It’s been a long time coming but it’s finally here – the 2020 Six Nations Super Saturday. Despite France going into a second lockdown as a result of COVID-19, the French Minister of Sport has confirmed that elite sport will be exempted. As a result the final and all important match of the day in Paris, which will confirm who is going to be lifting the silverware, will be taking place.

Wales and Scotland get us started on Saturday in Llanelli and while neither side is in the hunt for any silverware a win is critical, especially for Wales who are in desperate need of a victory and a halt to four straight defeats. Scotland will look to finish well and settle themselves for the upcoming Autumn Nations Cup in November. England need a massive points haul and a bonus point against Italy, something which a team of their caliber should have no trouble achieving, even if it means travelling to Rome. If England get the job done the silverware is theirs pending the outcome of the France/Ireland game. So ultimately England will have to wait and see if either France or Ireland can secure a bonus point in their struggles. If neither get that elusive bonus point then it’s England’s tournament, but if they do then either Ireland or France will be hoisting the trophy on Saturday night. If you want a tournament that is going to go to the final whistle of the final match, then make sure you are in your own lockdown in front of the TV on Saturday!

Let’s not forget about Bledisloe 3 if all the above excitement is not enough for you. New Zealand travel to Australia to take on a Wallaby side smarting from a comprehensive schooling by the All Blacks at Auckland’s Eden Park two weeks ago. It’s an experimental Wallaby side that will know that home advantage is simply not going to be enough on Saturday. The All Blacks are once again reverting to traditional form. After a slow start, by the time the second half of Bledisloe Cup 2 got underway, New Zealand were operating at full throttle again while still managing to blood some new talent of their own. It should still be a highly entertaining match, but we can’t help feeling a little anxious for the Wallabies given the strength of the visitors lineup, and this will be a definite test to see what tricks new Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie really does have up his sleeve. New All Black Coach Ian Foster after a shaky start in Wellington seems to have taken a firm hand to steering New Zealand’s ship and Saturday’s match will be the litmus test of how well his methods can adapt to life on the road, as the Kiwis take up residence in Australia for the next six weeks for the Rugby Championship.

Six Nations

Wales vs Scotland – Saturday, October 31st – Llanelli

There is no silverware up for grabs for either side on Saturday, but Wales will want to right their ship after four straight defeats. Scotland on the other hand, will be feeling confident after beating title favorites France earlier this year. Furthermore the Scots haven’t exactly been thrashed by their opponents and both their losses in this year’s championships to England and Ireland were only by 7 point margins. The Scots seem to be clicking nicely while Wales look slightly at sea despite some obvious talent.

Wales recent friendly against France last weekend in Paris saw the Welsh eclipsed by 38-21 as France played all the rugby and the Welsh by comparison looked rather flat and lifeless. Even traditional stalwarts like Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric seemed to have alarmingly quiet games by their standards. The French ran rings around Wales in the set pieces and in attack proceeded to make a mockery of the Welsh defenses. Wales did get on the scoreboard first with a nicely worked try from fullback Leigh Halfpenny in the opening minute, but that was about the only time there was any genuine spark or flow to the Welsh attack, apart from a gritty well worked forwards try in the final ten minutes. France on the other hand were all flair and excitement after that initial wake up call from Wales. Add to that some exceptionally well organized defenses and there was no denying that this is a very well put together and thought out French team.

Scotland had Georgia as their warm up last weekend and fared considerably better in their contest, demolishing a brave but ultimately seriously undercooked Georgian side 48-7 at Murrayfield. Scotland’s favourite problem child Finn Russell returned to the fold and immediately set about proving why Scotland simply can’t do without his services when he came off the bench. Meanwhile an aggressive and quick forward pack negated the traditional physical threat posed by the Georgians. Scotland’s pacy backline showed they will need to be watched with caution next month in the Autumn Nations Cup. Scotland look like a side able to provide us with plenty of entertainment in November and we look forward to seeing them in some very tasty encounters in the Autumn Nations Cup.

This weekend’s Six Nations encounter sees Scotland make relatively few changes to the side that made life such a misery for the Georgians last Friday. The injured Matt Fagerson is replaced by Blade Thomson at number eight and in the second row Jonny Gray returns. Finn Russell gets a deserved start at fly half and in the backs Scotland welcome back Stuart Hogg after the fullback returns from a string of competitive successes with English club Exeter. As we saw last weekend, it’s a Scottish side that oozes quality. Their front row proved steady under fire from Georgia in the set pieces. Scotland’s second row, especially with Jonny Gray in the mix will be highly competitive come lineout time. At the breakdowns that back row has generated a healthy respect from opponents throughout the Six Nations with Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie in particular proving to be the bedrock of Scotland’s ability to really mix things up in the loose. Lastly that set of backs is class through and through and winger Darcy Graham didn’t disappoint last week. Expect more of the same this week, made more potent by the addition of Stuart Hogg.

Wales are a conundrum, after the highs of the latter Gatland years, they definitely seem to be trending downward. We don’t think it’s permanent, there is too much talent in this team for that to be the case, but they are clearly struggling to adapt to new Coach Wayne Pivac’s style or he to them. For this match Pivac makes some wholesale changes and we would argue that after last week they are merited. We still feel that Wales are going to get bossed around in the front row and there are relatively few changes for Saturday’s match, as they struggled with France last week whereas Scotland contained Georgia’s supposed scrummaging prowess. What will be interesting to see is the second row partnership betweeen Will Rowlands and Alun Wyn-Jones. Wyn-Jones is a known commodity even if he had a relatively quiet game by his standards last weekend, but Rowlands has been an outstanding performer for English premiership side Wasps. The Welsh back row needs to make much more of a statement than they did against France. Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau did put in a shift but somehow it just didn’t match up to the power being generated by their French opponents. They are not going to get much more of a break from Scotland’s Watson and Ritchie.

In the backs, Rhys Webb misses out at scrum half due to injury in favor of Gareth Davies, but in our opinion this is to Wales’ benefit. Wales looked more energetic and organised when Davies came on in the French game, and for us is the better option. We’re still not convinced that fullback Leigh Halfpenny is as comfortable under the high ball as he used to be, but Saturday’s match sees the return of Liam Williams to the wing opposite Josh Adams, and this back three could spell trouble for Scotland. Williams ability to create opportunities and handle whatever kind of aerial assault Scotland will fire at Wales is something the Men in Red have lacked of late. Lastly that center pairing in Wales really needs to be counted as last weekend it clearly wasn’t, with both Jonathan Davies and Nick Tompkins struggling to find any sort of cohesion. With Owen Watkin replacing Tompkins this weekend Wales really need to click here.

It should be a good match for spectators with a lively Scottish side wanting to build on some positive momentum and a Welsh team desperately seeking something to cheer about on home soil. For us though it’s the more dynamic and opportunistic Scots who the scoreboard will likely favor most.

Italy vs England – Saturday, October 31st – Rome

After watching Italy get dismantled yet again in the Six Nations, it’s hard 20 years on from Italy’s initial entry into the tournament to still find positive things to write about them. Sure there is lots of individual talent in Italy but none of it seems to get harnessed into a cohesive plan for really putting Italy on the map in terms of International Rugby. Instead, the other Six Nations sadly view matches with Italy as points haul opportunities. This is certainly the case with England this weekend as they travel to Rome looking to get maximum points on the board including a bonus point, whilst hoping at the same time that neither Ireland or France are able to do the same, and thus allow England to claim the title. You’d have to argue the odds are in their favor, and the defensive slip ups that caused Ireland to throw away seven points in the overall points difference between them and England, are unlikely to be present in the English camp on Saturday. You’d think – but then we thought that about the World Cup final.

However, Italy are not South Africa, even if they are being coached by one. They bring a slightly punchier side to this encounter, with the big ticket item being the inclusion of Wasps all star fullback and try scoring machine Matteo Minozzi. The Italian back is world class and to be fair so are some of his teammates. Despite being on the back end of an Irish hiding last weekend, fly half Paolo Garbisi’s try at the death, that could end up being Ireland’s undoing in the points race this weekend, was absolutely top flight. In short, this guy is good and could be the spark that really lets Italy create some special moments. Considering that was his first outing in an Italian jersey, that’s a pretty impressive debut. Italy has a solid back row even if they failed to make much of an impression against a very impressive Irish trio last weekend. However, we anticipate them struggling in the set pieces and apart from Minozzi, there just isn’t the pedigree in their backs to be able to compete with the likes of England’s offerings, especially Jonny May.

As for England, given the strength of their star studded match day 23 it’s really hard to find any weaknesses and see anything other than Italy being completely and utterly steamrollered into submission. The only possible weak links being George Furbank at fullback, who may be Coach Eddie Jones’ wonder child but so far has singularly failed to impress at Test Level in an English jersey, and Owen Farrell’s difficulties with tackling technique. Apart from that though we just can’t see any chinks in England’s armor other than possibly scrum half Ben Youngs having one of his increasingly frequent off days or Billy Vunipola discovering yet another part of his physique that is an injury liability.

It’s really difficult to see a scoreline that doesn’t have England sitting on at least 55-60 points, most of which could well be unanswered. Expect at least six tries by the Men in White securing the much needed bonus point, and a points difference that will have both France and Ireland sweating bullets heading into the last game of the tournament on Saturday night in Paris.

France vs Ireland – Saturday, October 31st – Paris

Super Saturday will reach its nailbiting finish for fans in Paris. France and Ireland will know what they need to do after watching England and Italy. Consequently the pressure will be on as English, French and Irish fans huddle nervously around their television screens. Fortunately the match is going ahead despite the nationwide lockdown in France, and thank heavens, as after the most protracted and unusual Six Nations campaign in history, we doubt most of us could handle any more suspense.

Both sides make very few changes to the lineups that worked so well for them last weekend, and for the most part where those changes do take place they are enforced due to injury. Ireland bring in prop Cian Healy to the front row for his 100th cap, while France keep the same unit that bossed Wales around. We’re backing France on this one as they just seem slightly steadier in the discipline stakes compared to the Irish. The second rows stay the same for both sides, but for us Ireland have got this hands down, especially in terms of keeping on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes’ whistle. French second rower Bernard le Roux must surely consider himself lucky to be running out on the pitch Saturday after trying to rearrange Welsh Captain Alun Wyn-Jones face last weekend. Le Roux’s colleague Willemse is also not known for his disciplinary reliability.

The match up of the weekend surely has to be the battle of the back rows. Ireland’s CJ Stander as the undisputed veteran shepherds his two young charges Caelan Doris and Will Connors with the green trio being devastatingly effective last weekend against Italy. By the same token the French trio led by Captain Charles Ollivon, a role he appears to be excelling at, were also taking no prisoners last weekend against Wales and clearly got the better of some notable Welsh talent.

The huge smoking gun on the field is the great contest of young versus the old in the halfbacks. France’s dynamic duo are truly world class, and in our opinion are already outshining their Irish counterparts who were until very recently considered one of the world’s most dangerous pairings. Ireland’s Murray and Sexton still take some beating, but there is no question that they are not nearly as shiny as the two young French mavericks who have set Six Nations pitches alight this year. At the moment Murray simply cannot match France’s Antoine Dupont’s lightning fast reflexes and decision making, and Ntamack’s ability to control the ebb and flow of a game coupled to a very useful boot is perhaps more consistent than Ireland’s legendary Sexton. However, the Irish pair have a wealth of Test experience between them and on such a big occasion as Saturday’s encounter, it will be interesting to see how much of a difference this makes when the chips are down for both sides.

The contest between France’s Virimi Vakatawa and Ireland’s Bundee Aki on Saturday is one we can’t wait to see unfold. The dynamic French centre is a handful to bring down, but provided Aki can read his dance moves he certainly packs the punch to stop a freight train dead in its tracks. The loss of Ireland’s Garry Ringrose to injury is a genuine blow for the Irish as his inventiveness and speed in the centre channels creates far more opportunity than the rather predictable smash and grab up the middle routine favored by Aki and Henshaw.

Hugo Keenan had a dream debut for Ireland on the wing against Italy scoring two fine tries, but his defensive capabilities were rarely tested by the Azurri. Jacob Stockdale at fullback continues to be a worry in that department as evidenced by fly half Paolo Garbisi completely wrong footing him for a try that may be critical if matters are to be decided on points differences alone. Andrew Conway had a good run of it last weekend, but sadly although featuring heavily in the run of play was unlucky not to cross the whitewash for Ireland and is a player who we feel is one of the Men in Green’s most underrated talents. However, that French back three is a potent unit in its own right and Ireland can simply not allow their guard down for a second.

Both sides pack quality benches and ultimately this match is set to be a barnstormer in the making with the weather favoring an exciting running game – something France in particular just love to do at the moment. We have to admit to being slightly surprised at the pundits voting so heavily in favor for Ireland on this one. Consequently we’re going to play devil’s advocate and say that we think Ireland are going to have their work cut out against a French side that, apart from that hiccough on the road against Scotland, have looked the most exciting and dangerous side in the tournament by a country mile. To make these qualities all the more convincing the French finally look like they have systems in place that can utilize some rather extraordinary talent to its fullest potential. The Irish are an impressive and equally talented unit, but when it comes to the unexpected and how to capitalize on it, we’d argue that quality has a distinctly French flavor to it this year. In a country heading into another dark couple of weeks, France perhaps more than Ireland need something to cheer about, and we feel that a certain group of men in blue jerseys might just have the motivation and skill set to give it to them on Saturday night in Paris!

