So this week we’ll be concerning ourselves with what the final Round of the Women’s Six Nations told us about the Women’s game in the Northern Hemisphere. England and France remain in a league of their own, but despite the challenges facing rugby in Wales the Women’s game in the Principality looks in remarkably good health. Scotland also provided a few surprises after they emerged from a fairly negative review of the State of the Nation North of Hadrian’s Wall. Italy showed plenty of promise but it somehow fell short of producing big results. However, Ireland presented a sorry picture of the Women’s game in the Emerald Isle and it is all the more shameful given the fact that the Men’s team is rated as the best in the World.
We also take a look at a clash of Irish management styles in the Heineken Champions Cup final to take place at the end of the month between Leinster and La Rochelle. Last but not least we ask the perplexing question as to who will wear the number nine jersey for the All Blacks come the World Cup, and what is likely to be the pecking order of the three main contenders.
So without any further ado here’s what kept our pints frothy this week.
England and France give us an epic final and with it the biggest crowd ever for a Women’s International
Let’s be honest the drama that played out at Twickenham last weekend was a big deal – a very big deal! The 58,498 fans who packed the stands, the largest ever recorded for a Women’s game, ensured that the momentum built at last year’s World Cup in New Zealand was strengthened. Women’s Rugby is now a major global sport and can make the numbers that attracts the advertisers and the big broadcasting deals. It’s heady stuff, but over and above that we were treated to some genuine top class rugby last weekend at Twickenham, Parma and Edinburgh.
However, all credit must go to England’s remarkable group of Grand Slam Champions. They held their nerve as, in the second half, a seemingly down and out France came roaring back to life and were within minutes of causing the biggest upset we could have seen between now and the World Cup. It was a remarkable game that highlighted England’s truly phenomenal physical presence in the Women’s game. However, it wasn’t just all brute force from the Red Roses and the Marlie Packer steam train, there were some lovely running plays that highlighted the extraordinary skill sets of players such as winger Abby Dow. England have a complete game that will be one of the benchmarks for other teams to measure themselves against till the next global showdown in 2025, especially as England will be the hosts.
Nevertheless, France also deserve huge praise for their remarkable comeback from a 33-0 deficit at half time to finish the game on the wrong end of the scoreboard by only five points at 38-33. As France showed against New Zealand in the World Cup in their one point semi-final loss, this is a team still with a few kinks to work out but clearly a superpower in the making. The warning shots have clearly been fired across England and New Zealand’s bows ahead of the World Cup in 2025. Next year’s Six Nations clash between these two in France should be the stuff of legends and one of the biggest tickets of 2024.
The rugby played by both teams is of an exceptional standard technically and demonstrates just how far the skill levels in the Women’s game have grown in the last four years. While everyone else in the World bar New Zealand will know they have their work cut out to catch up to these two giants of the Women’s game, as standard bearers we couldn’t have asked for better and we look forward to a long and intense rivalry between the two.
Best of the Rest!
Welsh rugby as a whole may be struggling with what it’s future looks like, but Welsh women rugby players seem to be taking it all in their stride. There is no question that outside of France and England they were the best team in the competition, dispatching with relative ease Ireland, Scotland and Italy. We had felt that the game in Parma between Italy and Wales last weekend would tell us much about the emerging hierarchy in the Women’s Game in the Northern Hemisphere and we weren’t proved wrong. If Wales can build on their strong third place finish this year, who’s to say that they won’t be challenging either France or England for second place next year. Much like England they possess an intimidating physical game but in open play they can be equally dangerous. There are still plenty of workons for Wales if they are to make that critical next step, but after this tournament they have clearly laid out a statement of intent and have the nucleus of a squad of developing talent to get them there.
We had thought that Italy were going to pip Wales to that much sought after third place finish, but despite a strong start against France, Italy faltered too often this tournament to go the distance. Don’t get us wrong Italy have some supremely talented players, but much like their Men’s side they have yet to find that fine balance between ambition and skill. However, Italy will be back next year and if they can correct their mistakes against Scotland and Wales, most notably their set piece work, kicking and discipline then the future looks bright for the Azurre, as in open play Italy looked decidedly dangerous. Also Italy and England won more turnovers than any other team. In short – watch this space!
Scotland also were a pleasant surprise this Six Nations, despite emerging with little to show from an exceptionally brave World Cup campaign last year. They will be disappointed by the schoolings they received from France and England, but against Ireland and Italy they showed that there is plenty of grit and determination in this Scottish side. The Scotland that started the campaign in the first three Rounds was a very different side to that which wrapped up proceedings against Ireland last weekend at Edinburgh. Their strong showings against Italy and Ireland at home simply need to be translated into form on the road and when up against sterner opposition. But after the uncomfortable spotlight the game was put under during last year’s review, the initial results of rebuilding the Women’s game in Scotland are starting to look very positive indeed.
Ireland’s uncomfortable truth
Despite the triumphant scenes at Twickenham this Women’s Six Nations, it wasn’t all smiles and success. Ireland’s experience painted a very negative picture of the Women’s Game in the Emerald Isle, and so far there only seems to be lip service being paid to the deep rooted problems lying at the heart of Ireland’s failures this Six Nations. It’s important to remember that up to 2017 Ireland was a dominant force in the Women’s tournament. However, since then the gap between the funding of the Men’s game and that of the Women’s has become laughable to the point that the Women’s game has become very much an afterthought in Ireland. The IRFU has made a ham fisted attempt at turning the Women’s game professional, which must surely feel like a slap in the face given the success of the world class structure Ireland has in place for the Men’s Game.
Limited media coverage and at times Neanderthal type social attitudes towards the women’s game amongst men seen in certain social media posts have not helped their cause, made worse by allegations of the IRFU essentially being an “old boys club”. Things are changing slowly as a result of a rather scathing and in depth review recently conducted into how the Women’s game is managed and represented in Ireland. It will be a long slow process, and to some degree takes some of the polish off the remarkable successes in recent years of the Men’s Programme. It is clear that the Irish Women’s team don’t resent the success of their male counterparts and will be the first to celebrate their triumphs should they finally make this a World Cup for Irish supporters to remember. However, the IRFU must make every effort between now and the World Cup to bridge the glaring gaps and make whatever success may come Ireland’s way this autumn accessible to all.
The present state of the Women’s game in Ireland is simply unacceptable and even a tad shameful. It has now been recognised as such by all the parties involved and steps are in hand to address the mess. Ahead of a year that could well be one to remember for Irish rugby for many years to come, it is time for the IRFU to finally put their money where their mouth is.
