expectation raised of an end to our much publicised away travels ‘hoodoo’ firmly in our grasp, to somehow manage to lose that fixture, and concede 3 tries in those final 8 minutes was really deflating for all involved.

However, the on field matters were put into sharp context recently with regards to an accident that befell one of our most popular members of the Dragons playing staff, No8 Ed Jackson.  I would like to take the opportunity to wish Ed, and all of his family and friends, our thoughts and support over the coming months, which I’m sure all members of the Rugby community would join me in.  Ed suffered a shoulder injury in January, and during his time out of the game he was unfortunately involved in an accident in which he suffered a fracture dislocation in his neck, and underwent emergency surgery.  Currently still in hospital recovering, and with limited movement still, Ed has shown incredible courage, and faced this battle head on.  He has decided to document his recovery through social media, and his positive attitude, and amazing bravery is something that is truly inspirational to us all.

Who have been your standout player(s)?

Early season Hallam and Ashton Hewitt, although we very rarely managed to get them in the same starting XV, were really demonstrating their star quality, and are both players that can be game changers for us.  In addition Sam Beard has proven to be a super signing in the centre too.

Up front, and especially in the Back Row, is where a number of our players have stood up this season, from Ed Jackson’s early season form, Lewis Evans’ commitment and leadership, and Nic Cudd’s constantly understated bravery and brilliance.

However the stand out player for me has been Ollie Griffiths.  With Ollie’s ability to have a long run of games he has shown both Dragons, and wider Rugby Supporters, just why he is rated so highly at the Dragons, and is expected to have such a big future in the game.  Newport RFC’s youngest ever captain, Ollie is an exceptional Athlete, and potentially a future Dragons Captain and Welsh International.  The form Ollie has shown will hopefully lead to a much deserved call up to this Summer’s Tour with Wales, and afford him the ability to experience the demands and intensity of the International game.

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Ollie Griffiths in action 

What did you make of our game earlier this year?

The pre-season fixture at RP brings back more favourable memories, but the Boxing Day game at CAP was an enjoyable experience, if the result not so.  Much like RP, I personally have a fondness for the more atmospheric and historic Rugby venues, and have always really enjoyed visiting CAP.

From a Dragons perspective it was a game where Ashton Hewitt undoubtedly secured his selection to the 6N Wales squad, but unfortunately one of the last games we saw him in Dragons colours this season.  From a Blues perspective I remember watching Nick Williams’ carrying, and wishing our playing budget could stretch to such a destructive force on the front foot.

A stubborn and determined second half display from the Dragons was not enough to overturn the deficit, and the Blues were well worthy of their 27-16 victory, which unfortunately seemed to be dominated by post match discussions on the officiating, both in terms of the individual decisions and the manner the game was managed throughout.

What are your thoughts on Cardiff Blues this season?

To be honest I think with the talent and budget available the Blues should be performing more consistently.  At times this season they have looked an incredibly potent attacking force, and with quick ball the backline available to them have looked very threatening.  This was highlighted on Judgement Day, where you dominated the Ospreys from the first whistle, and your backs looked razor sharp.  With quick ball Lloyd Williams and Gareth Anscombe looked the international half-backs they are, and the centre combination and Alex Cuthbert were exceptional.

Whether the inconsistencies this season are due to a shortage of depth up front is something I’m not informed enough to comment on with huge amounts of credibility, but when the winter months come, and the ground gets softer, do the Blues currently have a truly dominate front 5?  That question/comment aside, two forwards that have really caught the eye this season have been hooker Kristian Dacey and flanker Ellis Jenkins, who will both without doubt tour with Wales this Summer.

Ospreys Kris Dacey
Kris Dacey has been in top form

Your prediction for Saturday?

Saturday I’m sure will be a great event, and I’m aware of just how much effort everyone at the Dragons, and particularly Caerphilly RFC have made to prepare for this game.  I’m personally looking forward to a number of key battles within the game, none more than seeing Ellis Jenkins and Ollie go head to head.  Both in my mind are truly international class 7’s, and are incredibly strong in the contact area, a sub-plot that may go some way towards deciding the result.

