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There was no shortage of drama in round two of the PRO14 as Ulster snatched another last-gasp victory and Connacht easily beat Zebre, but it was heartbreak for Munster and Leinster as they went down to main rivals Glasgow and Scarlets respectively.
If this is the standard of rugby coming our way for the remainder of the season, we are in for a treat. Round two of the PRO14 gave us some truly top quality stuff and definite proof that, even at this early stage of the campaign, teams are prepared to fight for every single point.
The game of the weekend was undoubtedly Ulster v Edinburgh on Friday night as John Cooney, who put pen to paper on a long term deal during the week, once again showed nerves of steel to secure a last minute 30-29 victory over the unlucky Scottish outfit after a thrilling encounter at the Kingspan Stadium. Connacht beat Zebre 32-13 at The Sportground as expected on Saturday, but elsewhere it was disappointment for the Irish contingent as Leinster were edged out 23-21 at Scarlets in a game they might easily have won, while Munster looked off the pace for long periods as they went down 25-10 to Glasgow Warriors in Scotland.
The disappointment and turmoil of last season must already seem like a distant memory for the Ulster faithful as, in what was a fine advertisement for the PRO14, they made it two wins out of two courtesy of another Cooney late show.
Edinburgh, fresh from their defeat to Ospreys on the opening weekend, were quickly out of the blocks and raced into a 13-0 lead courtesy of two Simon Hickey penalties and a try from winger Tom Brown before Cooney got the home side on the board with a penalty. It was an absorbing exhibition of attacking rugby from both sides in which Edinburgh appeared to be heading for certain victory when James Johnstone and Hickey converted to extend the lead to 23-6 early in the second period.
But somehow Ulster turned it around and Cooney reduced the arrears to ten when he converted Will Addison’s try on 53 minutes. Cooney and Craig Gilroy, the latter after a 50 metre run from inside his own half, both crossed to put the home side in front for the first time with barely five minutes left on the clock. But Edinburgh weren’t finished and a Hickey penalty restored their lead almost immediately before Cooney kept his cool to seal it at the death with another superb kick.
Cooney has established himself as a key figure in Dan McFarland’s squad in the wake of Ruan Pienaar’s departure at the end of the 2016-17 season and his form will have a significant bearing on Ulster’s fortunes in the current campaign. After topping the PRO14 scoring charts with 175 last term, the scrum-half already has 35 points to his name this season and must be in line for a call-up to the international squad for the upcoming Autumn internationals.
Ulster head to South Africa to take on Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth on Sunday (LIVE on eir sport 2 KO 1.15pm) before heading inland to Bloemfontein and a meeting with Toyota Cheetahs next weekend. They will be without Iain Henderson, new signing Jordi Murphy who damaged ankle ligaments in the Edinburgh game, and a host of other names for what will be a serious test ahead of back-to-back Irish derbies beginning at the end of the month.
It was a game of two halves for Munster at Scotstoun on Friday night against Glasgow Warriors. They simply weren’t at the races in the first 40 minutes as the home side blew them away, running in three tries without reply to lead 22-0 at the break. The third try came following a handling error by JJ Hanrahan close to his own line and left Munster with too much to do to get back into the game. It was tough to watch and proved, after last weekend’s heroics, that a week is a long time in elite sport.
Hanrahan was replaced by Joey Carbery at the break and Munster looked a different animal thereafter. They took the game to their hosts with wave after wave of attack. However, a single try and penalty was all they could muster in spite of their dominance and they headed home empty-handed.
While massive credit must go to the Glasgow defence which resisted manfully for long periods, it does beg the old question that has plagued Munster over the past few seasons – do they have a backline dynamic enough to score tries against top opposition? It’s all very well hitting the Cheetahs for six, but can they do it against the likes of Glasgow, Scarlets and Leinster? The addition of Carbery will obviously make a significant difference, but it is one area of their play that has let them down over the past few years and they will need to put it right if they are to get their hands on some silverware any time soon.
With Tadgh Beirne and Carbery set to start and Andrew Conway and captain Peter O'Mahony returning, head coach Johann van Graan will be looking for far greater consistency this weekend as Munster welcome a rejuvenated Ospreys to Irish Independent Park on Friday (LIVE on eir sport 1 KO 7.35pm).
Leinster will be disappointed not to leave Parc y Scarlets with anything more than a losing bonus point. After enduring a frantic opening during which they conceded a contentious Ken Owens try, they fought their way back into the game and actually led 14-10 at the break courtesy of five-pointers of their own from Fergus McFadden and James Lowe.
They looked to have nullified the home side’s main counter-attacking threat and should have been on course for their first victory at the venue in five seasons. But they took their foot off the pedal, errors crept in and Scarlets were able to regain control of the match in the third quarter and that, more so than the actual defeat itself, is what will hurt the Leinster coaching staff most. The fact that Ross Byrne, who played well enough overall and produced a certain try-saving tackle on Gareth Davies in the first half, missed one very kickable penalty at a vital time in the second period will rankle too. In the end it was a case of so near and yet so far for the Irish side – credit to Scarlets but Leinster will be kicking themselves over this one.
Indeed, Jack Conan’s comments during the week that the defeat made the squad feel like they had gone back a few years to a time when they were losing semi-finals are not surprising. It shows the scale of the ambition at Leinster – he was bitter and it showed. They will be expected to make amends against Dragons this Saturday (LIVE on eir sport 1 KO 5.15pm).
Connacht got their season up and running after the disappointment of last week’s defeat to Glasgow with a comprehensive 32-13 bonus point victory over Zebre at The Sportsground. However, it wasn’t quite as easy as the scoreline suggested. The home pack were rampant, which will please coach Andy Friend, while the Italians’ lack of discipline cost them dearly.
It was a good day for number eight Paul Boyle, another former Leinster player who has travelled west in search of more game time. He crossed twice in the opening quarter to help the home side to a 17-3 half-time advantage. Caolin Blade and Eoin Griffin secured the bonus point before the hour before replacement Niyi Adeolokun added some additional gloss to the scoreline late on.
Connacht will be hoping to build on this display as they head to Scotland to face Edinburgh at Murrayfield on Friday (LIVE on eir sport 2 KO 7.35pm). After finishing last season so well, the Scottish side will be reeling after suffering defeats in their opening two matches this time around and will be keen to get their campaign up and running. That could mean a tough night for the Westerners. However, they will be boosted by the return of dynamic international centre Bundee Aki, while veteran back row Robin Copeland could be in line for his debut after moving from Munster in the summer.
Ospreys join Glasgow Warriors at the top of Conference A on nine points after a bonus point 46-14 thrashing of Toyota Cheetahs at the Liberty Stadium. The visitors, who are the only team yet to register a point in either Conference after conceding 13 tries in their two games so far, will be hoping for better as they host Glasgow in the high altitude conditions of Bloemfontein this Saturday (LIVE on eir sport 2 KO 6.30pm).
Benetton made it two wins from two over Welsh sides this season with a narrow 27-25 win over Cardiff Blues in Treviso. Tomasso Allan converted Monty Ioane’s last minute try to seal a dramatic victory and condemn the visitors to another agonising defeat after suffering a similar fate against Leinster last weekend.
The result sees the Italian side share top spot with Ulster in Conference B on eight points while Cardiff, despite two decent performances, are second from bottom in Conference A on two points. In the other match played last weekend Dragons got their season up and running with a hard-fought 27-22 victory over Southern Kings.
Two weeks in and things are hotting up nicely!
Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland
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