This year’s Heineken Cup Final is a clash of contrasting Irish styles under two different flags
Sticking with the Irish theme, we now have a Heineken Cup final to be played in Ireland and featuring the best of French and Irish club rugby. However, all of it is seasoned with Irish cooking skills. Leinster Coach Leo Cullen and his La Rochelle counterpart Ronan O’Gara are bringing a distinctly Gaelic approach to proceedings. O’Gara’s time at Munster and in an Irish jersey are the stuff of legends while Cullen can boast a similar record in the blue of Leinster and the green of Ireland. These two gentlemen know each other intimately on and off the pitch having played as both teammates and opponents. Now their club rivalry on the pitch has shifted to the Coaching Box.
Cullen wants his charges to play at lightning speed in both attack and defense whereas O’Gara prefers a more traditional approach based on the principle of grinding down the opposition through your physical presence and ability in the set pieces. It’s almost a touch ironic that, in Cullen, Leinster have a former forward who is advocating a faster and more open game, while in O’Gara, La Rochelle have a former half back settling on a more traditional and physical approach to taking momentum away from your opponents.
It will all make for a fascinating contrast of styles on May 29th at the Aviva. Many are tipping Leinster on their home ground to make up for the disappointment of losing out on the silverware to La Rochelle last year. However, both Coaches have shown themselves adept at adjusting their game plans to suit how a game unfolds on the day. Nothing is a given on May 29th as two of the best brains in European club rugby sit down and try and work out how best to unlock the Champions Cup trophy cabinet.
Mirror mirror on the wall who is the cleverest of them all?
Most International Coaches can only wish to be in the position that All Blacks Coach Ian Foster and his team find themselves in. Ahead of the World Cup who gets the starting nine jersey for most of your big games? New Zealand are quite literally spoilt for choice so where do they begin? It’s probably going to be THE most hotly contested seat on the plane to France.
Let’s start with Chiefs number 9 Brad Weber who has been sensational in the Waikato outfit’s remarkable Super Rugby campaign this year which sees them undefeated after 9 rounds. Long circling the periphery of the All Blacks selection policies, Weber has never been given a consistent start – essentially being brought in when regulars like Aaron Smith or TJ Perenara have been unavailable, but more recently having to operate in the shadow of up and coming Blues sensation Finlay Christie. In the past he’s been known for his reliability and eye for an opportunity, but this year he’s added some genuine speed of delivery and flair to his resume. In short, if it was our call we’d give him the nod for the number one spot on the list.
Then there’s the Blues’ X-factor in the shape of Finlay Christie. In the last two years Christie has increasingly been given the nod for some of the lower stakes games, while being seen as an impact player for the big events once traditional stalwart Aaron Smith has got the job done. However, we’d argue he’s still a bit green around the edges at Test Level and can panic when things aren’t quite going to plan. As a result we can’t help feeling that he’s not quite the bankable commodity the All Blacks need for the big event in France just yet.
Last but certainly not least there is the conundrum of Aaron Smith. While at a club level the Highlanders and Smith are really nothing to write home about, put the man in a Black jersey and he seems completely and utterly transformed. Smith’s big game temperament and ability to cope under pressure is the stuff of legends and has been the gold standard for the All Blacks since 2012. You simply can’t judge him by his performances in a Highlanders jersey. However, the argument that it’s time for a change despite his experience, especially given New Zealand’s dip in form over the last two years is mounting, but can they really do without that experience on the biggest stage of them all?
To make matters even more confusing we haven’t even mentioned outstanding newcomer Cameron Roigard from the Hurricanes and the experience and ability of veteran Crusaders scrum half Mitchell Drummond. However, we can’t help feeling that despite their worth these two are very much on the periphery for the trip to France, and will only likely get the call should an injury to any of the above mentioned three front runners become a concern.
In short, if it was our call we’d go out on a limb and pick Weber as our first choice All Black scrum half for the World Cup. Alternate him and Smith for the big games with Christie on the bench and a starting role for the Blues man for the easier Pool Games like Namibia and Uruguay. We’re fascinated to see how it all plays out when Coach Ian Foster names his starting XV for the big day on September 8th against France.
So that’s it for this week folks. Hopefully on their return to Toronto the Arrows’ dismal season will take a turn for the better along with the weather which has left much to be desired so far this spring. Take care, stay safe and here’s our shout out once again to all the fabulous women who gave us such a memorable Women’s Six Nations this year culminating in that epic attendance at Twickenham!
This week we concern ourselves with the debacle that we sadly got to witness firsthand at York Lions Stadium here in Toronto last Saturday. We went to our first Arrows game of the season, their second, and sadly were bitterly disappointed by what happened on and off the pitch during the match. After the narrow loss to the New York Ironworkers in their first home game of the season a week earlier we went with cautious optimism, despite their opponents, the New England Free Jacks being the best in the East. What we got treated to instead of a good day out was a record defeat in the MLR as Toronto went down 80-5 to New England and a truly awful fan experience in the stands. The fans themselves as always were great, but the way in which the game was run by the organisers at the Stadium meant that the rugby, instead of being the focus of the evening, was treated almost like a sideshow. Disappointed fans left the stadium half deaf, with their ears bleeding from an aural onslaught of music and ridiculous drivel from the sidelines as a game that was completely forgettable compounded Toronto’s miseries this season.
We also look at the Womens’ Six Nations as it serves to highlight the massive gulf between England/France and the rest of the competition. As entertaining as some of the rugby is and as brave as some of the teams have been there is no denying that the playing field of women’s rugby in the infancy of its professional era is very uneven.We also look at the fortunes of the two Pacific Island sides in this year’s Super Rugby – a struggling but highly entertaining Moana Pasifika and a rapidly improving Fijian Drua who are easily one of the most exciting teams in the competition to watch.We ask the question can anybody beat Leinster as even with a C team in South Africa they continue their remarkable 24 game winning streak.Lastly we look at the idea of a “TMO bunker” being put forward by World Rugby for adoption in the upcoming World Cup.
So that’s what kept our pints frothy this week over some heated debates. There were plenty of talking points as there always are, but these five are the ones we kept coming back to.
The Toronto’s Arrows season seems in no better shape at home than on the road!
We want to start this discussion by saying up front that since day one we have been and will continue to be staunch Arrows supporters and have nothing but respect for team owner Bill Webb and his vision of bringing rugby to Toronto. We stand by all of you and salute your efforts.
However, what we experienced last Saturday at York Lions Stadium at our first Arrows game of the season put that support to the ultimate Test, and left us not exactly bubbling with enthusiasm to go back for more. What we loved about Arrows home games in the past was the fun family atmosphere, my 11 year old son loves going to Arrows games, and the ability to watch Rugby here in Toronto and get behind your local team. We weren’t able to do any of that on Saturday, and if truth be told left the stadium with a sigh of relief not convinced we would be coming back any time soon. We fully appreciate that the organisers need to create an atmosphere in the stands but it was downright obnoxious on Saturday, and we weren’t the only ones fuming at proceedings – a common murmur of dissent could be heard rumbling throughout the stands.