Although missing a number of key players I’m sure the Dragons lads will be up for this game, it is a local derby after all, and whatever the coming weeks hold, it will be the last ever game for the Dragons in their current guise.  My heart feels that we will dominate the breakdown, challenge the Blues defence in the 10-12 channel, and squeeze to a close fought victory.  My head may think slightly differently, but as my wife will testify, I’m not one to use my head too frequently..

Thanks to Brad for his excellent insight, and I would certainly like to echo the sentiments towards Ed Jackson. Will be a hard fought game for certain, so make sure you’re in Caerphilly to support the boys, come on Cardiff!!

Opposition View: Munster

This week’s Opposition View comes courtesy of Tom at Munster Rugby blog site ‘Three Red Kings’ (www.threeredkings.com). Get his thoughts on what has been a dream season for the Irish province so far, as well as the view of Cardiff from over there, enjoy!

How has your season gone so far overall?

Munster are 3rd in the Pro12; W 13  L 2  PF 392  PA 204  TF 49  TA 21  TBP 6  LBP 1 Pts 59

Brilliant. Beyond all expectations, really, and if we get a home Pro12 semi final and beat Toulouse in April, it’ll be dreamland stuff.

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There’s been plenty to celebrate for Munster this season

 

What has been the high point?

The performance against Glasgow in Thomond Park. Given everything that came before, and how unfancied we were before kick-off, it was fantastic.

And the low point?

Anthony Foley’s death.

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The tributes to Anthony Foley were beautifully touching

 

Who have been your standout player(s)?

Tyler Bleyendaal. He’s been the major difference in the upturn. Better kicking, better movement, and we’re making better decisions all over the park.

What did you make of our game earlier this year?

Munster 23-24 Cardiff: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/09/09/munster-23-24-cardiff/

Desperate! We were bad pretty much everywhere. Cardiff dominated on the floor, and mopped up our loose kicks with some excellent running.

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Tom James was almost unstoppable in Cork that day

 

What are your thoughts on Cardiff Blues this season?

Up and down. I really feel that with some additions to the tight five, your lot can really make a push for the top 6.

Your prediction for Saturday?

A narrow Munster win.

Thanks again to Tom who can also be found at @threeredkings on Twitter, do check out his excellent blog site, even if you’re not a Munster fan!

Opposition View: Edinburgh

The Opposition View returns this week thanks to Alister of Edinburgh fan account ‘The Black and Red’ (@TheBlack_n_Red) who offers his thoughts on tomorrow’s opponents, Cardiff and the game itself, enjoy!

How has your season gone so far overall?

Edinburgh are 9th in the Pro12: W 4  L 11  PF 286  PA 353  TF 34  TA 45  TBP 1  LBP 3

A pretty disappointing rollercoater to be honest, pretty standard of late. We started the season confident of a top 6 or higher finish but that feeling ebbs away soon enough, with the odd great result just to keep us interested!

Yet again, Europe is keeping it interesting. The head coach change has shown a change in attitude to how we can play but we remain quite brittle. We can play so well but in the same half of a game we can play so very badly. Only thing consistent with us is the inconsistency.

What has been the high point?

I’d say it was the Quins home game for me. Brilliant game of rugby, real end to end stuff and a glimpse of what we think Edinburgh can be. I’m sure if I’d been there, smashing Quins longstanding home record in the return fixture may have topped it.

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Edinburgh celebrate a victory over Harlequins

 

And the low point?

We deservedly lost at home to Zebre. Does it get lower? To make matters worse, it was the game after Quins at home! I suppose it gave us the glimpse of other side of what Edinburgh can be just to keep us grounded (like we need it)

Who have been your standout player(s)?

Hamish Watson. An absolute beast of a player, not particularly big but just keeps on going. Consistently very very good. I’d have him starting v Wales but not a bad player to bring on. Playing tomorrow I’d say there’s a couple more;

Magnus Bradbury who was capped in the Autumn but overlooked for the 6N who is developing into another really good backrower. Very abrasive and one of the few that give us go forward. Has done a grand job filling the 6 / 8 shirts whilst du Preez and Manu have been injured.