Bledisloe 3

Australia vs New Zealand – Saturday, October 31st – Sydney

Australia have to win this one – plain and simple. If they don’t then that’s it for the Bledisloe Cup for another year in the All Blacks favor, and also puts New Zealand well on the way to sweeping all before them in the Rugby Championship over the next six weeks. Australia take the bold move of blooding some very impressive but untested talent at this level, and you have to wonder if results this year are less important than the first tentative steps of building a new team and vision for the 2023 World Cup. While we’re sure that’s a large part of it, we don’t doubt for a moment, that a key priority of new Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie’s first year is a win over Australia’s biggest rivals.

New Zealand also bring some untried talent to the table, but much less so than Australia, and there are fewer changes to the side that so effectively dismantled Australia in the second half of Bledisloe 2. Hoskins Sotutu gets a start at number eight, in place of Ardie Savea who is on family leave this weekend, after having a game where he was back to his manic writhing best. Sotutu caught a lot of attention with the Auckland Blues in this years Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, and his debut for the All Blacks has been eagerly anticipated. Sam Whitelock returns to the second row, and his experience and work rate will be of enormous benefit ahead of a tough six weeks on the road. Jack Goodhue returned to his best a fortnight ago and expect more of the same now he has adjusted to his new hairstyle. We couldn’t say enough good things about winger Caleb Clarke’s debut in Bledisloe 2 and as impressive as Filipo Daugunu’s debut has been for the Wallabies he simply could not contain the All Blacks newest wrecking ball, causing him to probably need a stiff drink before bed this entire week.

For us this encounter’s most interesting aspect is a chance to really get a look at some of Australia’s emerging new talent under the most intense pressure. There has been a great deal of hype about fly half Noah Lolesio, scrum half Tate McDermott and Irae Simone at centre with all three being standout performers in this year’s Super Rugby AU. The trio get their chance to prove their worth on Saturday, with Lolesio and Simone in particular getting starting berths.

Australia’s biggest weakness still seems to be in terms of discipline and in Bledisloe 2 it continued to put them on the back foot. Back rower Ned Hanigan, despite our reservations about him in this department, did put in a solid performance at key moments in Bledisloe 2 but you have to temper that with the fact that for every positive thing he did he would follow it up with a costly mistake. One gentleman who continues to prove his worth for Australia in his first campaign in a Wallaby jersey is Harry Wilson at number eight. A genuine find for Australia and in the two matches we’ve seen him play in for the Wallabies he hasn’t put a foot wrong – a genuine talent that is destined to be one of the greats. Saturday’s match also sees the return of Dane Haylett-Petty who on a good day can be one of Australia’s most dynamic players, it’s just that he hasn’t had too many of those good days recently – here’s hoping Saturday sees him back to his best.

It’s an outstanding All Black lineup against a relatively unproven but talented Australian team. The pressure on Dave Rennie’s predominantly young charges will be massive on Saturday, and it may be just a bit too soon for them to be handle the pitfalls of such a big stage and at home to boot. New Zealand still know how to win, regardless of the change in management and as a group have tasted victory more often than defeat. The World Cup is no doubt a distant memory and a team that is still better at reinventing itself than any other will take some beating on Saturday in Sydney. Beaten they can be but probably not by a Wallaby side packing plenty of energy but still lacking the cohesion needed for the big occasions under pressure.

Enjoy what should be the kind of weekend that perhaps some of us thought would be the stuff of fantasy only this year. Our hearts go out to everyone in France this weekend as they face a gloomy autumn under lockdown – let’s hope that whatever the outcomes this Saturday, it’s one everyone will remember for a long time to come as time well spent!

In case you missed the two friendlies last week here are the highlights with the Ireland/Italy game highlights over on the TV/Internet listings page along with the Bledisloe story so far.

If you’ve caught your breath after one of the most memorable Heineken Cup Finals we can remember for a while, you’ll be pleased to know that the fun has just begun. The Bledisloe Cup is in full swing soon to be followed by the Rugby Championship, although no action there this weekend. However, for Six Nations fans there is a lot to be excited about this weekend. Italy and Ireland’s postponed Round 4 match finally takes place in Dublin, while in preparation for the Autumn Nations Cup and next weekend’s full round of final Six Nations matches, Scotland take on an always boisterous Georgia and France and Wales get to know each other again in Paris. If that’s not enough for you, the new European Kings Exeter Chiefs see if they can do the double in the English Premiership as well as some exciting PRO14 matchups.

For us though all eyes are on Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris this weekend as the groundwork gets laid for an exciting few weeks of Test Rugby ahead. Scotland field an exceptionally strong team against Georgia tomorrow, which is clearly intended to lay down a marker for their final Six Nations clash with Wales the following weekend. Meanwhile Ireland host Italy in Dublin with an equally strong lineup in preparation for what should be a titanic struggle with France the following Saturday. Lastly, a daunting looking Welsh side meet a rather capable looking French squad in Paris.

Lots to look forward to and lots to look back on from last weekend.

First up quick recap of last weekend’s excitement and then a look ahead to this weekend’s action.

Bledisloe 2

Australia after a promising start reverted back to form, and that form is definitely not positive. Sure they held their own in the first half, but once centre Matt Toomua left the field due to injury towards the end of the half, Australia rapidly started to lose composure and structure particularly in the key pivot between 10 and 12. Meanwhile New Zealand clearly started to shake off the cobwebs from their previous encounter and unleashed some terrifying new talent in the process – be afraid of Caleb Clarke (VERY AFRAID!!!).

Sadly though we were to be disappointed as we were hoping for an even contest. In the second half New Zealand reverted to type and came out of the blocks at breakneck speed. When the All Blacks score in the opening 2 minutes of a second half the writing is usually on the wall for the opposition and last Sunday in Auckland was no exception. Australia sadly reverted to their form of old under the Cheika era and started to panic. They proceeded to chuck the ball around wildly with little sense of purpose or control and their discipline went out the window. New Zealand went on a try scoring blitz for the first 13 minutes of the second half and effectively sealed the lid on an inevitable Wallaby defeat. The All Blacks dominated proceedings even though the final quarter of the match saw no further points for either side. There was a spirited if at times shambolic fightback from Australia, but New Zealand had rattled Australia so badly in the opening stanzas of the second half, that they could afford to take their foot off the pedal for the remainder of the match and simply shore up their defenses. The Wallabies made several hopeless charges over the top but the All Blacks were content to man their trenches and let the Australians run around to no avail in no-man’s land.

As depressingly familiar as Australia’s performance was last Sunday and as clinical as the All Blacks were in comparison, we’d still argue that there is life in this new Wallaby outfit under Coach Dave Rennie. The next two matches on home soil for Australia will need to be approached with caution by New Zealand. There is the potential for a great Wallaby side here if managed and coached properly, something they have lacked with any degree of consistency for the last ten years. New Zealand have set out their stall and despite some question marks about new Coach Ian Foster, he certainly delivered on the hallowed ground of Eden Park (if he hadn’t he might be out of a job right now). He is blessed with some extraordinary raw talent and some very wise heads to guide the ship – Sam Cane has effortlessly stepped into the shoes of the likes of Kieran Reid and Ritchie McCaw. The All Blacks proved last Sunday that any talk of New Zealand losing their edge is complete and utter nonsense, and when you’ve got a guy like this your argument is pretty convincing.

Heineken Cup Final

As mentioned above, we revelled in what was one of the best Heineken Cup finals we can remember in a long time on Saturday.

Exeter capped off a dream run of ten years and in the process showed us just what hard work and graft in our sport can still produce. Racing 92 probably had the worst opening 15 minutes of many a season – but what a comeback to keep the game balanced on a knife edge until the very last whistle. As finals rugby goes it’s going to be hard to beat!

However, all credit has to go to Exeter who showed us what a remarkable squad they have become. That final ten minutes which saw them reduced to fourteen men, was the stuff of legends. Racing proceeded to launch a constant assault on the Exeter defenses which required every player to put their body on the line to a man. It was heroic in no uncertain terms and had all of us on the edge of our seats for nine very long minutes. Their superhuman efforts were rewarded by them being able to work the ball back downfield at the death, and earn a penalty as an exhausted Racing side finally realized that there was just no way of containing a side that seemed to be a walking advertisement for Red Bull. The Frenchmen’s discipline slipped and calm as you may, Exeter slotted the penalty kick, we remembered how to breathe and another epic chapter in the Heineken Cup finals saga was written.

We wish Exeter all the best for their Premiership final exploits this weekend against Wasps and have a hunch they are going to make it the double. Our hearts go out to Racing who in their third Heineken Cup final were once again denied the ultimate prize. How different it could have been if that opening 15 minutes hadn’t been such a shambles for them and from scrum half Teddy Iribaren in particular. Although Finn Russell had a blinder of a game at times, even he committed some schoolboy mistakes which left us dumbfounded – one in particular that led to a superb intercept from Jack Nowell and a try for Exeter. Exeter had clearly done their homework on Russell’s wild card factor, and more often than not knew when he was likely to try something outrageous and were there to take advantage and pressure him into silly errors of judgement.

In short it was riveting stuff and in case you missed it, here it is in a nutshell.

Scotland vs Georgia – Friday, October 23rd – Edinburgh

Either Scotland is suffering from a depth crisis or Coach Gregor Townsend intends to make a statement with a bang in Scotland’s first return to action since COVID-19 brought things to a premature halt. We would have thought that he would have blooded some lesser known talent for this one and saved the really big guns for the Six Nations showdown with Wales next weekend. Instead he has decided to get match fit the team he clearly hopes will give the Men in Red something to think about in Llanelli next weekend. All things considered you can’t really argue with his logic.

As for Georgia, what you see is what you get, a seasoned brutal bunch of forwards, many of whom have last names that would qualify them as extras for the latest Godzilla film, with plenty of game time in France’s top league under their belts. Couple that to a group of mercurial backs who have been known to do remarkable things – ask any Canadian player who may not remember this guy so fondly, and it is safe to say that Georgia as the undisputed kings of Tier 2 European rugby are no pushover. Their exposure to the forthcoming Autumn Nations Cup is something that will do their squad development no end of good. Consequently they will be wanting to make their own statement on Friday and then some.

In short, we don’t know what to expect from this encounter, but interesting is certainly an adjective that comes to mind. We sadly don’t know enough about the current Georgian squad to offer any kind of informed opinion, but suffice to say they have been craving the big stage for a long time now and must be delighted as we are for them about the prospect of the next six weeks, and will put maximum effort into making it count.

As for Scotland, it’s a good squad plain and simple. The biggest talking point is obviously the return to the fold of fly half Finn Russell after the drama of he and Coach Gregor Townsend’s spat during the Six Nations earlier this year. Politics and emotions aside, Scotland know they have a remarkable talent in Russell. Put aside the poorly executed downright recklessness he is prone to at times, and as seen in the recent Heineken Cup final. However, revisit that match and behold some of his brazen audacity and ability to turn a game completely upside down for the opposition in the blink of an eye, and he suddenly becomes every Coach’s favorite problem child. In short, a genuine talent that simply needs to be further refined. Whether Townsend is the man to tame this wild child for the benefit of the Scottish jersey remains to be seen, but Scottish fans will be delighted to see him back in the mix, even if he starts on the bench tomorrow.

As for the rest of the Scottish lineup, there are so many Lineout favorites in there it’s just our fantasy league Scottish 15. In particular, expect that Scottish back row to be one of Georgia’s worst nightmares tomorrow. Hamish Watson is in our current world XV, and Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson are such rapidly rising Scottish stars, expect them to be boarding a flight to South Africa next year with the Lions. It’s a solid and exceptionally workmanlike front five and linking them to the backs is a quick and talented half back pairing in Adam Hastings and Ali Price. South African Duhan van der Merwe gets his first Scottish jersey after impressing the selectors with his performances with Edinburgh. Shoring everything up at the back is Mr. Excitement on the wing Graham Darcy and the always reliable and pacy Blair Kinghorn. In short a formidable starting XV with plenty of X-factor on the bench. Scotland should ultimately win comfortably but if you’re interested in the Autumn Nations Cup then this foretaste is something you won’t want to miss.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday, October 24th – Dublin

Like Scotland, Ireland field a powerhouse side to hopefully dispatch Italy with ease and come away with a healthy points haul to at least give them some breathing room to compete for a strong finish in the last round of the Six Nations – made more challenging by a trip to Paris next weekend. However, don’t ask us about the exclusion of John Cooney from Ireland’s plans. We are still scratching our heads about the Ulster scrum half’s omission from Ireland’s squad by Coach Andy Farrell. Cooney has been setting pitches alight in Europe, much more so than the increasingly pedestrian Conor Murray. Jamison Gibson-Park who although part of the Leinster power machine, has yet to impress in an Irish jersey and makes his debut Saturday at Cooney’s expense. However, in Farrell’s defence, he has included some very exciting youngsters such as the Leinster power trio of winger Hugo Keenan and back rowers Caelan Doris and Will Connors. We would argue that he has chosen to be a bit Leinster heavy, but in fairness you might as well keep a unit that works together.

Italy also bring a solid squad to Dublin, but we have to confess to being surprised at the omission of Zebre’s Frederico Ruzza from the back row, even if it was from the bench. Instead the Zebre man sees duty tomorrow against Leinster in the PRO14. We haven’t seen enough of Italy since the COVID-19 lockdown, so it’s hard to judge where they really are at. Despite Ruzza’s exclusion it’s an impressive Italian back row with the likes of Jake Polledri, Bram Steyn and Sebastian Negri – a unit not to be taken lightly. Italy’s backs, while not as flash or solid in defense as their Irish counterparts, can still lay on some flair when needed. In short, it’s not a bad Italian team, but one that ultimately Ireland should comfortably get the measure of.