We’d paid good money to watch a rugby game, not have our ears continuously assaulted at full volume by the strangest mix of godawful music we’d heard in years, and don’t get us wrong we love a good tune to rally the troops. However, whoever was running the sidelines “entertainment”, if indeed you could call it that, seemed to be completely unaware that there was a rugby game in progress. The music blared onto the pitch as players were trying to set for kicks, during lineout throws and any stoppage due to referee arbitrations or setup for scrums. As a result we’re sure more than a few key calls were lost in the cacophony of sound and it showed a gross lack of respect to fans and players alike. If we’d wanted to go to a rock show/rave we’d have bought tickets for Coachella!
As for the rugby itself – well what can we say? Toronto’s ongoing problem with a complete lack of any sort of defensive organisation continued to plague them as they leaked 12 soft tries, two of them penalty tries. Their set piece work remains a minefield of lost opportunity and with it their discipline. While we felt the officiating of referee Paulo Duarte left a fair amount to be desired at times, Toronto’s sloppy organisation really didn’t help their cause and set them up for failure more often than not. However the glaring problem that has manifested itself all season continued with a vengeance, Toronto is just missing far too many first up tackles and against a team like the Free Jacks that’s already nailed your coffin shut before being put ten feet under, as was the case with the 80-5 scoreline.
After being the hero of the weekend last week the Arrows decided that somehow winger D’Shawn Bowen would singlehandedly rescue them from the jaws of fate for the full eighty minutes. We lost track of how many times they would simply kick or pass him the ball with little if any support and hope that he could somehow perform miracles. To give him his credit he was one of the few standout players last weekend and, despite the increasingly alarming scoreline, simply refused to quit. He put in some critical tackles and ran like a man possessed whenever he got the ball, but often found himself isolated. Other than that we struggled to find anybody else worthy of a notable mention.
One thing that did strike us was the fact that the Free Jacks boasted four former Arrows players, front rowers Andrew Quattrain, Cole Keith, Centre Ben LeSage and fullback Spencer Jones, all of whom contributed immensely to the Free Jacks routing of Toronto last Saturday, while fellow Canadian international Conor Keys also had a big impact in the second row for the Boston outfit. The four former Arrows all had significant roles in Toronto’s initial success in the MLR and you have to ask yourself why such players can’t be kept. Furthermore, many of the South American internationals who lit up pitches for the Arrows in seasons past are no longer with the team. Instead Toronto seems to have ended up this year with a group of very green Canadian development players and a mix of Canadian internationals and decidedly middle of the road overseas players who seem to be past their prime. They have managed to maintain the services of scrum half Ross Braude but even he seems to have lost some of the sparkle he had from last year. Add to that an injury list from hell, which most notably kept fly half Sam Malcolm out of contention last weekend, and it looks set to be a long and painful conclusion to the 2023 MLR season for Toronto.
We fully appreciate that the sky high cost of living in Toronto has probably made it harder for the Arrows to keep and attract quality players, but if that is genuinely the case we have to wonder how long the franchise, as Canada’s sole entry in the MLR, can remain viable. That has no doubt put a long rumoured second franchise in Vancouver out of the question.
Like we say we have enormous respect for team owner Bill Webb and what he is trying to do with the Arrows and for the rugby community in Toronto and Canada as a whole, but from the minute you entered the grounds last weekend none of that vision was honored. The rugby was of very poor quality and the fan experience was downright painful. While fixing the Arrows ongoing problems on the pitch this season is probably a lot more complex and difficult, rectifying the fan experience is simple and we hope to hear a more positive report from Sunday’s game against the Seawolves which, unfortunately due to other commitments, we won’t be attending. We will be back but until then the Arrows and their management know they have a lot of work to get through. As for the team itself, we know you’ve got this in you boys so onwards and upwards!
England and France are in such a league of their own in the Women’s Six Nations it resembles a two tier competition with Italy and Wales being the two most dominant sides in this supposed Division 2
After watching Wales and Scotland get completely outplayed by England and France respectively last weekend we had to ask ourselves if perhaps the Women’s Six Nations in its current format isn’t more like a version of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions. In the former you essentially have two teams competing for silverware, England and France with everyone else on a more level playing field in the Challenge Cup with Italy and Wales clearly starting to look like the two dominant teams.
In fairness to both Wales and Scotland they managed to give their English and French opponents a decent scrap for the first 30 minutes, after which the dam wall burst in both matches. In the Ireland game against Italy, even the Irish managed to remain in the match for the first half hour, and although the floodgates didn’t exactly open in the same way they did in Cardiff and Vannes it still wasn’t comfortable viewing if you were an Irish supporter. There is a ton of heart and commitment in all six teams, but only England and France appear to look like they have made the quantum leap to professionalism. Italy and Wales are extremely promising works in progress and there are some positive signs starting to emerge from Scotland. However, there is no denying that in the Northern Hemisphere England and France are completely and utterly in a league of their own when it comes to Women’s rugby.
We played around with an alternative format for the tournament where you did actually have a Champions and Challenge Cup type setup. In the Champions Cup you’d have England and France with either Italy or Wales. The result of the Round 4 match up this weekend between the Azurre and Dragons is likely to tell us much about who really is the best of the rest. In the Challenge Cup at this stage it would most likely be Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The winner of the Challenge series would be promoted to play France and England the following year and the Wooden Spoon holders of the Champions tournament demoted to the Challenge competition.
Controversial we know, but possibly a way to start shrinking the gulf in skill levels and professionalism between France/England and everyone else. We’re not sure, but let’s be honest with two rounds to go there are only two genuinely intriguing fixtures left – that between Wales and Italy and England and France. That’s not to discredit the efforts of any of the teams, but given the significant gaps in both resources and skills available to each of the participating countries a temporary rebalancing act may be worth considering.
Fijian Drua have been the tournament’s cherished project this season, but Moana Pasifika in their first historic game in Samoa last weekend showed just how vibrant rugby is in the Islands.
Despite not getting the result they wanted, we loved watching Moana Pasifika make history and play in front of their “real home crowd” in Apia, Samoa last weekend. They may ultimately have emerged on the wrong side of the scoreline, but did so in a performance that oozed, commitment, heart and passion, and no shortage of skill (something our own Arrows could take on board). It was all backed up by scenes of absolute joy in the stands as the people of Samoa got to watch their heroes bravely battle a quality Reds side. It was a rugby spectacle and the enthusiasm both on and off the pitch, just like the Fijian Drua’s two home games to date was infectious.