Murray McCallum is still an Academy player who’s been chucked into the thick of it with our season long front row woes but he’s more than holding his own. Lots to learn but he is very comfortable with the ball and fighting a good fight in the tight. Honourable mention to Jack Cosgrove on the other side of the scrum, slightly older but new on scene and again looks a prospect.

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Hamish Watson has been impressing for Scotland as well

 

What did you make of our game earlier this year?

Cardiff won 34-16 at CAP: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/09/04/4100/

We were properly schooled. I recall the weather was horrendous but this only seemed to impact one side. We’d not had a great pre-season but I genuinely thought this was an away win to get us started. Silly me.

What are your thoughts on Cardiff Blues this season?

Like a better version of us – can compete against anyone in any game but not consistently. I recall you finished the league well last season, I had expected more from you this. You certainly looked very good against us in May. I suspect Challenge Cup rugby next year will be seen as a bad season? (Can’t argue with that, Ed.)

Nick Williams Edinburgh
Cardiff were the victors in September

 

Your prediction for Friday?

I’m expecting a big reaction after our capitulation at the RDS last week. I don’t expect it will be pretty but I think we’ll win. We need to stop Williams making us look silly and giving your backs lots of front foot ball, if we do that then us by 8.

Cheers again to Alister, who you can catch at @TheBlack_n_Red, shaping up to be a big game on Friday night, come on Cardiff!

Opposition View: Glasgow

This week’s Opposition View is a return to Glasgow fan ‘The Pen'(@thepenGW) who offers his views on the Warriors inconsistencies, a successful European campaign so far and their impressive club captain.

How has your season gone so far overall?

Glasgow are 5th in the Pro12: W 7  L 5  PF 283  PA 239  PF 38  PA 27  TPB 5  LBP 3

Very up and down! Some greats performances and wins against Connacht, Leinster, Racing 92 twice and Leicester have been negated by very poor results against Scarlets, Ospreys and the drubbing we took at Thomond Park against Munster. We’re in the hunt for the play-offs but it could, and should it could be argued, be a lot better.

What has been the high point?

Beating Racing 92 home and away was tremendous but for me I’d have to go with the win against Leicester. Opening night of the Champions Cup and we destroy them like that? That was total heaven. it was probably one of the most complete performances that you’ll see from any team.

glasgow-warriors-v-leicester
Glasgow’s players celebrate a try against Leicester

 

And the low point?

Defeat by Munster was bad but I’d have to pick the game against Ospreys. Probably one of the single worst performances I’ve ever seen from a Warriors side. We were second to everything and even then we were lucky to be runner up. It was like having 15 strangers on the pitch and the scoreline reflected that.

Who have been your standout player(s)?

A few to choose from here. Ali Price has really stepped up in the last 12 months and he’s now pushing hard to be the regular starting scrum-half. Over the last couple of months Finn Russell has stepped his game up and keeping Dan Carter in his pocket for two games in a row shows how good a player he is but for me it’s between Jonny Gray and Ryan Wilson. Gray is just a machine and he’s been one of the top performers in the league this season and Wilson is on the form of his life just now in the back row. He adds some real bite to the side.

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Co-captain Jonny Gray has been in imperious form

 

What did you make of our game earlier this year?

Cardiff won 23-19 at CAP: https://cardiffbluesblog.com/2016/09/17/cardiff-23-19-glasgow/

Disappointing from my point of view. We looked on great form and that was probably one of the results we may live to regret at the end of season.

What are your thoughts on Cardiff Blues this season?

A bit like ourselves really. Very up and down. The start to the season was superb and it looked like you might have turned the corner but injuries have not been kind and the form has dipped a bit as a result. If results start to go the Blues way, there is nothing to stop them making the play-offs but I think a Champions Cup spot should be the main aim.

Your prediction for Sunday?