A big question mark for us, is the shift of Jacob Stockdale from the wing to fullback in the absence of the injured Jordan Larmour for Ireland. We are just not convinced by Stockdale’s defensive capabilities whatsoever, add to that the fact that he seems to have taken his foot right off the pedal in terms of his try scoring ability and if we were in Andy Farrell’s shoes we’d be feeling more than a little concerned. Italy bring with them some potent strike threats that could easily throw an out of position Stockdale off his game.

Ireland need to come away with maximum points on Saturday in order to ensure a strong finish to this year’s Six Nations campaign, and go well above and beyond a mere bonus point. However, against Italy they have a bad habit of underestimating their opponents and coming away with the bare minimum – something which just won’t do on Saturday. They simply have to be targeting 50 points plus as their starting point, and we say that in no disrespect to Italy, and the Azurri are more than capable of spoiling Ireland’s designs in that respect. In last year’s campaign, Ireland had the same goal, but instead left Rome with a mere 26 points and at times were made to work especially hard for them as well as fluffing their lines on numerous occasions, which the Italians made sure they paid for and that was with the legendary Joe Schmidt in charge of the Men in Green.

Ireland should do well by a comfortable margin on Saturday, but often they have a bad habit of looking one game beyond them at the expense of what’s in front of them. Italy will surely be hoping that the Men in Green are assuming that Saturday’s encounter is a mere warmup for the big event in Paris a week later. If Ireland do so then Italy could ensure that it will be another Six Nations that the four proud provinces would rather consign to the dustbin of memories.

France vs Wales – Saturday, October 24th – Paris

I was lucky enough to watch the Six Nations clash between these two back in February on the French side of St.Martin in the Caribbean with an exceptionally enthusiastic group of French supporters. The thriller in Cardiff was well worth the price of admission, and Wales will be travelling to Paris with a score or two to settle. France hadn’t won in Cardiff since 2010, and the manner in which they did so in February proved that this is a French team once more on the rise and just in time for the World Cup they will be hosting in three years time. It was an even contest in February and expect more of the same. In case you missed it, here’s a quick refresher course.

The crowds may be absent but we doubt that it will detract from the intensity these two sides are likely to bring to this encounter. Of the two though France have more to lose, with the risk of injury potentially scuppering their front row grid race with England for Six Nations glory a week later. Consequently, France may hold a bit more back than Wales on Saturday, as a loss in this match is not exactly the end of the world, given that their eyes will be clearly on the main prize showdown with Ireland in Paris a week later.

Wales bring a team to Paris that can give France a world of hurt both physically and mentally. The only potential weak link we can see in Welsh armor could be their front row. Otherwise from 4-15 this is not a group of Welsh lads that you would want to meet in a dark alley in Swansea late on a Saturday night. Thor and Superman are represented in the second and back rows by Alun Wyn-Jones and Justin Tipuric respectively. In the backs it’s all pace, power and out and out reliability under pressure with Dan Biggar being the kind of number ten Wales have missed for so long. We thought that fullback Leigh Halfpenny is not quite at his best these days, and seemed to struggle against France last time out, so expect to see France’s Romain Ntamack make sure that the Welsh 15 is under constant pressure on Saturday. Wales have a handy bench, and perhaps with nothing at stake for the Welshmen in this one, it may give rapidly rising new talent, winger Louis Rees-Zammitt, a chance to translate the form that has turned heads at club level into a world class performance.

France, ever since Fabien Galthie took over as Coach, have finally started to look like those glorious French sides of the 90s and early 2000s – hardly surprising since he was one of the players that made those teams so special. French flair is finally back with a vengeance, and as an added bonus is often allied to a clearly defined plan of attack. French defense has continued to improve, and the addition of a certain Welshman by the name of Shaun Edwards has only reinforced it. Ally all of this to a halfback pairing that is barely off its training wheels in terms of age, but is already world class and then some. In short, France is veritably humming right now. If they can build on and carry this momentum all the way to 2023, then defeating them at their own World Cup is going to be problematic to say the least. France finally look like a team again, as opposed to an eclectic group of outlandishly talented but ultimately disorganized individuals.

However, we can’t help feeling that with a significant portion of French minds on next Saturday and potential Six Nations glory, they may not bring their A game to the Stade de France this Saturday. We don’t doubt they will entertain, but may be less focused on the win and more on avoiding injuries and refining structures for the big show with the Irish. Wales on the other hand will be under no such pressure, other than injuries possibly being at the back of their mind ahead of a challenging Autumn Nations Cup fixture list, and a considerably thinner depth pool in terms of talent than some of their counterparts.

If we were to have a bet on this one we’d give it to Wales, even with the Paris factor. France may miss the crowd, but Wales will no doubt be relieved that there aren’t 80,000 Frenchmen having something to say about their every move, allowing them a freedom and confidence they rarely get in the Paris cauldron. Either way make sure you catch the action as it will tell us all a great deal about what to expect about next weekend’s final round of the Six Nations.

Enjoy the weekend everyone, and here’s hoping for some stellar oval ball entertainment!

Test Rugby is finally back after far too long and what a treat we were given as Australia and New Zealand provided us with a thrilling albeit rain soaked encounter in Wellington’s “cake tin”. After being less than slightly inspired by Super Rugby Australia, we were riveted by a Wallaby team that turned up in New Zealand wanting to play, and what’s more play with style. In short what a difference a Coach makes. Unlike the Michael Cheika era, this looked like a cohesive bunch of enthusiastic and talented players who had a pretty good idea of what they were trying to achieve despite the elements and the best efforts of the All Blacks. The proof of the pudding will be at Eden Park this weekend, but for Australian supporters it must have been truly refreshing, and for the rest of us made Australia/New Zealand contests worth watching again!

The long awaited conclusion to the 2019/20 Champions Cup season finally takes place this Saturday as England’s favorite upstart team Exeter have their first shot at lifting the Heineken Cup. Meanwhile France’s Racing 92 make their way to their third final, hoping that “third time’s a charm” really does ring true for them this weekend.

Today we learnt that South Africa will NOT be participating in this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship. It didn’t exactly come as a surprise but is still regrettable, especially as many of the reasons being cited for it, could also apply to Argentina who still are participating in the tournament. However, we don’t think as some are surmising that it is a further sign that South Africa may be moving North of the Equator to the Six Nations, even if its provincial sides are now joining European competitions instead of Super Rugby.

So with lots to talk about, here are our thoughts on a weekend you are not going to want to miss!

Heineken Cup Final – Racing 92 vs Exeter – Saturday, October 17th – Ashton Gate – Bristol

The weekend kicks off in style with a Heineken Cup final – what more could you ask for? This one should be a cracker. Two very inventive sides meet in Bristol for what should be a highly entertaining match, with plenty of flair from both sides. Two Scottish legends face off against each other in Racing 92’s Finn Russell and Exeter’s Stuart Hogg. The Championship’s top try scorer Exeter’s Sam Simmonds will be on hand to weave his own magic tied to some impressive brute force. England fans will be looking to see Exeter centre Henry Slade continue his run of form, while Racing’s back line has the potential to score tries from anywhere in the park, especially once centre Virimi Vakatawa develops a head of steam.

Racing 92 have been here before but somehow have yet to lift any silverware. Exeter on the other hand are the new kids on the block. Dominating the English Premiership in the last few years, the team’s meteoric rise through the ranks has been impressive to watch. Coupled to some big name signings, this is now a team to be reckoned with and then some. Despite Racing’s lack of success at the Heineken Cup’s final hurdle, they must surely arrive full of confidence after their demolition of a very gritty Saracens side. Will the experience of being at the Heineken’s big show favor Racing or will mavericks Exeter continue to turn heads as they have done all season, and currently remain the only undefeated team in the Championship.

We think up front Exeter should be able to boss the Frenchmen around, though Racing’s Hooker Camille Chat caused all sorts of problems for Saracens in the semi-finals. However, Exeter just looks the more complete unit from 1-8, with better control in the set pieces. With the likes of Jonny Gray and Sam Simmonds in the mix, Racing will really need to keep their composure in the discipline stakes on Saturday.

However, we can’t help feeling that what will really set these two teams apart is the half back combinations, and here we are handing the ball back to Racing. At 9 and 10, Racing have so much pace and imagination in Teddy Iribaren and Finn Russell that they are likely to keep Exeter guessing all afternoon and deny them the kind of platform where the English side’s mastery of the set pieces could prove vital. Racing should be able to force Exeter to constantly have to reset their defensive structures, if Russell and Iribaren are allowed space in which to operate. Given the fact that both have an eye for even the slightest of gaps, Exeter will need to be sharp in covering these two mischief makers on Saturday.

We’d argue the back lines are evenly matched. Whatever Exeter’s Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade can do, well Racing’s Vakatawa, Imhoff and Zebo can do too. Nowell and Hogg may be quicker out of the blocks than their French counterparts, but once either Imhoff or Vakatawa have built up a head of steam they are almost impossible to stop, especially the French Fijian who has the potential to carve off huge chunks of Exeter’s midfield defence. If Exeter don’t dominate possession and the set pieces which we’d argue they are well placed to do, then this could end up being a very free flowing game but our money is on the Frenchmen causing the most damage allied to their pair of tricksters in the halfback department.

Two very exciting and evenly matched teams should make for a highly entertaining final on Saturday, and hopefully not the kind of slugfest that finals can often degenerate into. The weather looks set to favor a running game, and the teams boast a host of characters able to provide just that. Impossible to call, but somehow we feel that Racing 92 might just find that at long last – third time around really is lucky!

Bledisloe Cup 2 – New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, October 17th – Eden Park – Auckland

What a truly remarkable game of Test Rugby last weekend, capped off by an epic final seven minutes! If you’re like us, we were so thrilled that the return of International Test Rugby provided us with such a memorable match.

First off though I think it’s fair to say we owe Australia an apology. We had in many ways written them off before the opening whistle, but they arrived in Wellington determined to play, and one could argue that in many ways they were the better team on Saturday. If Rieko Ioane’s blatant foot in touch in the opening stanzas of New Zealand’s first try had been caught by Australian referee Angus Gardner, then Australia would be travelling to Eden Park tomorrow with a few fingertips already resting lightly on the treasured Trans Tasman Cup.

What really struck us though was what a difference a Coach makes. We make no apologies for harboring a distinct dislike of former Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika whose Trumpesque style of coaching Australia clearly wrought havoc on their fortunes in the Test arena. New Coach New Zealander Dave Rennie, so far seems to be a breath of fresh air. Australia finally looked like they had a game plan, an idea as to how to execute it and a team working as one – qualities which were blatantly absent during the Cheika years. We have been rather puzzled by Australia’s decline, and although we perhaps have not been too flattering about the Wallabies exploits on the field in the last few years, we genuinely miss the class Wallaby sides of the 90s. Let’s face it John Eales still has cult status here at the Lineout as one of the finest the game has ever seen. Consequently, we really liked what we saw last Saturday, and some of Australia’s inventiveness and speed with ball in hand was a joy to watch and long overdue.

However, one swallow doesn’t make a summer as the saying goes. Both sides were clearly rusty and the All Blacks got off to their traditionally slow start, but in terms of both teams fielding new Coaches, you’d have to favor Rennie over the All Blacks Ian Foster. Admittedly anyone would look good after Cheika, but former All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen leaves behind a legacy that many doubt Foster will be able to uphold. Nevertheless, the All Blacks are rarely poor twice and never at Eden Park the site of tomorrow’s encounter.

The weather will be a lot more favorable tomorrow than it was in Wellington and New Zealand are likely to look a lot sharper than they did last weekend. They got bossed around by Australia in the set pieces except at lineout time, where they failed to assert their traditional dominance, had far less possession than Australia and their backs rarely looked assured – and don’t even get us started on Rieko Ioane’s ridiculous showboating which ultimately sees him relegated to the bench for tomorrow’s match. In short, it was a stodgy All Blacks performance, and when was the last time you’ve heard a New Zealand effort described in those terms?

This week though sees the return of key playmaker Beauden Barrett to the fullback position after Damian McKenzie ran around a lot last weekend but actually achieved very little. Rieko Ioane sits this one out on the bench, but to be honest we are not sure he is centre material and it will be interesting to see if, when he does come on, he replaces the out of position Jordie Barrett on the right wing. We are pleased to see Anton Liennert-Brown get a start at center as in our opinion he has been one of New Zealand’s most consistently under rated talents of the last five years. All that aside though New Zealand really need to lead from the front, and the only person who really put in a consistent and admirable showing last weekend was flanker and Captain Sam Cane. Everyone else had flashes of brilliance but the end result was still a disjointed and at times lackluster display. Even New Zealand’s one man version of Hurricane Irma, Ardie Savea, was struggling to make the headlines last weekend.

Australia ring a few changes, and we have to be honest and say that the choice of Ned Hanigan for Pete Samu who did seem to be a weak link in an otherwise impressive Wallaby back row last weekend, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, with Michael Hooper at his absolute best last weekend on the occassion of his 100th cap and Harry Wilson being the Wallaby find of the year, then all is not lost though expect to see New Zealand’s Ardie Savea take it up a few notches this weekend.

Nic White had a blinder of a game last weekend at scrum half for Australia, and fly half James O’Connor has finally come of age. Between the two of them they often made their All Black counterparts Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith look irrelevant, despite Smith’s try.