Despite Moana Pasifika remaining winless so far in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition, they have still managed to provide a bucketload of entertainment in all their games and put on display some genuine skill and ambition. They may not quite be the “movie stars” of Pacific Island rugby in the same way the 100 mile an hour Fijian Drua are, but it’s still a project worth sticking with. The Fijian Drua have come into their own this year, especially with a good number of games held in Fiji and it is our hope that we will see more of Moana Pasifika’s “home” games take place in the Islands in future editions of the tournament. The Drua are rapidly becoming one of the biggest viewing draws in Super Rugby (they’re huge fan favourites with us here at the Lineout).
By promoting the Pacific Island aspect of Super Rugby, it not only develops the global game but also adds a much needed international element to Super Rugby which the competition was in danger of losing with the departure of South African teams and Argentina’s Jaguares. Furthermore, and perhaps most important of all the boost to the fortunes of Pacific Island sides in the World Cup will be enormous. In short, VIVA Pasifika!!!
Leinster’s C Team gets an A grade in South Africa as its younger stars come of age
No we’re not going to ask the inevitable question as to whether or not Leinster fly half Sam Prendergast is the new Johnny Sexton. However, we won’t hide our admiration for the Ireland Under 20s star along with a decidedly B even C looking Leinster squad putting on such a show in South Africa for the final two rounds of regular URC season games at the moment. What it serves to illustrate though once more is the truly staggering depth that Leinster seems to have access to, both now and for the future. While the accolades are pouring in that essentially paint Leinster as a genuine superpower in club rugby, it’s hard to argue against the fact that this is a very special team indeed, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen in club rugby. New Zealand’s Crusaders probably being their equivalent in the Southern Hemisphere.
Everything Leinster does looks effortless and we have yet to see a better organised or more creative team this year. We take exception to the ridiculous comments made by former England international and commentator Brian Moore and others that Leinster have been gifted their progress this year and a place in the Heineken Cup Final come May. While perhaps they had the rub of the draw in the Pool stages, and a gentle run into their semi final clash with all their games being played at Fortress Aviva in Dublin, there is no denying that they’ve looked good for it.
What’s more their unbeaten streak of 24 games so far since that narrow loss last year to La Rochelle in the Heineken Cup final should silence most of their critics. They should breeze their way through to a URC final, but there are no guarantees that they’ll be playing in a home Heineken Cup Final. To do that they’ll have to get past a red hot Toulouse, admittedly also at the Aviva. The French side who remain the most successful team to ever compete in the Heineken Cup are the number one TOP 14 side in France’s domestic competition this year and have got better and better with each game in the Champions Cup. Toulouse are peaking at just the right time and the question remains that just like last year have Leinster done so too early, especially as they will be without the services of Johnny Sexton?
After watching Prendergast in action, along with Ross Byrne in the Round 2 Six Nations Ireland/France game we’d argue that the above concern is now a minor technicality. Leinster will have a much sterner test this weekend against the Bulls, but if this current Leinster side of relative unknowns on tour in South Africa can pull it off, then it’s very hard to see anything but a clean sweep of both the URC and the Heineken Cup for the Men in Blue and that cherished fifth European Star on their jersey. If that is genuinely the case then perhaps Irish supporters can really start to believe that this World Cup is the one in which they finally consign their Quarter Final hoodoo to the graveyard of history!
Time to bunker down
We’ll be honest and say we really like this idea and hope it gets adopted not only for the upcoming World Cup but for the game as a whole post the global showdown in France. What is it we hear you ask? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not Mathieu Raynal and Jaco Peyper hiding in an armor plated bunker in the heart of a bombed out World Rugby Headquarters building in Dublin.
We’re sure that like us you’re tired of the endless stoppages we now see across the board at both Club and Test level, where momentum gets sapped out of the game as the officiating team of TMOs, the referee and his on field assistants debate the issue of whether or not the laws determine it to be a yellow or red card based on a variety of mitigating circumstances. What World Rugby is proposing as a solution to this and is trialling in this summer’s U20s Championship is the idea of a TMO bunker. If successful it will be used during the World Cup in France starting in September.
The concept is very simple. Red cards for obvious and blatant foul play will be handed out by the on field referee on the spot, so essentially there are no changes there. However, in situations in which the decision is far from clear cut and requires some extensive video analysis to determine the level of foul play, whether it was accidental or not, level of danger and so on, it has been agreed that the time it takes to do this should not bring a halt to the momentum of the game or have the on field decision influenced by 50,000 partisan fans in the stands.
Consequently, what would happen now is that once a case of foul play has been observed but there is lack of consensus as to whether or not it’s a yellow or red card, the offending player will be issued a yellow card. In the ten minutes while he is in the sin bin, a dedicated team of television match officials will review all video footage and determine whether or not it is a yellow or needs to be upgraded to a red card. If it is a yellow card then the player returns to the field after ten minutes, but if that card is deemed worthy of an upgrade to a red he remains off the pitch for the remainder of the game and is not allowed to be replaced, reducing his team to 14 players for the rest of the match.
This would go a long way to ending some of the recent controversies and heat of the moment decisions such as Freddie Steward’s unfortunate red card against Ireland in the Six Nations or Zach Mercer’s unmerited sending off in the recent Champions Cup clash between Exeter and Montpellier. Furthermore, without sapping the momentum of the game it also removes the risk of on field referees being overwhelmed by crowd pressure and making incorrect decisions.
In short, we’re in favor of it plain and simple! Next order of business please World Rugby – consistency in officiating but hopefully this is a step in the right direction!
So that’s it for this week folks. Back to the grindstone tomorrow, so probably no missive from us next week – we’ll see how busy work gets. Till then take care and stay safe and hopefully last weekend’s tease of summer will return with a vengeance sooner rather than later!
First of all especially as it’s not one of our Calls of the Week this week, we want to give a HUGE shout out to Canada’s Women, who opened their Pacific Four series campaign earlier this month in Spain by thumping the USA 50-17. The tournament featuring Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA resumes in June, and Canada’s final two games against the Wallabies and Black Ferns should take place in Canada. Once we have dates and venues confirmed we’ll let you know, but if you can get out there and support our fantastic women make sure you do so! A video of the entire USA game can be found on the TV page of this website. Canada followed on from their resounding victory over the Springboks as a warm up a week earlier, and already in 2023 they look like they have every intention of picking up where they left off after their superb World Cup campaign last year.Canada still remain firmly entrenched as the fourth best side in the world and the future definitely looks bright!