 

The synthetic pitch gives us no advantage given you have one! It’s really a must win game for both sides but I think the Warriors will win it because we have some form and momentum on our side after 4 straight victories. I’m going to say 27- 19 to Glasgow!

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It was a close game at the Arms Park in September

 

Thanks again to The Pen for his thoughts ahead of tonight’s game. A massive one for Cardiff, just hope the pressure of it doesn’t take away from what should be a cracking encounter between two naturally attacking teams on their favoured plastic surfaces. Come on Cardiff!!!

 

Opposition View: Newport Gwent Dragons

Newport Gwent Dragons are the visitors to CAP on Boxing Day for a festive showdown of an East Wales derby. As a result, Brad Hayward of the Dragons Official Supporter’s Club has answered a few questions this week’s Opposition View. An excellent read on the current form and status of the Rodney Parade side, vastly different to how some in the Welsh media are writing currently.

If you are a fan of NGD then you can check them out here http://www.dragonssupportersclub.com/ and here @DragonsOfficialSC, or even if you’re not a fan, I guess….

How would you sum up your 2015/16 season overall?

W 4  L 18  PF 393  PA 492  TF 33  TA 57  TBP 0  LBP  10

Newport Gwent Dragons finished 10th in the Pro12

So near, but so far. 15/16 was the season of the losing bonus point, where during the Pro12 season we narrowly lost a total of 10 times. Many of the games were touch and go right to the end and we just seemed to lack the confidence and composure to see it home. Infuriating as that was for players, coaches and supporters alike, it did demonstrate that we were not as far behind the pack as some of the media would convince you.

Are you pleased with your new signings?

Thomas Davies, Sam Hobbs, Craig Mitchell, Tavis Knoyle (all Cardiff), Nick MacLeod (Sale), Sam Beard (Edinburgh), Patrick Howard (Northmapton), Darran Harris (Rotherham), Ashley Sweet (Ebbw Vale)

Very happy. It’s no secret that the Dragons were operating under budgetary constraints this summer whilst awaiting new investors, and the majority of signings that Kingsley and the team made in the summer have really added something to our squad. Of note are the signings of Sam Beard in the centre, who is a real class act, and Sam Hobbs at loosehead, who has offered some real power up front, and has become a bit of a try machine for us (A shock for Cardiff fans everywhere, Ed.). Paddy Howard on the wing has also settled in very well, and offers us a physical presence in the backline.

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Tavis Knoyle in Newport Gwent Dragons action

 

 

Where would you say your team’s strengths and weakness lie?

Our Scrum this season has been very solid, with Ceri Jones coming in and doing a great job with the pack. Also, our work at the breakdown this season has been exceptional, with players like Ollie Griffiths, Nic Cudd, Lewis Evans, Rynard Landman & Nick Crosswell all excelling in the close quarters.

Where we have looked very threatening this season however has been our outside backs. In the wide channels we have a lot of class, with the likes of Sam Beard, Tyler Morgan, Adam Warren, Hal Amos & Ashton Hewitt a huge threat to any team.

In terms of weaknesses, they have generally manifested away from Rodney Parade, where the team have looked a little fragile in terms of confidence, and have not always demonstrated the same physicality and tempo that is generally shown at home. When finding themselves on the back foot away from home, there can become a tendency to kick the ball away after long periods defending, giving the opposition the impetus once more.

How do you rate your coach?

Kingsley Jones has been in sole charge since the departure of Lyn Jones in April

Personally feel that Kingsley is doing a very good job. The team have developed a far more attractive style of play this season, and are looking far more threatening with ball in hand. Off the field he has recruited soundly despite budget limitations, and a large number of important players (Ed Jackson, Rynard Landman & Brok Harris) renewing their contracts despite much more generous offers elsewhere, demonstrates the confidence the players have in Kingsley, and the direction the Region are taking. A personable and charismatic presence, with a diverse CV, Kingsley has a lot to offer Welsh Rugby, and seems to be developing a number of high potential young talent very well indeed.