New Zealand’s back line was rarely to be seen last weekend, and centre Jack Goodhue’s new haircut made him almost anonymous, perhaps he needed that mullet after all to be effective? Australia on the other hand were electric in this part of the park. The two wingers newcomer Filipo Daugunu and traditional big gun Marika Koroibete were a nightmare for the Kiwi defences, while the centre pairing of Matt Toomua and Hunter Paisami looked solid. Tom Banks may pale into insignificance against the legendary Beauden Barrett this weekend, but there is definitely some potential in the Wallaby youngster at fullback.

Despite a rather off color performance from New Zealand last weekend, it’s hard to see them coming short two weeks in a row and at the hallowed ground of Eden Park to boot. In short the All Blacks just don’t lose there, and haven’t since 1994 when France managed to catch them off guard. Australia on the other hand haven’t won there in 33 years – 1986 to be precise. This is not a poor All Black team, and let’s face it, one awash with talent. Saturday’s lineup is the kind of fantasy draw for most Coaches. Consequently, Australia need to take the game they played last Saturday and up it by at least another five gears. As impressed as we were by their initial outing last weekend, we sadly fear that a harsh dose of reality is in store for Rennie and his Wallaby charges this Saturday.

Last but not least a special shout out has to go to Reece Hodge for providing the spark for the most remarkable seven minutes of Test rugby we’ve seen in a long time. If ever a rugby player’s facial expressions summed up Australian attitude then Reece Hodge gets the Oscar. The Australian utility back’s boot is the stuff of legend, but that final kick at goal last Saturday in appalling conditions was a tall order and then some. But there’s Hodge who steps up and clearly is thinking “well mate it’s a bit of a long shot, but what the hell let’s have a go!” And what a go he had! The agonizingly near miss off the posts and the resulting seven minutes of frantic rugby it set in motion for both sides will stay in the memory banks for years to come. So in short, well done Reece and any chance of the same again this weekend?

And then there were three – The Rugby Championship

We can’t say we were completely surprised, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t take the news of South Africa’s withdrawal from this year’s Rugby Championship as a crushing disappointment. Knowing the turmoil, both economic and social that is going on in South Africa at the moment, with COVID-19 as a catalyst, it is probably the right and judicious thing to do, but a Rugby Championship without the Springboks just isn’t the same. Now it’s just the Bledisloe Cup with Argentina on tour in Australia. You could argue that Argentina’s players are facing the same conundrum as South Africa’s squad in terms of game time and exposure to top level rugby, so all the more credit to the South Americans for taking the bold decision to participate. As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge Pumas fans and are really looking forward to seeing them in action again this fall, even if they may not be playing on a level playing field with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts who will be well and truly battle hardened by the time of the Pumas first match with the All Blacks on November 14th.

As for talk of this being the first step in the Springboks ultimate departure from the Rugby Championship in favor of the Six Nations, we think that is simply hot air. Annual fixtures between South Africa and New Zealand are one of the pillars of the global Test calendar, eagerly anticipated and watched by rugby fans around the world. The draw of such matches and the revenue generated is simply too strong to forfeit. South African Super Rugby sides may well now gravitate to European competitions, but South African and New Zealand fans, as well as many neutrals, still regard fixtures between the Springboks and All Blacks as key indicators of who’s who in rugby’s global pecking order. Fans in both countries ultimately judge where their teams are at on the basis of such encounters. In short, we may not get to see it this year, but expect to see South Africa back with a vengeance for the 2021 Rugby Championship unless the Six Nations governing bodies are willing to bankroll the costs of Springbok rugby from now till the next World Cup – which we somewhat doubt.

So everyone have an absolutely outstanding rugby day tomorrow, details on how to watch are all over on the TV listings page. Once again a big shout out to everyone who wrote in to TSN and DAZN last week to remind them that there are a few rather important events happening over the next few weekends in relation to the oval ball. If our so called leading sports networks want to call themselves broadcasters of top flight international sporting competitions (Korean domestic baseball aside) then they have a bit of work to do.

COVID-19 has sadly thrown a massive spanner into all aspects of our lives in 2020, and we are clearly a long way from being out of the woods yet. We don’t for a second deny the gravity of the situation, but by the same token are longing for some sense of normality to return. The effects of the pandemic on our beloved sport have been no less severe albeit for all the right safety reasons. However, the Unions themselves are likely to look back on this period as one of bungling and incompetence in maintaining the sport’s global presence. We the fans are left to sort through the wreckage, while players face an uncertain future and a game that seems to have become rather rudderless in terms of its global direction. In short the State of Rugby Union for the forseeable future is messy to say the least and much of the progress made towards establishing it as a world game in the last ten years could well be lost.

In this our first post since lockdown put rugby on hold back in March, we take a wander around the world and express our concerns as to where the game finds itself.

Europe

It’s still the sport’s biggest market, yet in terms of the international aspect of the game it’s a disaster. The pandemic has seen the already simmering war between the Unions and clubs reach new heights of ferocity. Meanwhile broadcasting rights have become so convoluted that many fans in a time of deep personal financial insecurity are faced with the choice of putting food on the table or taking out a raft of paid subscriptions to watch the game they love. This may be a short term cash fix for clubs and Unions, but to us it smacks of desperation and a complete lack of marketing sense. Bury the game behind a multitude of different paywalls and ultimately the fans disappear.

In France and England, the clubs are at their usual loggerheads with the Unions in terms of player access and schedules. The players themselves are in danger of becoming mere commodities to be used and abused, till ultimately the player base dries up as prospective players come to the conclusion that a short term career riddled with life changing injury risks and mediocre earnings is just not worth it. The average professional player in England or France is likely to be completely burnt out by an insane club and country schedule in the course of a mere five years.

In the Celtic leagues, the situation seems a bit better in terms of player management, but with the Scottish, Irish and Welsh Unions teetering on the brink of insoluble bankruptcy you wonder how long they can hold out to the financial pressures and considerations that are driving their French and English counterparts. As for Italian rugby well it would appear they may be the best placed to survive as the game has been in permanent crisis in the country since 2000, and as a result if they’ve survived this long well how’s another messed up year any different?

For the smaller countries though such as Georgia, Romania, Spain and Portugal the next twelve months could well undo all the progress made in the last few years in terms of getting themselves on the international map. Spain and Romania already had serious issues with the sport’s governing bodies prior to the pandemic for breaking player eligibility rules and both nations could well face a further slide into oblivion. Georgia at least gets a much need shot of exposure in the forthcoming Autumn Nations Cup, and a good performance here could solidify the progress they’ve made over the last few years, even if it may not address the overall cash crisis that World Rugby is facing and therefore the limited pot with which to help emerging nations like Georgia.

Add to the mix an unholy battle for broadcasting rights, and your average viewer now has to have a bare minimum of at least three paid up subscriptions to catch this fall’s action. Meanwhile said broadcasters all have put geoblocks on their content for viewers like us in Canada where there are no agreements on broadcasting rights, leaving us with even less options to catch the action than our European friends. As the game gets hidden behind a myriad of paywalls in Europe, the sports global audience looks set to shrink even further.

SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina)

If you thought Europe was messy the picture is not much clearer South of the Equator, and in Argentina’s case rather alarming to say the least.

SANZAAR managed to get Super Rugby in Australia and New Zealand back underway over the summer, but limited it to only domestic competitions. Still it was a start and while the Australian competition was nowhere near the quality of its New Zealand counterpart, rugby fans did finally get to see some rugby of a relatively high standard once again.

South Africa unfortunately suffered the most dramatic effects of any of the four countries when it came to the pandemic. The country already in an economic crisis before COVID-19 really took hold, was brought to a standstill by the virus. Rugby found itself very much on the backburner in terms of the country’s list of priorities. Add in the fact that the pandemic made the long distance travel required to South Africa completely out of the question, and suddenly South African rugby franchises found themselves very much out in the cold. Even when Super Rugby resumes in its new format for 2021, South African franchises will have no part in it. Instead, South Africa’s Super Rugby sides will be plying their trade in Europe’s PRO 14 from now on. While the travel times are still significant, at least they won’t have time changes to deal with. The other positive is that the PRO 14 will benefit from the addition of some quality sides like the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls. The injection of two Super Rugby castoffs the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have added little to the PRO 14 in the last two years, but at least with the new teams there is some scope here to make the PRO 14 a genuinely competitive international league.

However, we have our doubts that either South Africa or Argentina are likely to set the world alight at this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship, now to be held in Australia in November and December. Given the respective turmoil in both countries and lack of playing time for players compared to their Australian and New Zealand counterparts, and the generally poor quality of Australian rugby in general this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship looks likely to be a very one sided affair in favor of men wearing black jerseys.

In the case of Argentina, the picture is particularly bleak. After only two short years in Super Rugby, Argentina now finds itself and its players with little opportunity to play the game at home, as the Jaguares no longer have a Super Rugby berth. For us perhaps more than anything else this has been the most bitter pill to swallow as a result of all the changes brought about by COVID 19. Argentina’s progress through the ranks in the last ten years has been nothing short of remarkable as they have welded themselves into a potent International Test force feared by the world’s best. However, this has all come about by the increased exposure that Argentinian based players have had to first the Rugby Championship and then in the last two years Super Rugby. Sadly now though all that progress looks like it is going to be lost. Sure there are a lot of very talented Argentinian players in Europe and overseas and increasingly here in North America in the MLR, but the exposure they were getting at the Super Rugby level was proving invaluable to the development of a national squad as well as giving people in Argentina something to really get behind in terms of local professional rugby. We would be absolutely gutted to see Argentina lose their status as an international side to be reckoned with as a result of all of this, and with it all the hard work of the last ten years by players be undone in a matter of months.

Just like in Europe the broadcasting rights for the forthcoming Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series are a veritable minefield, and once again for us here in Canada we are in danger of missing it all. World Rugby really needs some leverage here to ensure that coverage of the global game is both accessible and affordable to fans around the world, and not slip back into its stereotyped image of a rich man’s sport.

Asia/Pacific

Once again the picture looks remarkably bleak with one exception – Fiji. For everyone else though there are more questions than answers.

The darlings and hosts of the last World Cup Japan, look like Argentina to be on the verge of taking some giant steps backwards. With little international exposure for them on the cards over the next year, despite a relatively robust domestic structure, Japan runs the risk of losing all the extraordinary progress made at the last World Cup. Furthermore, despite the developments in their domestic competition it is still foreign player top heavy with many overseas players seeing Japan as a short term cash fix – hardly conducive to the establishment of a strong domestic player base.

In the South Pacific, cash strapped unions in Samoa and Tonga are unlikely to get much help or exposure over the next year, resulting in a further decline in the competitiveness and skill levels of these proud rugby nations. Furthermore allegations of corruption and lack of concern for player welfare plaguing the Samoan Union are even less likely to be resolved in the near future further weakening this rugby nation who in the 90s was more than capable of World Cup upsets – just ask Wales.

The only country that seems to have been thrown a lifeline in all of this is Fiji. Fiji as always were one of the most entertaining sides at the most recent World Cup. A country whose players approach everything they do with their hearts on their sleeves, once more caught the hearts and minds of the global rugby public, and as a result find themselves along with Georgia included in this year’s Autumn Nations Cup in Europe. The exposure to the Six Nations giants over the course of six weeks, is something that Fiji has been craving for at least the last decade. The potential boost this will provide to an already highly talented squad will be fascinating to watch and bodes well for their future development. One of the few positives in an otherwise rather bleak autumn.

North America

Ironically, despite being unable to watch much of this fall’s action on TV here in Canada, our Southern neighbors are much better served through NBC Gold, there have been some recent positive developments here in the frozen North when it comes to rugby.

Although the MLR season was cancelled for 2020, 2021’s offering is shaping up to be a good one. Some big name signings have come to the MLR over the summer, former England Captain Chris Robshaw joins San Diego Legion, while our own Toronto Arrows announced the signing of all star Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet from Argentina and the appointment of former Wales Coach Rob Howley to the Coaching team. It could well be a cracking season next year, and let’s face it the Arrows were looking pretty sharp before this year’s season got cut short. So even if we won’t get to watch the big boys play out on our TV screens this fall/winter at the International level there is plenty to look forward to once the Arrows get back to work in February. As rugby in the big traditional markets continues to be in flux, the relatively stable climate in North America may contribute to some significant growth in professional rugby’s newest market, provided the continued level of investment and interest continue to expand.

In the meantime we’re hoping we’ll get to catch some of this weekend’s action in some shape or form, and will be returning to provide our more regular analysis of what we think were the talking points of the big games coming up. Take care everyone and let’s all stay positive and hope that the broadcasters in this country come to their senses!!!!!

WELL DONE EVERYONE – PERSERVERANCE PAYS OFF!!!! TSN IS NOW SHOWING THE BLEDISLOE GAMES OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKENDS!!!!! MORE ON THE TV LISTINGS PAGE!!!

Excuse the silence but some of us have been taking some well earned breaks in the sunshine to get away from the Canadian winter. I had the particular privilege of watching France’s outstanding victory over Wales, in a particularly lively bar surrounded by French rugby fans on the island of St. Martin. The Six Nations has been thrown into disarray by the growing Corona virus epidemic, and while we all thoroughly support the precautions being taken, it all seems rather ham fisted and runs the risk of throwing the end result of what has been an otherwise outstanding tournament into disarray.

Super Rugby is really starting to get into its stride, with interestingly enough after five rounds, South Africa’s Stormers sitting atop the table, albeit due to most of the South African conference having a game in hand over most of their main rivals from the New Zealand conference. However, this early on there are no undefeated teams after only five rounds which should mean this year’s festivities could be a tightly contested affair, but much like last year New Zealand teams seem destined to dominate proceedings but with a strong challenge from Argentina’s Jaguares and South Africa’s Sharks and Stormers.