So this week we reflect back on the fallout from two hectic weekends of Heineken Cup knockout rounds, which sadly sees South African sides out of their first foray into the European tournament, and ask ourselves the question as to whether or not it was all just too much rugby? Travel proved to be a major headache for all the teams but particularly the South African sides, who had no home quarter finals. This made us wonder how, given the fact that it was knockout rugby, it was set up like that in the first place. The same theme in many ways applies to the second last round of the URC with playoff spots up for grabs. There was some great rugby action played out over the past two weekends, that we cannot dispute, but the arrangements for it were far from ideal for the players being asked to perform at a level just shy of Test Rugby.
We also have a look at the Womens’ Six Nations which resumes this weekend, and despite the success of the their Men’s team, Ireland’s women find themselves holding the short end of the stick and so far are struggling to fire a shot in the tournament. Traditional Wooden Spooners of the last few years Scotland started the competition in a similar vein but their spirited resistance to a resurgent Welsh side in Round 2 certainly gave them grounds for optimism which Ireland seem to be without. Wales may not make much headway with England and France but certainly look to trouble Italy and finish the tournament strongly. Italy likewise can enjoy the fact that the hardest challenges of the competition, England and France, are now behind them and expect some big performances from the Azurre in the final three rounds. It all leads to that mouthwatering contest on April 29th between England and France to determine who is Europe’s best.
We look at the continuing struggle faced by Australian sides in Super Rugby to make any genuine headway against their New Zealand counterparts, with the Brumbies being the only real exception to the trend. New Wallabies Coach Eddie Jones will have an interesting time of it sorting out his first Wallabies side come their first Test of this World Cup year against the Springboks in July. He has enough talent to assemble a squad that can face off against the All Blacks but their lack of winning ways against New Zealand opposition is a worry.
Lastly we celebrate the Arrows return to Toronto and their first home game last weekend. While they may not have got the win, and a playoff spot is rapidly disappearing into the far distance, there was enough excitement on hand especially in the form of new winger D’Shawn Bowen, that fans can hopefully start to feel optimistic about next season.
So without any further ado, here’s what kept our pints frothy last week.
Too much too soon as European Professional Club Rugby (aka the Heineken Cup) tries to pack too much into a tight window
While we don’t want to come across as whinging or blaming the Stormers and Sharks quarter final exits on their travel arrangements, whichever way you cut it they had some bearing on last weekend’s proceedings. Particularly in the case of the Sharks who, despite a travel schedule from hell and 24 hours in economy class enroute to their quarter final date with Toulouse, made a genuine fist of their contest with the French giants which sadly cannot be said of the Stormers in their tussle with Exeter.
First of all you have to question why the Round of 16 initial knockout stage was immediately followed by the Quarter Finals the next weekend, which to the best of our knowledge has never happened before in the tournament’s history. Why would you do that when you know that some of the participants, unlike in tournaments in past years, are faced with a minimum of 15 hours of airline travel? Secondly, club budgets suddenly become ridiculously stretched and in the case of the Sharks to breaking point, necessitating them to have to travel 24 hours in economy class with only a three day turnaround between games where they were not travelling. Most of us find anything more than 4 hours in economy class these days a fate worse than death. For rugby players, who let’s face it are not exactly small and adaptable to the laughable seat pitch in economy cabins, expecting them to perform at the highest levels in a hugely demanding physical contest is downright cruel after such a flight.
So let’s break down their travel schedule. The weekend after the Six Nations all four South African sides, Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers travelled to Europe for a round of URC matches. The next weekend they were all back in South Africa for the Round of 16 matches in the Champions and Challenge Cup. The Lions, Sharks and Stormers were then expected to pack their bags right away again to head back to Europe for the Challenge and Champions Cup Quarter Finals which all of them lost. Once that was done then it was time to repack again and head back to South Africa for the final two rounds of the URC with playoff spots at stake for the Sharks. It’s a problem facing not just South African sides. Ireland’s Munster are in a similar predicament though not quite as exhausting. For their Round of Sixteen Champions Cup clash they had to travel to Durban. After returning back to Ireland a week later they found themselves back on the plane to South Africa for two critical games against the Stormers and Sharks to determine their playoff hopes in the URC.
This was always going to be a problem once South African sides got integrated into European club competition, but the seemingly blatant disregard for player welfare just smacks of yet another epic fail in how the game is managed these days in the professional era. In short, there is simply too much rugby compressed into too small a time frame. Surely there must be a way to ensure that the schedule reflects the distances now involved and the toll this takes on players. If not the sport as a spectacle fails and we have to be concerned for the long term of health of the players. Like we say we want to give the Sharks FULL credit for putting up a magnificent challenge in their duel with one of Europe’s greatest clubs, Toulouse, right up until the 65th minute. The Stormers on the other hand appeared resigned to their fate before they even walked onto the pitch at Sandy Park, as they simply did little more than go through the motions in their game against Exeter.
We’re not saying that ultimately this is the reason that we find ourselves with no South African representation post the quarter finals in their first foray in the Champions Cup, but it would be hard to argue against it not being a contributing factor. Toulouse and Exeter were ultimately too good on the day and are worthy semi-finalists along with Leinster and La Rochelle, but it is our hope that a slightly more level playing field is created next year in the interests of the sport, the competition’s legitimacy and player welfare.
A clash of Titans awaits at the end of the month
England simply look too good and must be striking fear into all and sundry in this year’s competition. France like their male counterparts clearly struggled with Italian bus timetables and got off a few stops before the Parma Stadium causing them to appear out of sorts at times against Italy in the first round. However, now armed with Lonely Planet and Rough Guides they once again look the all conquering force that came so close to preventing New Zealand from lifting the World Cup last year. In short, these are the two best sides in the competition by a country mile and are heading towards a monumental showdown in the final round of the tournament.
It’s hard to find any chinks in either of these two teams’ armor. After France dispatched Ireland with such ease in Cork two weekends ago, the wobbles against Italy seem almost irrelevant. The only thing really separating the sides is that France’s discipline isn’t quite as tight as England’s and their spectacular ambition at times in open play has resulted in them having more handling errors than any other team. England’s seemingly unstoppable brute power spearheaded by the remarkable Marlie Packer, will mean that everyone including France will find it hard to put the brakes on the Red Roses this year, and the fact that they will have to do it at Twickenham to boot makes it doubly hard.
Either way, if you want to watch two quality sides in action you simply won’t want to miss the final three rounds of this fascinating tournament which once again showcases the meteoric rise in popularity and quality of the Women’s game.