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Kingsley Jones is in charge at Rodney Parade

 

 

Who do you see as your star player?

A real tough question, not due to a lack of talent at the Dragons, far from it, but more due to a sizeable number of the team being young Welsh players that are rated incredibly highly based on future potential. The likes of Elliott Dee, Leon Brown, Ollie Griffiths, Harri Keddie, Angus O’Brien, Jack Dixon, Tyler Morgan and Ashton Hewitt, to name just a few, are all players of undoubted international potential, and are all getting regular game time at the Region.

With such a wealth of young talent, the more senior players play a vital role, and the likes of Brok Harris, Rynard Landman, Nick Crosswell, Ed Jackson, Sam Beard and skipper Lewis Evans have stood up this season and really performed. However to answer to the question it would have to be Hallam Amos, who started this season on fire, and is a true Rolls-Royce of a rugby player.

How has this season gone so far?

Newport Gwent Dragons are currently 9th in the Pro12, with 3 wins and 7 losses

A big step in the right direction. A team containing a high percentage of young Welsh talent, who are trying to play expansive high tempo rugby, a definite improvement from recent seasons. Their form at Rodney Parade this season has been very good, where the team have gone from strength to strength, winning 5 on the bounce in recent weeks, and making RP a very difficult place for teams to visit.

This momentum has often been halted however by the team’s form on the road, which not only impacts the slowly building confidence (team and supporters alike), but gives the Region’s detractors further ammunition for the often overly harsh criticism that comes our way, with little consideration of the wider context.

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Hallam Amos is one of the star attraction

 

 

What is the aim for this season?

Continue to nurture the young Welsh talent at our disposal, and develop our style of play in order to offer the opportunity for our young and exciting backline to excel. Measurable progress would be welcomed by climbing the Pro12 table this season, with our sights set on finishing higher than just the two Italian teams, and demonstrating a tangible improvement more than just the moral positives we can take from the make up and changing style of our team.

Off the field we continue to remain optimistic that a future ownership structure will soon be in place to stabilize the current set up, and provide the opportunity for future growth and investment in the Region.

Prediction for our game?

A Boxing Day Derby victory would really add impetus to the building confidence and optimism at the Dragons, however there’s no doubt it will be tough fixture. Our current away form would suggest this will be a tall order, but the Blues defence can be exploited, and we can possibly battle to have the upper hand in the scrum, breakdown, and possibly in wide channels if we can use Tyler Morgan and Ashton Hewitt’s speed and flair.

The strength of the Blues midfield, and ball carrying of Nick Williams will need to be nullified for us to get a result in this fixture however. Hoping for a high scoring festive fixture, with the Dragons coming home thanks to a late Ashton Hewitt try in the North West corner of the Stadium.. 🙂 (I admire the wishful thinking, Ed.)

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Could Ashton Hewitt hold the key?

 

 

Thanks again to Brad and Merry Christmas to our Newport Gwent Dragons counterparts, see you Monday! Come on Cardiff!!!

 

Opposition View: Ulster

With the arrival of Ulster at the Arms Park on Saturday evening I’ve asked some people connected with the Northern Irish side to give me their views on the Belfast-based side.

Freelance journalist and Ulster blogger Adam McKendry (@admckendry http://thehoundonthehill.blogspot.co.uk/) and Ulster fan Laura Johnston (@LauraJ2803) offer their thoughts on last season, this season, new signings, the team and this week’s game.

How would you sum up your 2015/16 season overall?

W 14  L 8  PF 488  PA 307  TF 61  TA 29  TBP 8  LBP 5  

Ulster finished 4th in the Pro12, losing to Leinster in the semi-finals

AK: In a word? Disappointing.

Every year we think it could be our season to end our trophy drought but we manage to throw it away in the most bizarre fashion imaginable. Last season we went on a brilliant run towards the tail end of April, including a remarkable 46-26 win away to the Ospreys, then proceeded to not turn up (figuratively, not literally) for our semi-final against Leinster and crash out without a whimper.