What’s really put a spring in our step these last few weeks is the Toronto Arrows barnstorming start to their MLR season. Along with San Diego, the only undefeated team after the first four rounds, it’s looking good for our home town heroes. If they are this good on the road and the injury gods are kind to them, what a prospect Canadian rugby fans have in store for them once the Arrows return to Toronto in April for the majority of their remaining games!

Six Nations

You knew it was coming, and for good reason, but let’s be honest the Corona virus machinations affecting the final two rounds of the competition have taken some of the shine off what was turning out to be one of the most intriguing Six Nations post a World Cup we can remember in a long time. The calling off of the Ireland/Italy clash due to public health concerns this weekend is understandable, but it is hard to fathom why the game couldn’t be played behind closed doors as is being proposed for the Italy/England clash. That would have kept the tournament’s table intact in determining the ultimate winner. As it stands now with the Ireland/Italy match now postponed indefinitely, with some saying that the most likely date is the November International window, we won’t really know who the Champions are potentially till then. If France go on to beat both Scotland this weekend and Ireland next weekend then such arguments become null and void as they will be the only team who at this stage remain undefeated. Given France’s red hot form at the moment, this is a distinct possibility, but it is still a shame that the tournament officials and their respective unions and governments have been rather ham fisted in their response to the crisis, and no clear unanimity on how to proceed.

On that note if France do remain undefeated in their final two matches, then you could argue that most neutrals would not be overly disheartened, as Les Bleus have certainly endeared themselves to many of us this tournament. France is back with a vengeance and we’d argue have done better than anyone else what all the teams in the Northern Hemisphere desperately need to do – take your youth and embrace it and reward players whose form has merited them a place in the national squad. New Coach Fabien Galthie has brought the breath of fresh air that French rugby has been gasping for for so long – and it is certainly paying dividends. Backed up by a stellar coaching team including the legendary English defence Coach Shaun Edwards, France look mean, efficient and breathtakingly talented. They have easily been the most enjoyable team to watch so far, and France’s investment in its youngsters this Championship has been a model for the other unions to look to. The half back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Emile Ntamack has been the talk of the tournament, while back rower Gregory Aldritt has been one of its most impressive performers. We’ve always thought Captain and openside flanker Charles Ollivon had many of the characteristics of the legendary Olivier Magne, and so far this tournament Ollivon has led from the front and been no stranger to the try line. Throw in a set of backs that can turn and weave on a dime and this is the France of old, and we can’t wait to watch them in their final two outings.

England despite stumbling at their first hurdle in Paris to the French, have improved steadily as the tournament progressed. However, Scotland wasn’t really much of a test and the weather certainly didn’t help either side, though England made better use of the conditions. England simply resorted to the same playbook that saw them decimate Ireland last year and in the World Cup warm ups, something which the Irish for some reason best known to themselves seemed completely taken aback by for the third time in a row. Consequently, how much of a genuine Test England have had other than the French in this tournament is debatable. Of their remaining two fixtures, it’s only Wales that could potentially give them the kind of Test that could give them a benchmark of where England are right now. However Ireland, who England dispatched with ease a fortnight ago, managed to negate Wales’ supposed threats without too much difficulty in Dublin, and the Men in Red just don’t seem to be firing so far this year. England’s final clash with Italy, even if it does go ahead, should be a dead rubber, so as we say it’s difficult to really gauge where England are at post the World Cup. We’re not convinced by Eddie Jones selection choices especially at scrum half, and the jury is still out for us on Owen Farrell’s Captaincy – great when things are going well for England, but prone to unraveling in dramatic fashion when things aren’t – watch the France replay if you’re not convinced along with the World Cup final. England need to take a leaf out of France’s playbook and bring in some of their talented youngsters now and build a winning and youthful but experienced team for the next World Cup. That has to happen now and not two years down the road – and if not England will only have themselves to blame for yet another World Cup that ends in tears.

Last year’s Grand Slam heroes Wales, sadly look out of sorts this year. In many ways in 2020 they look a lot like Ireland post their 2018 successes. Wales had a stellar year in 2019 but much like Ireland in 2018 would appear to have peaked. Like Ireland they have some genuine talent in their youth but the new Coaching regime of Wayne Pivac seems to be struggling to get it to mesh. Their front row looks shambolic, their back row is clearly not gelling as a unit despite some extraordinary individual talent and their backs have lots of potential but it is just not being realized. In short, it’s hard to know what’s not working for Wales as on paper it should and then some. Their contest with England at Twickenham this weekend could be the match that leaves us with more than just a little egg on our faces, but as we put this out, we are not exactly stocking up on paper towels to clean up the mess. Our overriding impression with Wales is that they just look tired and like a team that has perhaps played just a bit too much rugby of late.

Ireland have blown hot and cold so much this tournament, that it’s almost impossible to know what is really going on in the Emerald Isle when it comes to the national team. Leinster continue to dominate the European club scene, but at a national level there is absolutely no consistency whatsoever. Coach Andy “Faz” Farrell may be a great guy to have a chinwag with in the locker and training rooms, but we are simply not convinced that any of that is really producing a plan that gets results on the pitch that would cause too many sleepless nights for the bigger teams. Although Ireland got their campaign off to a good start with a workmanlike win over a shambolic Scotland and a slightly more cohesive performance against a Welsh side that simply let Ireland get on with it, their implosion against an English game plan they had already seen twice in the space of a year was inexcusable. Ireland were utterly hopeless against England and once again looked like deer in the headlights in the face of a rampant and aggressive English onslaught. One they had already seen twice last year to the letter. There would appear to be no learning whatsoever going on in the Irish camp, coupled to the fact that their talented youth are wasted by Farrell’s insistence on sticking to some of his older players who just aren’t showing up. Don’t get us wrong – we’ve loved watching Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray’s exploits in an Irish jersey over the last few years – but even the most ignorant rugby observer could not deny that both of them are simply so far off the mark this year it is laughable. Ireland need to adopt the approach France has taken, as they have an abundance of talented players under 25 who need game time now – not in two years time. It’s highly doubtful that the Sextons and Murrays of this squad will make the next World Cup, so throw caution to the wind, roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with some serious squad development, even if that means taking a few ugly losses on the chin but learning from them in the process. At the moment we just feel that Ireland are learning absolutely nothing every time they run out onto the pitch and are just hoping that the opposition is a bit more clueless than they are. Given Ireland’s depth of talent that is criminal – plain and simple! Ireland can start to fix this by putting Conor Murray on the bench and starting John Cooney against France at nine – when Cooney came off the bench against England Ireland all of a sudden looked a completely different team.

Scotland’s off pitch soap operas continue, but they need to end and end quickly. Scotland is our underdog favorite here at the Lineout come the Six Nations, and are definitely “the little engine that could”. This is a team that is always capable of a big surprise when you least expect it, but sadly so far this year our belief and expectations have been stretched beyond belief. There is a good team in there somewhere but much like Wales it is just not firing at the moment, and the frustration is there for all to see. We really hope that beating Italy isn’t going to be their only highlight this tournament. Disgraced fly half Finn Russell probably knows Scotland’s French opponents better than anyone after his exploits with Racing 92 this year, and internal politics aside Scotland will miss him this Sunday. France traveled well to Cardiff and there is no reason to suppose they won’t do the same to Murrayfield.

Italy meanwhile, even with the Corona virus mayhem sadly affecting them more than any other Six Nations competitor, continue their traditional campaign for the Six Nations Wooden Spoon. A new Coaching regime hasn’t really done them much good, and after three truly turgid performances they have only managed to put a paltry 22 points on the scoreboard albeit against tournament darlings France. However, getting blanked by both Wales and Scotland is not exactly a convincing argument that Italy is progressing anywhere fast. We don’t really know what the answer is for Italy but in this their 20th year in the Six Nations you have to wonder for how much longer people will bother to continue asking, let alone be interested in a solution.

Super Rugby

Despite the half full stadiums, we have to admit as we always do, that there has been some hellishly entertaining rugby on display at times so far this year. What’s perhaps caught us most by surprise is that after five rounds it’s a South African team at the top of the tables. However, the three front runner teams from the New Zealand conference have only played four games, whereas the Stormers and Sharks who currently sit atop the points tables have five under their belt. In short expect it to all change this weekend, and normal service to resume with New Zealand teams once more asserting their dominance. However, it does look like this year’s competition is going to come down to a six horse race between three New Zealand teams, one Argentinian and two South African.

No we are not being dismissive of the Australian contingent in the tournament but so far, apart from the Brumbies, we’ve haven’t seen anything from Australia or Japan (home of the hapless Sunwolves who also are part of the Australian conference) that looks likely to give any of the six aforementioned teams too much to worry about. The Brumbies look the only Australian team likely to trouble the big guns this year and their win on the road against New Zealand’s traditional power house the Chiefs last weekend was a big confidence booster. But sadly for Australian teams this year we feel it’s going to be a case of take your big victories when you can find them but sadly they are likely to be few and far between against teams outside the Australian conference.

As mentioned above, with the three top New Zealand teams only having played four games after five rounds, they find themselves lagging behind their Argentinian and South African counterparts on the points table. However, as usual the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes all look like serious contenders for this year’s silverware. Nevertheless, all three sides don’t look quite as polished as they have in years gone by. All three should have easy wins this weekend, and it will be interesting to see how they build momentum for some much more challenging encounters at the end of the month.

In the South African conference, the Stormers find themselves at the top of the points table, but for us it is the Sharks and Argentina’s Jaguares who pose the more serious threat in the long run. Both teams are on fire with the Sharks in particular having a truly lethal set of backs. However, the Jaguares also look to be the surprise package again this year that they were in 2019. The loss of a key group of Pumas internationals to European clubs hasn’t seemed to have slowed them down, and of their two defeats so far this season only one was by more than three points. Argentina continues to be a hotbed of rugby talent and they continue to prove that they are very much a Tier 1 nation to be respected and worthy of their place at rugby’s top table.

Major League Rugby

Well how about them Arrows?!!!! What a terrific start it’s been to only their second season in Major League Rugby, and to top it all off they haven’t even played at home yet. If they can keep this form up to their first home game in Toronto on April 4th against the Utah Warriors, then what a season this promises to be.

The only other unbeaten team in the league so far is the San Diego Legion and Toronto will have the added advantage that their only encounter with the Californians prior to the playoffs will be at home in Toronto. There appears to be growing interest in the Arrows in Toronto, with live showings of their games at Hemingways bar in downtown Toronto being packed affairs.

There is no question that Toronto look a tight and well drilled unit this year. Their scrum is arguably the most devastating in the league, their lineout work is vastly improved over last season and they look a threat in the loose. They have a pacy and smart halfback contingent and their backs are just as quick and dangerous out wide as they were last year coupled to a solid centre pairing more than able to make inroads up the middle. In short, if the injury gods remain kind to Toronto for the rest of the season then this could be a very big year for the team. Having already dispatched last year’s Champions the Seattle Seawolves, there’s no reason to think the Arrows couldn’t go all the way this year. The impact of MLR success on Canada’s national team prospects this year and beyond could be very telling.

TV listings are over on the TV page for all this weekend’s Six Nations, Super Rugby and MLR action. Till next week enjoy a very tasty weekend ahead!

If you thought last weekend was pretty epic then this one coming up looks to be even better, with the added bonus of the Toronto Arrows getting their MLR campaign underway.

The Six Nations got off to a thrilling start and, despite the weather forecast for this Saturday, provides us two contests of titanic proportions to look forward to. Super Rugby also got underway and threw up plenty of surprises and we were pleased to see relatively healthy crowds in attendance and some very exciting rugby as always on display. Lastly, closer to home Canada’s first foray into professional rugby union gets into its second season as our own Toronto Arrows get their campaign underway in Texas.

In short LOTS to look forward to and plenty of talking points, so here’s what got us agreeing to disagree this week.

Six Nations

Six Nations post a World Cup have often tended to be slightly flat affairs, and this season threatened the same especially given the raft of wholesale changes going on in most of the squads. In reality however, last weekend was one of the best opening weekends we can remember in a while, and this year’s edition looks set to be a classic in the making.

Wales and Italy got us started and although it was a completely one-sided affair in favor of the Men in Red, it was still an entertaining contest. Although Italy didn’t get any points on the board they rarely looked like they were simply lying down and capitulating especially in the second half, despite the 42-0 scoreline. Wales though looked the business from start to finish and of all the six teams, would appear to be head and shoulders above the rest in terms of the favorites tag. Life under new Coach Wayne Pivac seems to be agreeing with them and some of the creativity we felt Wales have always had was finally allowed to run riot. Dan Biggar was clearly the best number ten in the competition so far, but Wales looked the complete package and a highly dangerous one at that. As regular visitors to these musings know we are MASSIVE fans of open side flanker Justin Tipuric, and he did not disappoint in this match as he put in a monumental shift that showcased his exceptional talents – in short one of the best in the business! Leigh Halfpenny also seemed to experience a second coming at fullback, while winger Josh Adams proceeded to cross the whitewash at will and debutant winger Johnny McNicholl adjusted to life at Test level exceptionally well. Given Ireland’s rather disjointed performance against Scotland, Wayne Pivac’s men must surely fancy their chances in Dublin this weekend. With foul weather promised, they may not be as expansive as they were against Italy, but they have a forward pack that is more than capable of slogging it out in the wet and a solid defense ably marshaled by Dan Biggar who is clearly at the top of his game.