Ireland wonder why it’s all gone so horribly wrong while Scotland start to feel that a new dawn beckons
Watching Ireland implode against France in Cork a fortnight ago, we found it hard to believe that Ireland were such a force in this tournament from 2013 to 2017 including a Grand Slam during those years. Everyone else has moved on in the modern Women’s game but Ireland seem to be only just waking up to the realities of professionalism. It seems all the more ironic when you consider how successful the Men’s programme has become in the Emerald Isle. Centrally contracted players are just starting to appear in Ireland but in general the game is woefully underfunded and managed almost as if it were an entertaining side show to the National Men’s programme. Much like our own Men’s programme here in Canada there is tug of war between 7s and 15s duties, with players being forced to jump from one code to the other and one tournament to the next, ultimately not doing very well in either.
A creaking review of the Women’s game in Ireland has been made, but change is still slow to be implemented. With the IRFU seeming to be solely focused on getting the Men’s team beyond the Quarter Finals of the World Cup for the first time in history, don’t expect any reversal in fortunes in the near future.
All that aside though, there are some reasons to be cheerful. Hooker Neve Jones is the leading dominant tackler of the tournament so far while flanker Nichola Fryday is second in lineouts won. But other than that it’s pretty slim pickings if you’re an Irish supporter. Their next game is a tough trip to Italy fo face an Italian side reeling from a loss to England of epic proportions. Italy are simply not as bad as the 68-5 scoreline suggested having given France the fright of their lives a week earlier. After that it’s a daunting home game against Tournament giants England followed up by a last round encounter away with a rapidly improving Scottish outfit. This will probably be a tournament to forget for Ireland, but hopefully as the necessary changes to how the game is managed start to take effect, Ireland’s Grand Slam winning ways of 2013 can return.
As for Scotland, apart from their initial heavy Round 1 defeat to England, their performance against Wales gave them reasons to feel optimistic about the rest of their tournament. There are still no easy games and this weekend’s trip to France is not something you’d wish on anyone looking to build confidence.
However, Scotland looked remarkably improved in their gritty loss to Wales. Scotland’s tackling is phenomenal and they lead the tournament in the number of tackles made as well as having more turnovers won in the tackle than anyone else. Admittedly they are missing too many tackles which will cost them dearly against the likes of France and Italy. Their discipline overall has also been good, while Fullback Chloe Rollie along with England’s Abigail Dow have broken more tackles than anyone else. Hooker Lana Skeldon and back rower Evie Gallagher have led those tackle statistics, as well as winning the most turnovers in the tackle in the competition. In short, there’s a lot to like about this Scottish side and they certainly look to have benefitted from their World Cup experience.
Once they get the French game out of the way this weekend, Scotland will no doubt fancy their chances against Italy and Ireland at home in front of a very vocal crowd. Scotland seem further ahead than Ireland in getting the women’s game administered properly, after a review at the end of last year put the way in which the women’s game in Scotland is managed under the harshest and most unflattering spotlight. Drastic action was required and although early days yet it seems to be paying dividends. It would seem the Irish could learn a thing or two from their Celtic cousins.
“So what am I supposed to do with this lot mate?”
Once again in Super Rugby, there really is only one Australian team when it comes to the international component of the competition that is consistent in being able to go head to head with their New Zealand rivals. You guessed it – the Brumbies. For everyone else they can display some very attractive rugby, but a brand that simply doesn’t get results when it comes time to take on their Trans Tasman opponents. Some questionable decision making in terms of team selections for these matches don’t seem to help the cause either. Take for example the Brumbies selection for their trip to Christchurch to take on tournament giants the Crusaders. The Brumbies for reasons best known to themselves decided to take an understrength B team to Christchurch and paid the price in a fairly comprehensive defeat. Surely this was a chance to showcase the best of Australian rugby against one of New Zealand’s top sides, but instead it simply smacked of opportunity lost. The Brumbies did manage to beat the Blues but that game was played in Australia which was a slight advantage. For everyone else the defeats have been consistent and for the most part heavy, especially in away games.
It’s not all doom and gloom as some of the tournament statistics favor the Australians. The Brumbies are the second highest try scoring team in the competition, and in lineouts won the Reds lead the way along with the Rebels. The Rebels have a pretty handy offloading game and the Waratahs a fairly formidable scrum.
Winger Jordan Petaia of the Reds has impressed with his try scoring ability and several Australian players have stood up and been counted in set piece work. However, it would appear that incoming Wallaby Coach Eddie Jones is inheriting a team of brilliant individuals but one that is hard to weld together into an effective unit. It looks strikingly similar to what he was faced with in his last two years in charge of England and we all know how that went. In short, in the space of less than six months he has quite the job on his hands of getting some selection consistency going and developing a team of talented individuals into a cohesive and effective unit capable of going toe to toe with the World’s best.
Admittedly Jones has been granted an easy side of the World Cup draw in which to try and pull it all together and a gem of a Pool to settle the nerves. However, provided he can win the Pool and then deal with a thorny England or Argentina in the quarter finals, New Zealand, Ireland, France or South Africa await him and his charges in the semis and given the state of Australian rugby right now that’s a bit of a messy set of dishes to deal with. Defensively Australian sides continue to look distinctly second best against their New Zealand counterparts and such gaps will be manna from heaven for sides like France and Ireland.
In short, Eddie has a mess to sort out and he needs to do it quickly. Apparently that’s his stock in trade, though once done it all seems to go downhill at a rate of knots if England are anything to go by. For now though Australia will hope that his miracle worker abilities in the short term are still intact.
The Toronto Arrows find their version of Superman and with it some good cheer
While we banged our heads a few times on the bar when the final whistle blew at the end of Toronto’s first home game of the MLR 2023 season, we have to admit we thoroughly enjoyed watching the Arrows in their narrow defeat to the New York Ironworkers – something we can’t say we’ve done up to this point. It was great to see packed stands of the Arrows faithful again at York Lions stadium thoroughly enjoying themselves and the exploits of superstar winger D’Shawn Bowen in particular. The team clearly fed off it and while there still remains much work to be done and a playoff spot seems a rather remote possibility to say the least, it was still the start of something positive. Unlike in their first six games where the Arrows faded dramatically in the second half, on Saturday they held their own and kept it a contest right until the final whistle.
There’s still some notable work-ons though let’s not pretend otherwise before we get to the good stuff. Toronto gave away far too many penalties, the lineouts still need some major surgery, the Arrows are not dominant at the breakdown and most importantly of all their first up tackles are almost nonexistent. New York was having a field day in getting past the Arrows in first phase play, and had it not been for the number of handling errors the Ironworkers made, the scoreline could have been very different.