The damage had been done earlier in the season when we couldn’t string together two victories in a row before December. In all honesty it was a typical Ulster season – flashes of promise that inevitably ended in a May heartbreak.

LJ: Our 2015/16 season had a few highs and lows and a few nail biting moments.

The highs were beating Toulouse home (38-0) and away (25-23), beating Oyonnax home (56-3) and away (24-23 after being 23-0 down and going down to a fantastic 50m kick from Paddy Jackson to win the game…very nail biting) and beating Leinster at home (30-6).

The lows would be the narrow defeats to the Scarlets and Munster at home (you really should win your home games) and the defeats to Saracens in the Champions Cup.

We had good run in the last 4 games of the regular season against tough opposition but we failed at the final hurdle of making the Pro12 Final. Another semi-final defeat to Leinster at the RDS.

ulster-semi-final
Ulster went down to Leinster in last season’s semi-final

 

Are you pleased with your new signings?

Charles Piutau (Wasps), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Kieran Treadwell (Harlequins), Marcell Coetzee (Sharks), Brett Herron (Bath), Angus Lloyd (Trinity College Dublin)

AK: One we’re not happy with is Marcell Coetzee who got injured for the Sharks two weeks after we announced his signing and won’t be back until the end of January/early February! When he comes back he’ll be a huge help for our back row though.

Another was your new boy, Anton Peikrishvili, who got injured a week after joining us – as injury cover!!! (Yeah, cheers for him! Ed.)

As we already knew, Charles Piutau is a class apart, his speed and physicality make him a constant danger and he has the ability to draw two defenders to him to create space for others – if you get a chance watch his offload to Jacob Stockdale for his try in our pre-season friendly against Northampton, it’s sublime! If we can get him into space more he can be even more of a threat, but we’ve struggled with that recently.

Rodney Ah You came over from Connacht and has been a pleasant surprise too. We appear to have fixed his scrummaging issues that he had in Galway and he adds another ball carrying option to our pack, which is very welcome.

Other signings are the likes of Kieran Treadwell (lock) and Brett Herron (fly-half, who will start against you on Saturday) who are two young players for the future but have done alright since arriving.

LJ: Charles is an outstanding player and some of the things he does on the pitch are so mesmerising.

Looking forward to seeing Marcell pull on the white shirt in the new year and hoping he can bring a lot more competition at the break down and a lot of go forward ball.

Rodney Ah You has been a great addition to the Ulster front row and he has taken on the mantle of running through people from from Nick Williams.

Haven’t seen too much of Kieran Treadwell, Brett Herron and Angus Lloyd this season yet but they all look like good young prospects.

charles-piutau-ulster
Charles Piutau was one of the Aviva Premiership’s most exciting players last season

 

Where would you say your team’s strengths and weakness lie?

AK: Our strength would definitely be in the back line. We could lose two wingers and two centres to injury and still be able to field an all-international back line such is the depth we possess. Ruan Pienaar is world class at scrum-half and Paddy Jackson has matured into a 10 who can carry a game – something he struggled with a lot in his early years.

The weakness would be our pack isn’t big enough to create the gaps for the backs to exploit. Our scrum is solid and our line-out is fine, but in terms of ball carrying threats we are severely lacking. Ah You and Iain Henderson, when fit, are the only two players we can rely on to make constant yards – Sean Reidy can do a bit of carrying and Coetzee should do some too – but the rest of the pack struggle to make any consistent breaks. Losing Nick Williams to you guys took away the vast majority of our go forward ball.

LJ: Our strength would be our defence at the moment and our weakness would be our finishing. We have spent so much time over the last few games in our opposition’s 22 and come away with no points.

How do you rate your coach?

Former Australian rugby league international Les Kiss has been at Ulster since last season

AK: Les Kiss is still finding his feet to a degree because he joined after the World Cup last year and was immediately thrust into our preparations for the Champions Cup which wasn’t ideal. It’s only this season he’s sat down and actually assessed what he has available to him and what he has to work with.