Italy seemed to confirm widely held beliefs that they would once again be clasping the wooden spoon this year. After watching France dismantle a rather over rated England side last weekend, Italy must be feeling more than just a little nervous about their trip to the French capital this Sunday. Italy did have a few moments of promising creativity in the second half, but Wales had done so much damage in the first forty that although Italy entertained us at times, they rarely threatened and the Coaching staff will be concerned they left Cardiff without a point to their name. We’re not convinced that the Carlo Canna experiment worked at center and expect to see him returned to the number ten jersey this weekend albeit from the bench. There is some genuine talent in this Italian squad especially in the back line and the back row, but as mentioned last week, we really hope Coach Franco Smith returns second rower Federico Ruzza to the starting lineup for Italy this weekend, as his prowess in broken play off set pieces is a real asset to Italy’s ability to create opportunity when they need it the most.

The contest in Dublin between Ireland and Scotland was a high octane affair, but both sides still suffer from an ability to score tries, which could ultimately leave them both in the middle to the bottom of the pack this year. Scotland fluffed their lines all too often close to the try line, with Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg clearly having the most frustrating moment of the tournament as he knocked the ball on in what was otherwise a gift of a try. What Scotland did show us though was some truly bruising and intense physicality, which before the weekend was supposed to have been the preserve of England according to their Coach Eddie Jones. In many ways it was the weekend of those chosen to wear the number seven jersey, with the representatives of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France in said shirts all having massive performances. Scotland’s Hamish Watson was once again inspirational to his team as a one man wrecking ball and perhaps one of the hardest working individuals in Test Rugby – if you want intensity it doesn’t get much more intense than Watson with a full head of steam. Scotland didn’t seem to miss the presence of fly half Finn Russell too much as Adam Hastings provided them with plenty of creativity and a calm head to boot. For us though it was that Scottish pack which really stood out, they pushed Ireland around in the scrums and in the loose were an absolute nightmare to defend against, as well as shutting down any ideas Ireland had about scoring tries for the most part. England will need to up their game and then some if they are looking to get past a determined Scottish outfit that seems to have no problem giving as good as they get in the physical stakes department in the Murrayfield citadel in the wind and the rain. If Scotland play like they did in Dublin and cut out the errors and play to the conditions well, England could find themselves being very unhappy tourists.

Ireland need to score tries plain and simple if they are really going to get themselves back to their lofty heights of 2018. While the players have all been singing the praises of new Coach Andy Farrell, we saw very little in Ireland’s performance on Saturday that looked dramatically different from last year. Sure they did seem to be willing to try their hand at a degree of creativity that had perhaps been stifled under Farrell’s predecessor Joe Schmidt, but Ireland still for the most part looked predictable and flat. They have an exceptionally talented back line, but it appeared to be standing in the queue at the unemployment office for large periods of the match. Fullback Jordan Larmour was clearly itching to have a go all match but Ireland were rarely able to capitalize on some scintillating counterattacks from deep from the number 15. Fly half Johnny Sexton produced one of the best moments of the match with a trademark Sexton try, but for the rest of the match put in a relatively average performance. His partner scrum half Conor Murray looked flat for much of the game and produced endless box kicks that the Scots appeared to know were coming weeks in advance. There were some epic individual performances from CJ Stander in the back row, Tadgh Furlong in the front row and James Ryan continued in his role as the most reliable second rower Ireland has had since Paul O’Connell. But were we left with the impression that this was a much needed new look Ireland? In short – NO. If Ireland are going to cope with the red hot smoking gun that is Wales this weekend, then they need to make a massive improvement in terms of performance. The weather may or may not be their friend this weekend, but they need to focus as a unit much more, as they are now a collection of talented individuals unsure of what type of game they want to play.

The big talking point of the weekend though was without a doubt the dust up in the rain in Paris. Hello France, who under new Coach Fabien Galthie look exciting, refreshing and ridiculously capable. That first 55 minutes were simply mesmerizing as they handed England a 24-0 deficit. New Captain Charles Ollivon always had the potential for greatness in our opinion and he certainly didn’t disappoint with two fine tries in this match. Gregory Alldritt at number eight produced the kind of performance usually reserved for Welsh flanker Justin Tipuric while second rower Bernard le Roux made the English eat their words about their supposed physical prowess. Antoine Dupont made the point that he is likely to be the scrum half of the tournament despite a moment of sheer folly in the 79th minute, and France’s set of backs delivered and then some. However, this French team of relative youngsters did display that alarming French tendency to throw away a perfectly good lead by taking their foot off the gas. England came back at them through two one man rescue missions delivered by English winger Jonny May, and the final ten minutes were a fraught affair for French supporters who were suddenly getting an alarming sense of deja vu. France managed to hold it together but know they really need to tighten up the final quarter of their game, something that is a recurring deficiency for them, despite a truly world class opening sixty. They have a relatively easy training session with Italy this Sunday to get that right before a VERY challenging trip to Wales.

It was England though who perhaps provided the biggest talking point of the weekend. To say that it was an inept performance by the English in Paris would be putting it mildly. If it hadn’t been for the Superhero solo efforts of winger Jonny May, England would have limped away from Paris as the laughing stock of the Six Nations. Their cause wasn’t helped by the ridiculous rhetoric being spouted about physicality and putting the French to the sword being made by Head Coach Eddie Jones prior to the match. Yes we know that it’s all part of trying to psyche the opposition out these days but Jones idiotic and arrogant soundbites these days are rapidly becoming an embarrassment to both players and supporters alike. There are clearly those who like him and those who don’t, but we have to confess to falling into the latter camp. We are also not convinced of his coaching credentials, especially after his selection choices for this match which remain beyond baffling. England are clearly in danger of becoming the most over hyped team in Test rugby at the moment, especially when you put their 2019 season into perspective. Sure they made a World Cup final, but there’s no denying they didn’t quite show up for it and were utterly out played by South Africa. Yes they beat a poor New Zealand side in the semi-finals, and for the rest of it had a relatively easy path to that fixture in the pool and quarter-final stages – let’s be honest beating Australia in the quarters wasn’t exactly difficult as most teams could have managed it. To top it off they didn’t win the Six Nations last year and other than putting Ireland to the sword weren’t exactly awe inspiring and narrowly avoided some massive embarrassment courtesy of the Scots in the final game of the tournament.

England have enormous talent, make no mistake and even the team that journeyed to Paris would be the envy of most Coaches, were it managed properly. England have a golden opportunity to build towards the next generation with a new crop of young players, something France has clearly embraced with open arms. England has massive problems at scrum half, with Ben Youngs a consistent weak link in the chain and Willi Heinz likely to be well past his sell by date come the next World Cup. England has an extraordinary talent in Alex Dombrandt for the eight jersey yet for reasons best known to himself Eddie Jones decided to take one of the world’s best up and coming open side flankers in Tom Curry and shift him to number eight. England’s entire second and back row looked so unbalanced on Sunday it was almost laughable and France clearly couldn’t believe their good fortune. Owen Farrell continued to stick his head in the sand like some wounded ostrich as things unraveled for England and leadership went out the window as a result. Manu Tuilagi is too predictable at centre and is simply not long-term Test material due to his unfortunate run of luck with persistent injuries, while debutant fullback George Furbank got thrown in at the deep end and failed to rise to the occassion. England found a bit of their mojo once winger Jonny May decided to take matters into his own hands in the 57th minute, but prior to that we really weren’t quite sure where the “greatest ever rugby team in the making” to quote Jones actually was – not in Paris that’s for sure. Our heart goes out to English players and supporters who know they are far better than this and it remains to be seen if Paris was simply a blip on the radar or the beginning of England’s winter of discontent. We fear that their trip to Murrayfield this Saturday in the driving rain and a howling wind and cauldron of fervent Scottish supporters could well be something they might want to forget in a hurry. Jones has remained stubborn once more in his choices and perhaps he really does know something we all don’t, but we’re beginning to wonder if it’s more in the tea leaves than the playbooks.

Super Rugby

The season got off to an entertaining start last weekend, with some notable surprises. Perhaps the biggest talking points were Japan’s Sunwolves unexpected win over Australia’s Rebels and South Africa’s Stormers thrashing of traditional Super Rugby powerhouse New Zealand’s Hurricanes. Meanwhile New Zealand’s Crusaders and Argentina’s Jaguares got comfortable wins over Australia’s Waratahs and South Africa’s Lions respectively.

In the local derbies in each of the respective conferences, there were few surprises in New Zealand as the Chiefs emerged victorious over the Blues while in Australia the Brumbies got the better of the Reds in a feisty and entertaining match. In South Africa, the traditional rivalry between the Bulls and the Sharks provided a match which saw the Sharks the more accomplished side.

As mentioned the big surprise was the Sunwolves shock defeat of the Rebels, especially since the Sunwolves face their final season in Super Rugby with a very depleted squad and very few if any well known names. The Rebels on the other hand brought a Wallaby studded team to Fukouka but really struggled to get any traction against their Japanese hosts in an error strewn performance. The Rebels did manage a comeback in the second half but it wasn’t enough for a bonus point loss, and the Sunwolves now find themselves in the unique position of sitting atop the Australian conference with a bonus point win. Once again what that says about the actual state of Australian rugby is potentially alarming and it remains to be seen how competitive Australian teams will be this year both at Super Rugby and international level, given the continuing turmoil going on in the game at home.

The Stormers got off to a dream start as they eclipsed the Hurricanes 27-0 with Captain Siya Kolisi and scrum half Herschel Jantjies putting in some very impressive performances. Jantjies in particular is a remarkable player and expect to see the 23 year old Springbok lighting up pitches across the globe between now and the next World Cup. One negative of the game was an injury that will see Kolisi miss much of the Stormers regular season but the Stormers certainly don’t look short on talent this year. Despite some very big names in the Hurricanes squad, it was an exceptionally uncharacteristic error strewn performance from them, and it is rare to see such a quality side so utterly outclassed and outplayed. We doubt it will stay that way for long as there is just too much talent in the Hurricanes lineup, but it will certainly have rattled their confidence ahead of a difficult trip to Buenos Aires this Saturday.

The Stormers annihilation of the Hurricanes, wasn’t good enough to see them top the South African conference in the opening weekend, as that honor went to Argentina’s Jaguares. Despite missing a raft of big international stars who have been snapped up by European clubs the Jaguares exciting blend of youth and experience looked very much the finished product as they dismantled South Africa’s Lions in an almost leisurely fashion. They face a sterner test this weekend in theory against a wounded Hurricanes side, but we have a fairly strong hunch that they look set once again to go deep into the tournament this year which also bodes well for the Pumas once their season gets underway later in the year.

In short, despite some initial reservations we thoroughly enjoyed the opening round of this year’s tournament and look forward to plenty more.

Major League Rugby

It’s back, and promises to be even better than last year with 12 teams and a host of international big names added to some of the squads. The Toronto Arrows get their season underway this weekend against Austin Herd and both times these teams met each other last year Toronto came out on top. We expect more of the same this weekend, barring opening night nerves from both teams, and it should give Toronto some much needed confidence for their encounter with two times MLR defending champions the Seattle Seawolves in two weeks time. Just like last year Toronto will play their first 7 games on the road before returning to Toronto for an extended run of home games to accommodate Toronto’s inclement winter weather in February and March. TSN has the broadcast rights, so coverage of the games will be so much more consistent and better quality than last year, and we can’t wait for it all to get underway.

Enjoy and see you next week!

It’s here and for all intents and purposes it’s Christmas time for rugby fans around the world, as the world’s oldest annual rugby competition the Six Nations gets underway this weekend and for those with leanings towards the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby has its opening festivities. With plenty of new faces and sea changes in personnel, this could be one of the most interesting opening weekends post a World Cup, that both tournaments have seen in a long time.

Six Nations

As mentioned above, we are genuinely fascinated by the start of this year’s tournament. A new look France is for many taking center stage on Sunday. It’s a team that boasts perhaps one of the most exciting crops of young French talent that we’ve seen in years. Add to that a new dynamic coaching regime under Fabien Galthie that has seemingly got off to a very determined start in building for the World Cup in 2023, perhaps more so than any other team in the competition. France could well end up being the surprise package of the tournament, and although it may sound like a broken record that has never really been the hit song it promised, we can’t help feeling that there’s something potentially ominous about this French squad. They’ve got a capable and very mobile set of young energetic forwards and a solid albeit young halfback partnership with scrum half Antoine Dupont being an absolute nightmare for opposition defences. It’s that French set of backs though that really get the heart racing and is going to test the other Six Nations defenses to the limit at times if used creatively and given any kind of space.

We have to admit to some confusion though regarding Wales’ selections for their opening match against Italy. Italy despite a strong selection are the weakest side going into the tournament. Consequently wouldn’t it be a golden opportunity for Wales to blood Gloucester sensation winger Louis Rees-Zammit? Much to our amazement he doesn’t even make the bench. It is after all Wales at home, a ground they rarely seem to lose on these days. However, it is also new Coach Wayne Pivac’s first proper international outing with his charges, so perhaps we can understand his caution and need to make a good impression with some tried and trusted figures in what should be a fairly foregone conclusion in terms of results. He has given winger Johnny McNicholl his first cap, and consequently perhaps felt two new wingers was too much of a gamble despite their obvious talents. Seasoned Welsh supporters will also be eagerly awaiting the return of Taulupe Faletau at number 8. Arguably one of Wales’ most important players in recent years, the powerful forward had to miss out on the tournament last year as well as the World Cup due to injury.