So that’s the bad news, the good news is all bundled up in one number – 14. Winger D’Shawn Bowen’s spectacular 3 try hat trick debut for the Arrows was something to behold. The 7s star brought his A game and then some to York Lions Stadium on Saturday and made it a party for the fans in the stands. Shane O’Leary also looked positive in the fly half jersey although the move of Sam Malcolm from 10 to 15 seemed to diminish his normal star of the show quality. However, there is no question that Bowen is something special for the Arrows and possibly even Canada in the future, having already starred for the national side at 7s level. While everyone knows we think one of Canada’s fundamental problems is switching players between codes, we hope that in Bowen’s case a decent stint in an Arrows jersey and then the national 15s squad could do Canada’s cause no end of good.
It still may be a long and very difficult season ahead for the Arrows, but a bit more of what was on display last Saturday, and all of a sudden the future could start to look very bright indeed for next year and beyond!
Well that’s it folks for another week. Last week was insane with the day job hence the silence but hopefully we can stick to at least once every other week for the rest of the year (probably more realistic). Once again a massive shout out to our phenomenal Canadian women and their success in the Pacific Four series! Enjoy spring which finally seems to have decided to get underway with a balmy 29 C in Toronto today – time to get out the barbecues!!!!
Now that we’ve had a chance to catch our breath after one of the most memorable Six Nations in a long time, we can reflect on a tournament that told us a lot about the State of Northern Hemisphere Rugby ahead of this year’s World Cup. Ireland emerged as Grand Slam Champions and with it their seemingly unshakeable grip on being the Number One Ranked side in the World was strengthened. However, as predicted World Cup favourites and host France proceeded to show that it will take a very special team to snatch the Webb Ellis trophy from them on home soil. Although they got off to their traditional slow start, by the end Les Bleus were playing rugby fit for the gods. Scotland, as they so often do despite their early promise faded as the tournament wore on and narrowly avoided a disastrous end to their campaign against Italy. England spent much of the tournament adrift at sea without any clear sense of direction, but managed to save their best performance for last and gave their long suffering fans some promise for the future. Wales lurched from one crisis to another but managed to hand Italy the honor of the Wooden Spoon, even if more questions than answers still surround Welsh rugby. Finally Italy, despite losing all five of their games showed some genuine class at times and a resilience we haven’t seen in the past. They may have emerged empty handed but their reputation as the tournament’s whipping boys is now most definitely a thing of the past, and at long last we can say with utmost confidence that the future of Italian rugby looks bright indeed.
Elsewhere around the globe last week, the speculation as to who will be the next All Blacks Coach was finally put to bed, as Crusaders Coach Scott “Razor” Robertson was appointed to the post after this World Cup. While it hardly came as a surprise, it remains to be seen what effect this will or won’t have on New Zealand’s preparations for the forthcoming World Cup under outgoing incumbent Ian Foster. While the Men’s Six Nations came to an epic conclusion, the Womens’ version of the tournament blasted out of the blocks last weekend, with England looking rather terrifying to say the least. The conundrum around the subjectivity of officiating decisions and the numerous grey areas they seem to have to work their way through continued to keep conversations in pubs agitated, after the controversy surrounding England fullback Freddie Steward’s unfortunate red card in the final Six Nations match against Ireland. Lastly, our own Toronto Arrows continued to struggle and to be honest this season is rapidly becoming one that the players and fans may be keen to forget unless things start to change.
So without any further ado, here’s what kept our pints frothy last week.
The Six Nations – The Final Verdict
A great tournament, some epic matches and in the end a worthy Grand Slam champion – what more could you really ask for? The pecking order in terms of the number one and two spots on the final table looked about right and everybody else lived up to the expectations surrounding them heading into the tournament. Ireland and France were the undisputed stars of the show. Scotland impressed but started to fade at the halfway point. England spent much of it trying to figure out who they were but managed to do so by the end and produced their best performance of the new Borthwick era in the process. Wales weathered the stormy seas that the sport found itself in back at home and ultimately managed to avoid the Wooden Spoon. Last but not least Italy entertained us from start to finish and simply refused to quit and in the process played some rather fancy rugby, even if their flair and ambition tripped them up on numerous occasions – but what promise it holds for the future!
So rather than break the competition down into a myriad of statistics for each side we ask the simple question as to whether or not the teams got what we felt they needed to get from this tournament when we previewed it way back at the beginning of February.
For Ireland, we think they can honestly say that they got what they needed to get for the most part out of this tournament. We said they needed to get some genuine confidence in their depth and the ability to deal with injury crises. We think it’s safe to say that after the Scotland game that question or concern is now null and void. We said they needed to find an understudy for Jonathan Sexton, especially with the veteran general now missing the rest of the club season due to a groin injury, but still hopefully fit for the World Cup. Ross Byrne’s performance as his replacement in the second half of the game against France, while still having some workons, allowed us and probably many Irish supporters to sleep just a little easier. Jamison Gibson-Park’s return from injury was stellar, and Craig Casey and Conor Murray provided ample cover in his absence at scrum half. As for the rest of Ireland’s depth, in short it is fantasy league stuff plain and simple. The fact of the matter however still remains that Ireland without Sexton are a world class team but with him they are extraordinary.
For France, their depth across every position on the park is quite simply outrageous. They may have struggled to get going in the early stages of the tournament, but by the time it wound up there were very few people who doubted their World Cup credentials and favourites tag. In short we said they needed to develop a Plan A, B, and C for every position and they did so and then some in this tournament. They have water tight Plan As and Bs and their Cs are already looking seriously ominous. Perhaps of all the teams in this year’s Six Nations France showed us what they can do but with plenty more still left in the tank, as in essence by the end of the tournament they genuinely looked like they were just warming up for the serious business come September.
For Scotland this Six Nations was a bit of a mixed bag. They got themselves off to a brilliant start beating England at Twickenham and then thumping Wales at Murrayfield. We said that the thing they needed most from this year’s tournament was consistency. In the opening two rounds it finally looked like they were getting there. However, against France and Ireland things started to fall apart. They got blitzed by Les Bleus in the opening twenty minutes and once Scotland are forced to play catch up rugby against a strong side like France they panic and the wheels start to fall off. They rallied well in the second half but were still chasing the game and the execution and composure wasn’t there when they needed it. Despite a brilliant first half against Ireland they simply couldn’t maintain it, and couldn’t adapt to the injuries that were being absorbed by both sides as well as Ireland did. In that final game against Italy and without the services of Finn Russell, Scotland were just not convincing and once more appeared to panic as a resurgent Italy started get more and more confident. Scotland were lucky to win that game and they know it. So in short, no Scotland did not get what they needed from this Six Nations – that elusive quality known as consistency.