It’s been mixed as to how we’ve gone under him. When he first took over things completely turned around – within the space of three weeks we won our European double-header over Toulouse despite losing half our squad to injury and we won away at Connacht, the only team to do so last season. Then we fell apart a bit, losing at home to Munster and nearly away to Oyonnax before our odd finish to the PRO12 as I already mentioned.

This season it looked like taking pre-season had helped drastically but recent results suggest that he still has things to work on as a Director of Rugby. There’s still a way to go, but there are positive signs.

I think it will only be at the end of next season that we can fully judge how Kiss is doing – he’ll have brought in a couple of players he wants and has targeted personally, and he’ll have had two full seasons with the squad under his belt. So far his start has been good, but not great.

LJ: Les is a man who has good rugby values and is not afraid to speak his mind and is very genuine. This is his first full season as coach but unfortunately injuries have prevented him fielding a settled team. I think he is a coach who can bring silverware to Ulster.

les-kiss-ulster
Those glasses are just a fashion statement

 

Who do you see as your star player?

AK: Without a shadow of a doubt it’s Ruan Pienaar. The man oozes class at scrum-half and when he’s not in the team there’s a considerable difference in how we perform. He seems to glide across the pitch, always in the right place at the right time and he adds an excellent kicking option both out of hand and from the tee if necessary. Next season will be extremely interesting to see how we cope without him.

LJ: Our star player is hard to pinpoint just one … so two would be Ruan Pienaar (gutted he’s leaving) and Charles Piutau (why did the All Blacks let him go?).

Ruan Pienaar 10/1/2014
Ruan Pienaar is revered amongst Ulster fans, but will leave in May

 

How has this season gone so far?

Ulster are 6th, with 5 wins and 3 losses leaving them with 23 points

AK: Well we started like a house on fire and then proceeded to fall apart!

The first four games of the season were excellent, we were playing some good rugby and we picked up big wins at home to the Scarlets and away to Glasgow, which had our confidence sky-high both within the team and the fanbase. We scraped past the Ospreys and then everything fell apart – we lost away to Connacht for our first defeat of the PRO12 and then managed to throw away a lead in the last ten minutes away to Bordeaux and come away from the game with absolutely nothing.

Again, we scraped past Exeter at home and then proceeded to throw away another lead against Munster before being taken apart in Edinburgh by a side that had lost to Zebre a week before, which marked a new low for us.

Overall a season that began with so much promise has gone completely off the rails. We haven’t had enough significant injuries to use that as an excuse, we’re simply in a bad run of form.

LJ: The season started off well but over the last few games results haven’t gone our way. I’m hoping that the Zebre game being called off last week due to a frozen pitch isn’t going to be to Ulster’s detriment. It would have been good to restart our season with a home win.

What is the aim for this season?

AK: Silverware, as it always is. Unfortunately we don’t have the resources to compete with the big spenders in Europe, so our best chance is the PRO12 where we feel we have the squad to compete with anyone on our day. However, after our recent results I would be happy with the top four and a rebuild for next season.

LJ: Our aim for the season is to try our best to win our remaining Champions cup games and get a home semi-final in the Pro12. Our main aim is to reach the Pro12 Final.

ulster-2006-champions
Ulster haven’t won anything since the 2005/06 Pro12

 

Prediction for our game?

AK: I’m leaning on the fence slightly because our game against Zebre was abandoned last week. I don’t know if that puts at an advantage as we will be fresher than yourselves or if you’ll be at an advantage having played last week after the break. I think we can still win this game, but I’m going to have to go for a Cardiff win unfortunately, but by no more than 7 points.

LJ: Hoping Ulster get back to winning ways but could see it being a tight game about six points in it. (To Cardiff of course! Ed.)

Thanks again to Laura and Adam for some great input this week, very important game for both sides, but let’s hope for an exciting game with plenty of quality rugby on show. Come on Cardiff!!

Opposition View: Connacht

With the return of the Pro12 comes the return of the Opposition View and this time the chaps from the Craggy Rugby Podcast are sharing their thoughts on Connacht, our reigning league champions.