Italy should be able to give Wales a gritty physical contest up front at times, but we fear that ultimately they will, especially away from home, inevitably be outclassed with a slick looking Welsh squad that has a strong sense of unity and familiarity to it. Furthermore, we are puzzled at the omission of second rower Federico Ruzza, who was our Italian player of last year’s tournament, who doesn’t even make the bench.

Ireland field an exciting blend of youth and experience, although many, ourselves included felt that Ulster’s John Cooney should have got the start over Conor Murray for this match. Murray may be the seasoned campaigner that new Irish Coach Andy Farrell would want guiding his forwards, but there is no denying that Cooney is the form player at the moment. Cooney will get his chance from the bench and it will be fascinating to see at what point Farrell decides to give the youngster his chance. All eyes will be on newcomer Caelan Doris as he gets his first Irish cap, and once more proves that Ireland have rudely healthy stocks of back rowers. Ireland desperately need to make a BIG statement in Dublin on Saturday, and prove to their supporters and critics that their disastrous run of form last year is behind them and that they have genuinely learnt from their mistakes. We feel the team running out at the Aviva is the kind of team that can do that and hopefully make Ireland a genuine contender once more for Six Nations silverware.

Scotland a bit like France are the great unknown this tournament in more ways than one. Their campaign gets underway Saturday in Dublin surrounded by all the makings of a soap opera. Rumors of dissent in the camp about Gregor Townsend’s coaching methods abound fueled largely by the Finn Russell fiasco. Scotland have plenty of talent make no mistake, but how cohesive they are as a unit under pressure remains to be seen, and new Captain Stuart Hogg will have the additional task of building a team that seems clearly rattled heading into the tournament. We like many have mixed feelings about Finn Russell, as he is clearly one of the most talented players in International Rugby at the moment, but his maverick approach to the game doesn’t always provide the kind of stability a side like Scotland clearly need right now. He is willing to take enormous risks which when they pay off produce spectacular results, but when they don’t Scotland ends up at sixes and sevens and appears rather rudderless. Adam Hastings who gets the nod at fly half for this match, is also showing some impressive form and is starting to have a surprising arsenal of tricks of his own up his sleeve, so Scotland certainly won’t be lacking in the creativity department on Saturday. Still it’s going to be a very tall order to take down an impressive looking Irish unit in front of a demanding Dublin crowd.

England would still appear to be the favorites, but we are not entirely sure they are going to breeze through this tournament. Like many we think that their date with France Sunday could be a rather rude awakening from their World Cup disappointments. They will need to come out of the blocks firing, and your opening weekend in Paris is not always the best place to achieve that. France could well pack plenty of surprises that England may struggle to cope with, and as we saw in the World Cup, once the Men in White feel they are struggling to make any kind of headway they start to unravel rather dramatically, particularly in terms of leadership – something we feel that Captain Owen Farrell is not particularly effective at turning around. It’s a powerful and accomplished English team that runs out onto the pitch at Stade de France on Sunday – but can it stay that way for the next seven weeks? Add to that their dilemma at scrum half and seeming lack of any kind of long-term plan for the position, and England remains just short of where they need to be.

It’s still one of the greatest rugby shows on earth and we CAN’T wait!!!!!

Super Rugby

We sadly admit to the fact that we don’t quite have the same degree of enthusiasm for the opening weekend of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club tournament that we do for what will be taking place on the playing fields of Europe over the next seven weeks. Nevertheless it is a competition that has always showcased some extraordinary rugby skill and for that reason alone, it will get our attention.

Just like in the Northern Hemisphere there have been plenty of changes in setups across the fifteen competing sides since the end of the World Cup. It is Japan’s Sunwolves swansong in the tournament as they will no longer feature after 2020. Will New Zealand’s Blues finally return to winning ways after years in the wilderness? With former Welsh Coach Warren Gatland now back in his native land coaching the Chiefs and Crusaders Coach Scott Robertson likely feeling just a little pipped at not getting the All Blacks job, the race for the number one Coaching job in World Rugby is alive and well in the land of the long White Cloud once current incumbent Ian Foster’s contract is up for review at the end of two years. Can Argentina’s Jaguares still be the force they were last year with so many of their star players now having sought greener pastures? Can South African and Australian teams even be competitive with a player exodus of massive proportions for the former, and a fractured and rudderless administration running the show in the latter? In short, more questions than answers this year, which sadly detract from the rugby on hand especially as the competition is unlikely to survive in its current format beyond this year.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of matches that we are keen to have a look at this weekend. Although a raft of matches take place on Friday, it’s Saturday that has caught our eye. The competition sees three matches which highlight it’s globetrotting nature, as well as featuring three teams we think could well make the semis and one potential wild card. The Crusaders are always worth watching and once again are likely to produce a healthy contingent of the 2020 All Blacks side. Consequently their match against Australia’s Waratahs will be definitely one to watch, and pay particular attention to that set of Crusaders backs.

On looking at South African prospects this year, we have a hunch that the Stormers may well be the front runners. New Zealand’s Hurricanes remain a force but it remains to be seen how they adapt to the loss of the outstanding Beauden Barrett at fly half now he plies his trade with the Blues this season. This should definitely be a fiery contest and an interesting contrast of styles, especially in the contest between the two fly halves in terms of the experienced cut and thrust of the Hurricanes TJ Perenara and the live wire that is the Stormers Hershel Jantjies.

Lastly we have Argentina’s Jaguares kicking off their campaign in Buenos Aires against South Africa’s Lions. There have been some feisty contests between these two sides in the last two years, with both sides facing off against each other in the knockouts. The Lions and Jaguares have seen a massive depletion in terms of some of their big name players but some of the youngsters look just as exciting if not more, especially in the case of the South Americans. Furthermore we love the fact that the Estadio Jose Amalfitani often boasts the healthiest and liveliest crowds of the competition, with thousands of passionate supporters, which makes a refreshing change from the rows and rows of empty seats that often tend to be the norm in other stadiums in the tournament. In short it’s noisy, atmospheric and there’s plenty of fast paced exciting rugby on hand to keep it all bubbling along. We love it!

Major League Rugby

We’re still not sure who will be broadcasting Major League Rugby here in Canada once the Toronto Arrows kick of their season on February 9 in Austin against the Herd. We know CBS has acquired the rights in the US, but last year Game TV had them here in Canada, but it is still to be confirmed as to who will be covering it this season. Games can be watched through the Arrows Facebook page and hopefully we’ll have details in the next week as to who is covering it via streaming or on demand here in Canada. We know ESPN has an agreement to air some of the games in the US and given their affiliation with TSN we are hoping that something similar may happen North of the border. We’ll keep you posted.

So get ready, get the fridges stocked or find out where you and your mates can catch the games in a bar. If you’re in Toronto, Hemingway’s and Balmy Beach Club are two definites for the Six Nations, otherwise spark up the TV and fire up your Chromecast for DAZN and the Six Nations and TSN and Super Rugby!!!

Enjoy and see you next week!

This week saw the Heineken Cup playoffs finalized with the weekend providing some epic contests, but ultimately not too many surprises in the final draw for those eight spots in the knockout stages. Meanwhile England completed the Six Nations jigsaw puzzle by naming their squad, and lastly the Toronto Arrows had a rousing preseason opener in Las Vegas which saw them dispatch the Utah Warriors with ease 33-5.

Heineken Cup

The final round of the pool stages saw plenty of tense moments as five squads duked it out for the last two runner up spots in the playoffs. Munster and Glasgow provided us with plenty of entertainment and earned two solid wins but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough to get them a spot in the knockouts. Unfortunately a trip to one of French rugby’s heartlands was too much for Gloucester and despite throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Toulouse, they would sadly come short.

As a result, as expected Northampton and Saracens got the job done and booked the final two spots in the playoffs. Ulster had already been in a league of their own in the runner-up contest and dispatched Bath with ease to book the first of the runner up spots and a quarter final contest against tournament racehorses Toulouse. Northampton survived a serious first half scare from Lyon in France to emerge victorious and book a quarter final date with fellow English Premiership giants Exeter. Saracens did just enough in North London to hang on for dear life against a classy Racing 92 side, but now find themselves facing a challenging trip to Dublin to face a daunting Leinster side who currently are one of THE form teams of the tournament. The other quarter final will be an all-French affair as Clermont and Racing 92 replicate their race for the top in France’s Top 14 domestic competition.

Last weekend’s action gave us a mouthwatering glimpse of some of the names that are likely to feature in the upcoming Six Nations which is our next order of business.

Six Nations

England have made their selections and now the picture is complete. In one week it all kicks off and we can’t wait. So who’s looking good and who are the dark horses?

After their World Cup exploits, despite their implosion at the final hurdle against South Africa, England still remain the team to beat. However, we can’t help feeling that they are not quite going to have it all their own way this year. Jones has named a powerhouse squad, but we are once again utterly baffled by the scrum half options that Jones has gone with. Ben Youngs is so past his sell by date for the most part barring that one off performance against New Zealand in the World Cup, it’s laughable and even in the All Blacks game his teammates made him look good rather than his own individual brilliance. His backup Willi Heinz also doesn’t really look the part and is certainly not World Cup 2023 material. In our opinion a golden opportunity is being lost to develop some younger talent here, Ben Spencer probably being the most notable omission. The chances of England winning the tournament are certainly high, but on the back of a Grand Slam it won’t be. There are simply too many exceptionally talented banana skins lying in wait. Their first encounter with France being the most significant tripwire lying in wait for them in Paris. They may have the most notable dark horses Wales and Ireland to face on their home turf of Fortress Twickenham, but even that is no guarantee with the talent the two Celtic tigers have in their stables this year. There’s also the small matter of a difficult trip to Murrayfield to face a wild card Scotland. At the end of the day however, England are the only team along with Scotland who are not trying to adapt to a new Coach and that in this first International outing since the World Cup may be one of their most valuable assets.

France may still be the conundrum that all the teams will have to deal with. They potentially have the most exciting back line in the tournament if utilized properly, and Antoine Dupont may be the most exciting scrum half package the tournament has seen in years. They won’t take the silverware but they could definitely pose some massive problems for the teams that are in the running for top honors, and some definite upsets are on the cards.

Ireland are another dark horse package. There is some extraordinary young talent that is genuinely world class in Ireland’s Six Nations offering, and if it can adapt to Ireland’s new Coaching regime under Andy Farrell then they can not only upset any team on their day, but are also more than capable of competing for the silverware. Despite their dismal season last year, it would be foolish beyond belief to write them off.

Wales will not repeat their Grand Slam heroics of last year and furthermore we have trouble seeing them take the silverware. However, like Ireland we feel that a strong second place finish is well within the realms of possibility. Along the way expect them to produce some epic performances in both defence and attack and as we said last week, winger Louis Rees-Zammit could well end up being one of the players of the tournament.

Scotland would appear to have some dissension in the ranks with the Coaching regime of Gregor Townsend, but there is no denying that if they play with their hearts and a bit of devil may care attitude they could end up providing us with some of the most memorable moments of the Championship. Their encounter in round 2 with England at Murrayfield will be one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament.

We can’t see Italy doing anything other stir the Six Nations pot with the wooden spoon, but their match with Scotland in Rome and one of the last matches with the inspirational Sergio Parisse in an Azurri jersey could well be one for the Six Nations archives.

In short, a tournament that promises an enormous amount of excitement, and much more than most Six Nations immediately after a World Cup usually deliver. The best news for us here in Canada is that DAZN will be broadcasting all matches live and on demand. See TV listings on upcoming matches, broadcast times and how to subscribe.

Major League Rugby

The Toronto Arrows got their preseason underway in Las Vegas and put the Utah Warriors to the sword with ease. Next up they face Rugby United New York and then it’s 14 days till the season kicks off in earnest with their first regular season game against Austin Herd on February 9th. We’ve got a really good feeling about this season and think it’s going to be a great time to be a rugby fan in Toronto this year. Onwards and upwards!

Super Rugby

The Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition kicks off this Friday, January 31st and once again TSN has the rights for this season here in Canada. We’ve got the full schedule over on the TV listings page and will have more to say about the tournament later in the week.

See you later this week and get ready for five weeks of outstanding International Rugby action!

 

A busy week in the Heineken Cup sees a number of teams book their quarter final spots, and a fascinating five horse race for the last two runner up spots is on the agenda for this weekend.

Meanwhile this week saw plenty of developments ahead of the Six Nations as all but England have now named their squads.

Lastly Toronto Rugby fans and youngsters had a great day out last Saturday as the Arrows players held a morning of skills sessions with various age groups.

Heineken Champions Cup

Last weekend saw Exeter, Leinster, Toulouse and Racing 92 book their place in the playoffs, with Ulster securing the first of the three runner up spots. The remaining two spots though are very much up for grabs with Northhampton, Saracens and Gloucester leading the race but Glasgow and Munster are in with a shot albeit much slimmer and requiring a helping hand from some of the other teams doing battle this weekend, in addition to their own efforts.

As a result we’re in for a treat this weekend as some high stakes matches are on the cards. First up Northampton travel to France to take on Lyon who although finding it hard to replicate their Top 14 form, are still a daunting challenge at home. Furthermore, it is potentially a match of equals in terms of European competition as Northampton have also struggled to produce the kind of results on the European stage that have seen them made them such a force in the English Premiership this season.

Glasgow face a difficult trip south of Hadrian’s Wall to Sale, and in order to keep their playoff hopes alive, need to win with a bonus point as well as have La Rochelle do them a favor by upsetting Exeter.

Munster while having an easy go of it in their final pool match with an almost certain home bonus point win over the hapless Ospreys, will still need Racing 92 to overturn Saracens in North London on Sunday. Although Racing 92’s spot in the playoffs is assured there will still be plenty of motivation for them to upset the reigning champions as by doing so they would get the benefit of a home quarter final.

Lastly, although Toulouse are comfortably through to the playoffs, they will want to make it six from six by beating Gloucester. Gloucester have a difficult challenge ahead of them as they make the journey to a hotbed of French rugby which has seen a real resurgence in its fortunes of late. If Gloucester pull it off, which is a very tall order indeed, then the confidence it should give them would bode well for their fortunes come the playoffs.

In short some epic games lie in wait this weekend so make sure you don’t miss any of it, which is all covered here in Canada on DAZN, see TV listings pages for times.

Six Nations

The excitement mounts as everyone except England have laid out their stalls for the competition which starts in just over two weeks.

France have named a strong side that has taken stock of some of the exciting performances seen in the Heineken Cup so far, albeit with some notable exceptions. However, there is an exciting blend of experience and raw fresh talent that could provide us with a French team possessing both flair and considerable nous.

Ireland provided few surprises in giving Jonathan Sexton the captaincy, and while he is a class player through and through, much like Owen Farrell for England, we are not quite convinced that he is the right man for the job, but by the same token there are few if any in the current Ireland lineup who can match his experience and depth of understanding of the game’s subtleties. However, like Farrell he can get his team offside with the officials, and his attitude often doesn’t help the cause at such times. Nevertheless we feel that Coach Andy Farrell in his first outing as head Coach has made some positive choices in bringing in some new faces. Competition for the 9 jersey looks set to be fierce between Conor Murray and John Cooney. Ireland’s stocks at number eight continue to be strong despite an ongoing injury list and we are really looking forward to seeing Leinster sensation Caelan Doris get his first Irish cap.

Italy’s offerings are solid but still unlikely to help Italy over the hump of the wooden spoon once more this year. For us the forwards offer some real graft for Italy especially in the shape of Federico Ruzza and Jake Polledri. If the Italian backs can get some quality ball then there are plenty of slick runners for the Azurri, but consistent error free delivery remains a problem.

We also weren’t surprised to see Stuart Hogg get the Scotland Captain’s role, and expect fireworks from his fellow backs Graham Darcy (who was one of the standout players for us last competition) and Huw Jones. There are some exciting names up front as well, especially in Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury and expect George Horne to create some real excitement at scrum half along with the powerhouse duo of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings at fly half.

The big talking points in Wales’ selections are the inclusion of Gloucester superstar Louis Rees-Zammit. The 18 year old winger has been a revelation in the English premiership as well as making massive contributions to Gloucester’s European aspirations. Rhys Webb makes a return to the Welsh jersey at scrum half after a stint in France. However, Wales do not seem to suffer from a lack of quality scrum halves and Webb will really need to put his best forward to outshine Gareth Davies or Tomos Willams who in our opinion have the more impressive form going into the tournament.

The countdown to one of our favorite tournaments is on and we can’t wait!

Major League Rugby

As mentioned above, the Toronto Arrows held a community day last Saturday morning at the Toronto Soccerplex, and the players had coaching sessions with a variety of age groups. It was well attended and the kids clearly had a blast. In terms of making themselves accessible to their fans the Arrows are doing an admirable job as well as contributing to the development of a strong rugby grassroots community here in Toronto. It was great to meet with and chat to some of the players and the excitement is building to what promises to be another great season for Toronto in Major League Rugby.

That’s all from us this week. Head over to the TV listings page for our two picks of the weekend in terms of Heineken Cup action and broadcast times on DAZN.

 

 

 

First up sorry for the silence since the World Cup. Work, Christmas, families etc all took precedence over us having a good look at matters pertaining to the oval ball for the last couple of months. 2020 will be a busy year for all, on and off the ball, so to accommodate we are changing our approach to how we cover things.

No dramatic changes – the focus is still 100% on International Rugby. To that effect we’ll continue looking at the usual suspects, the Heineken Cup, Pro 14, Super Rugby, the Six Nations, Rugby Championship, Americas Rugby Championship and all the tours in between. We’ll also be looking at Major League Rugby here in North America, as we are after all a Canadian site and our prized Toronto Arrows add a regular international flavour to the competition. However, apart from match reports on the Arrows home games, which we will be religiously attending, we’ll be moving away from previews of the big Tests. Instead, and in an effort to provide your weekly update over a cup of coffee, we’ll try and put out at least every other week, if not every week, a short synopsis of what got us talking about the important games played at the weekend and the ones coming up. In short a weekly digest of sound bites on the major competitions. We may throw the odd preview in there for things like the final weekend of the Six Nations and other big events, but with workloads this year, to do it regularly would just be too much. The only things we won’t be looking at is the English Premiership and the French Top14 – not because we don’t think they are important in the grand scheme of things, but for all intents and purposes they are domestic competitions strictly within the borders of England and France. Also it would just be too much rugby, and our families would probably have something to say about us turning into complete couch potatoes.

So without any further ado, here’s our first go for 2020.

European Champions Cup

The first four rounds of the competition have been enthralling and now with everything to play for in the final two before the playoffs, there’s plenty to talk about especially with the start of the Six Nations just around the corner.

English teams continue to struggle to make much of a dent in the competition, with the exception this year of Exeter Chiefs. The Chiefs have a tricky encounter in Glasgow this weekend with their Pool 2 rivals, but look set to book their place in the playoffs with ease. Despite topping the English domestic scene along with the Chiefs, Northampton have struggled to match up to the intensity of Irish Giants Leinster with whom they share Pool 1.  Harlequins and Bath have been shown the door already, and Saracens and Gloucester appear to be hanging on for dear life, with both teams having do or die matches this weekend, though in Saracens case they look in a strong position as they take on the hapless Ospreys.

For French teams, they are either really good or having a season to forget in Europe with very little in the way of middle ground. Despite sitting pretty in France’s domestic Top 14 Competition, Lyon have struggled to make a statement in Europe this season, while La Rochelle and Montpelier have shown nothing to really make anyone sit up and take notice of their European efforts and sit firmly camped at the bottom of their respective pools. Racing 92 has played some exquisite running rugby, all sparked by Scotland superstar fly half Finn Russell. Toulouse are back to their glory days and Clermont are the European force they always are.

It’s Irish teams though who have perhaps shown the most dominance, particularly Leinster. It’s going to take a very special team to end their seemingly unstoppable run to the final. Meanwhile Ulster has proven to be the surprise package of the tournament so far, with scrum half John Cooney, providing some of the most spectacular razzle dazzle seen in the tournament, and giving incumbent Ireland scrum half Conor Murray a real run for his money for the number nine jersey come the Six Nations. Connacht sadly seem to be fading away, despite the comeback of the season against Gloucester in December, while Munster struggle with injury and form despite clinging to a vulnerable second place in Pool 4 that could well be undone this weekend in a difficult trip to Paris to take on Racing 92.

Scotland’s sole representative Glasgow, have looked awfully good at times but their second place in Pool 2 is more than a tad vulnerable, especially as they host English powerhouse Exeter this weekend. Meanwhile the Welsh and Italian contingents of Ospreys and Benetton Treviso have been embarrassing to watch at times, though the Italians have acquitted themselves with some aplomb by running both Northampton and Lyon exceptionally close. Ospreys sadly have little if anything to cheer about this season, having being comprehensively drubbed by Racing 92, Saracens and Munster in no uncertain terms.

Six Nations

With the final two rounds of pool play in the European Champions Cup taking place over the next two weekends, thoughts have naturally turned to the Six Nations.

England despite not dominating European Club competition still look like the team everyone is going to have to beat this year. As we saw in the World Cup there is enough talent in the English ranks to build a formidable Test day 23, and Coach Eddie Jones has been getting the results, barring that World Cup Final. Perhaps the biggest questions facing English selectors are who gets the Captain’s jersey and who takes the helm at scrum half. Current incumbent number 9 Ben Youngs, was for the most part England’s weak link in the World Cup barring that match against New Zealandand it is clearly time for some of England’s youngsters to get into the next four year building cycle. The bigger question is the Captain conundrum. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, despite his enormous value to England, Owen Farrell is not the man for the job. He performs admirably in the role when things are going England’s way, but the minute the tides change he is nowhere to be found as evidenced against South Africa in the World Cup Final. He loses composure, his negativity when England are up against it clearly affects the rest of his teammates, and let’s not mention the liability of his tackling technique which somehow continues to slip under the radar of the officials. A great player but perhaps much more effective without the burden of the Captaincy. The million dollar question however remains if not Farrell then who? Quite frankly we are struggling to find an answer, but perhaps it lies somewhere in the second row amongst the likes of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes or George Kruis. Like we say it’s a real conundrum, there are plenty of Captains in the making in England’s young guns, but as to who could fulfill the role right now is a bit of a grey area.

France also look to ring the changes this Six Nations, both in terms of players and a new Coaching direction under Fabien Galthie. There has been lots of razzle dazzle in French play in the European Champions Cup, but as always it remains to be seen if France can bring it to the Test arena. There is a potentially epic French Six Nations team in there somewhere and perhaps Galthie is finally the right man to tease it out.

Ireland may have failed to turn up for the World Cup, but outside of England, they perhaps look the most menacing side heading into the Six Nations. A new Coaching regime will be one of the main talking points under the tutelage of English import Andy Farrell, though many are surely wondering how long it will be before Leinster Coach Leo Cullen takes the reins, given Leinster’s dominance in Europe. Perhaps the biggest task facing Farrell will be to bid farewell to some of the old guard in Ireland and really use the next four years to develop a youthful but experienced Irish World Cup squad. Perhaps his most pressing concerns in this department are in the halfbacks. Conor Murray will likely have got close to the end of his career come the next World Cup, but there are a raft of young aspirants to the position, and who are arguably playing better at the moment, most notably Ulster’s John Cooney, with Leinster’s Luke McGrath also putting his hand up. Johnny Sexton will not be making the next World Cup, and given his issues with injury and mercurial form of late, you’d be hard pressed to argue against not seizing this Six Nations as a golden opportunity to give Leinster’s Ross Byrne the starting berth for the Championship, with team mate Ciaran Frawley and Ulster’s Billy Burns some serious game time as well during the course of the tournament. Joey Carberry has long been favoured as Sexton’s replacement, however the exceptionally gifted Munster fly half is so prone to injury that is hard for the Irish coaching staff to bank on him with on any degree of reliability.

Italy also see a change in management, and Benetton Treviso’s often feisty performances in Europe this season will give Italian supporters something to cheer about, as well as the exploits of Italian internationals in some of the English and French domestic leagues. Expect Italy to be competitive, even if the wooden spoon is likely to be their chosen cutlery this year once more.

Scotland are likely as always to provide us with some of the most enthralling encounters of the tournament, sparked predominantly by their bundle of fireworks at number ten Finn Russell. He’s packed more excitement this season for Racing 92 than many of his opponents would care to remember. There are also some Scottish youngsters champing hard at the bit to provide the kind of X-factor usually reserved for Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg. Glasgow’s Sam Johnson and Huw Jones along with Edinburgh’s Darcy Graham are likely to be making plenty of headlines in February and March.

Wales may not be having much luck in Europe at club level, but they have a competent new Coach in Wayne Pivac. However, Scarlets are still a force in the PRO14 and there is a healthy dose of Welsh big guns scattered across the French and English domestic competitions. Wales showed they were one of the grittiest sides in World Rugby at the recent festivities in Japan with a defense that seems almost indestructible at times. In short don’t judge Welsh fortunes in Europe as a measure of how they are likely to fare in the Six Nations. Just like last year they look set to be the competition’s number one dark horse.

Super Rugby

It’s still a few weeks away, but it’s hard to raise our enthusiasm for this Southern Hemisphere club showpiece. With Australian rugby in shambles, doubts about the continued presence of a Japanese franchise and the rows and rows of empty seats (Buenos Aires being the only notable exception) in the stadiums, it just doesn’t seem to have the energy of its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, despite there being some very attractive and highly skilled rugby on display. It’s still a relevant competition but one desperately in need of an overhaul, as it’s current format is unwieldy and cumbersome making the run up to the playoffs more of a grind than an enjoyable spectacle of top flight rugby which at its core is what it should be. We’ll have more to say closer to the time but for now our focus is likely to remain on both sides of the Atlantic.

Major League Rugby

Yes it’s only a few weeks away but we’ve been heartened by the buildup to the forthcoming season, especially here in Toronto. There seems to be a genuine interest in the new and expanded league. The Toronto Arrows are hosting a community day this weekend aimed at kids, and my own 7 year old can’t wait. https://toronto-arrows-community-rugby-day-2020.eventbrite.ca/

Some big names have also been signed up to the League, most notably French International Matthieu Basteraud to Rugby United New York and Springbok World Cup Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira to Old Glory DC.

The Toronto Arrows will continue to be boosted by the presence of Uruguayan internationals Leandro Leivas and Gaston Mieres both of whom played a big part in Uruguay’s recent World Cup heroics. Toronto made it to the semifinals last year and there is every reason to think that, with the benefit of that experience behind them and a seasoned squad, they can aspire to a similar goal this season.

Despite two years of the MLR, Canada and the USA still fared poorly in the recent World Cup. However, we have a hunch that after another two years, both countries will find themselves on a much stronger footing against international opposition.

Well that’s it for this week. Head on over to the TV listings page for our picks of the weekend’s European Champions Cup on DAZN here in Canada.