If you would like to have a listen to some of their excellent output you can find it here: https://soundcloud.com/knockon-ie

Or follow them on Twitter here: @craggyrugbypod

How would you sum up your 2015/16 season overall?

W 15  L 7  PF 507  PA 406  TF 60  TA 46  TBP 8  LBP 5

Connacht finished 2nd in the Pro12, before beating Leinster in the Final

It couldn’t have been better. It was the greatest ever season in the history of Connacht rugby, it had plenty of hardened Connacht followers in tears more than once, beating Munster home and away, beating the previous season’s champions back to back, and beating Leinster twice at the business end of the season being the most memorable.

Are you pleased with your new signings?

Eoin Griffin (London Irish), Conor Carey (Nottingham), Marnitz Boshoff (Lions), Cian Kelleher (Leinster), Dominic Robertson-McCoy (Northland), Josh Rowland (Ireland 7s), Lewis Stevenson (Exeter Chiefs), Stacey Ili (Auckland), James Cannon (Wasps), Ivan Soroka (Clontarf), Naulia Dawai (Otago)

The new signings have a lot to live up to in replacing the likes of Aly Muldowney, Nathan White and Robbie Henshaw, and it is taking them a bit of time to bed into the Connacht system. Stacey Ili is the one who has made the biggest impact with his hat-trick against Zebre in the Champions Cup, and Conor Carey is proving to be a very solid prop. It will probably take another few games to judge the rest of the guys in a fair light.

Stacey Ili Connacht.jpg
Stacey Ili scoring one of his three vs Zebre

 

Where would you say your team’s strengths and weakness lie?

Connacht’s greatest strength is the handling skill set they have right across the squad. It makes them a dangerous proposition from any position on the field. When the first choice front five are available, the scrum can be very destructive. The back three have searing pace matched with a hunger for the ball which means they score a lot of tries.

The lineout is a problem this season, but the biggest weakness is the lack of depth in the squad. There are a lot of young, exciting players coming through the system, but with Ireland taking our 5 best players combined with departures and retirement of some key players from last season, the callowness of the squad has been shown up at times this season.

How do you rate your coach?

Former Samoan international Pat Lam is into his fourth season as Connacht coach

Top notch. He brings a brilliant vision of how the game should be played, and how to build a successful organisation that is based on a combination of intelligence, hard work and an unshakeable belief in knowing what it takes to be a champion.

Who do you see as your star player?

Bundee Aki. His hunger and passion for the game are matched by his incredible skill set, durability and hugely infectious personality that permeates throughout the team when he is playing well.

bundee-aki-connacht
Bundee Aki in action vs Ospreys

 

How has this season gone so far?

A total rollercoaster of emotions. A diabolical start losing four matches on the bounce, as if to let the newer fanbase know what it was like to follow Connacht in the old days, then a rapid ascent to the glories of last season with victories over a then unbeaten Ulster followed by a glorious win over Toulouse. Only to come back down to earth with a bump losing away to an understrength Leinster and then the Dragons.

What is the aim for this season?

Top six in the Pro12 and to qualify for the quarter finals of the Champions Cup, both of which are currently still attainable.

Prediction for our game?

Connacht’s record against Cardiff is dreadful, W6 D2 L19 since the start of the Celtic League. In the last 6 home games it reads W1 D1 L4, although the draw and win were the last 2 matches. We have a raft of players coming back from injury but have 5 missing with Ireland, while Cardiff a number of players in the Welsh squad making this a particularly difficult game to call.

However, the fact that this is Connacht’s first game back in the Sportground since beating Toulouse, and the fact that the weather forecast is excellent for running rugby, Connacht should have a slight edge in a game that will probably see a lot of open rugby with lots of tries, Connacht by three.

John Muldoon lift the Guinness Pro12 Trophy 28/5/2016
Connacht lift the Pro12 trophy last season

 

Thanks again to the Craggy Rugby Podcast fellas for providing the answers, should be an exciting game on Friday night in Galway. Here’s to a Cardiff win though!