For England, this Six Nations gave them very little cause for celebration till that final game in Dublin. Sure they ended up fourth on the table at the end, and managed two wins, but Rounds 1-4 were anything but convincing. The execution was poor, defensively they looked like a helium balloon trying to breach the Normandy defences on D-Day and they appeared a tad unfit a lot of the time. However, after the ultimate humiliation by France in Round 4, England have to be applauded for making the journey to Dublin and giving it their all. It was their best performance to date, and showed both a plan and the skill sets needed to start implementing it. Sure there were still lots of work ons and defensively we still remain less than convinced that England are at the races, but you can’t fault them for a gritty and courageous display that clearly rattled Ireland at times. Freddie Steward’s red card was unfortunate and while we very much doubt it was the factor that lost them the game, the fact that England coped as well as they did with fourteen men for a full half must give them and their supporters huge confidence. It was finally a team performance from the Men in White. In terms of what they needed to get out of the tournament we’d argue that for the most part they can tick the boxes. If you look at the three things we said they needed, consistency of selection, the genesis of an attacking game and a crackdown on discipline, we’d argue that by the time the final whistle was blown in Dublin they’d started to get there. Selections are not quite consistent yet but are getting there and we saw the kind of attacking game England want to play even if they didn’t quite pull it off at times. In terms of discipline however, England can feel exceptionally pleased with their progress this Six Nations. The only team to concede less penalties than England in the tournament was Ireland. In short – job done and onwards and upwards from here.
For Wales, this was one to forget in many ways although they did end the tournament in a more optimistic mindset than when they started. They avoided the Wooden Spoon and some traction was made in sorting out the game at a national level, but it’s messy and the future is still less than crystal clear. They continued to struggle with injury and their set piece work and discipline still need some serious attention. Given that these areas of their game required open heart surgery going into the tournament, and would still appear to be on life support afterwards – then no Wales didn’t really get what they needed out of this tournament. Wales had the worst disciplinary record of the competition and their set piece work made for equally unpleasant reading. They only had a 74% success rate in the scrums the entire Six Nations and come the World Cup this could prove to be a serious Achilles Heel. Nevertheless there were glimmers in the final two games, with the win in Rome and the loss in Paris, of what Wales could do if they can just focus on the job at hand.
Lastly, Italy find themselves staring once more at the Wooden Spoon. However, despite emerging winless they must surely feel that this was one of the most positive Six Nations campaigns in their history. Sure that loss to Wales who were their main target for a win must have hurt like hell, but unlike in years past Italy never got thrashed once this tournament and were in all of their games till the final whistle. They gave every team they faced serious food for thought and at times a few mild heart attacks. Italy proved this year that the days of them being a pushover are now finally a thing of the past. However, despite the promise, flair and ambition on show at times and some impressive emerging talent there is still the uncomfortable truth that Italy simply didn’t get what they needed from this tournament. We said they needed one big win as a bare minimum, but in reality they really needed two. They almost got one against France, could have beaten Wales and almost pulled off the upset of the tournament at Murrayfield. Nevertheless it’s yet another tournament which will cause Italy to reflect in their buildup to a World Cup Pool of Death, on what might have been instead of what should have been. Sadly as much as it pains us to say it, given how much we enjoyed watching Italy this year, in terms of what they needed to get out of this tournament Italy failed yet again. Still on a positive note, we really believe that come 2024 Italy could well be a Six Nations dark horse.
We really hope that by the time the opening whistle is blown for France 2023, it’s the rugby we’ll be talking about after the matches and not the officiating
This Six Nations saw great games marred by the post match breakdown of how much this card or that card ruined the spectacle, skewed the result or was just downright nonsensical. Once more though, and excuse us if we sound like a broken record, the issue of consistency and subjective versus objective interpretation came into play. It’s an area that SIMPLY HAS to be sorted out come the World Cup.
Firstly we need to say two things regarding the red card incident in the final game of the tournament in Dublin. First and foremost we don’t think that any malice was intended in the unfortunate incident between the two fullbacks. It was just a case of mistiming and poor reaction. We rate English fullback Freddie Steward very highly indeed and not once in his time in a white jersey has he given us any reason to believe he could be classed as a “dirty or dangerous player”. Secondly even with the red card, while it didn’t help England’s cause, it wasn’t the reason why England lost and Ireland won.
We appreciate that in the way the rules are currently written, the way Steward turned and faced the unfortunate Keenan can be perceived as having a high degree of danger as his elbow made contact with the Irishman’s head with force. But by the same argument we’d say Steward’s hip could have done even more harm as it’s a larger and more solid surface. Steward was caught in an instant in a very awkward position with both players reacting to momentum. In short, all of us felt that despite how the laws interpret it, it should have been a yellow card end of argument. Given the fact that the disciplinary hearing also felt that no further citing against Steward was required also makes you wonder if a yellow would not have been sufficient on the day, and as a result an unnecessary piece of side show theatre would have been avoided.
If you look at the other red and yellow cards issued throughout the tournament, Steward’s punishment seems excessive. Why weren’t France’s Uini Atonio’s yellow card in the game against Ireland or Italy’s Pierre Bruno’s forearm to the throat of Wales’ Wyn Jones which also saw yellow, reds as well given these views?
All we hope for is consistency and the tools by which to make the distinction between red and yellow so much more clear cut for the officials, thus removing the current confusing levels of subjectivity. On a stage such as the World Cup or Six Nations, rugby produces marvellous spectacles that simply shouldn’t be marred by such game sapping vagaries.
No surprises here!
We all knew this was going to happen, we just didn’t know when.
Is he the right man for the job? Probably, only time will tell.
Was it handled well? No.
Was the timing appropriate? Not really but what choice did the New Zealand authorities really have, having messed it all up in the first place anyway.
Whichever way you cut it, the appointment of the “Razor” aka Crusaders Coach Scott Robertson to the All Blacks top job was inevitable. The timing of the announcement was never going to be perfect. Given the backlash against current Coach Ian Foster, fuelled initially by New Zealand’s governing body themselves last year and fanned by All Black supporters, a decision regarding the future had to be made sooner rather than later. Furthermore, given the fact that Robertson and his competitor Jamie Joseph’s in trays were rapidly filling with lucrative offers from other clubs and countries, they simply couldn’t afford to let what was considered one of the brightest Coaching prospects the All Blacks have had in years slip away.
However, Robertson’s appointment still leaves us feeling slightly uncomfortable. The reasons mentioned above make sense, but put yourself in the position of Ian Foster charged with taking an All Black side that at the moment looks significantly less than the finished product to potential World Cup glory. Let’s just suppose that the All Blacks do turn things around this year and surprise everyone and make it to the final. Let’s take it a step further and throw out the wild card of New Zealand under Foster’s tutelage winning the whole thing. Now a Coach who has no International Coaching experience is preferred over one who has been with the All Black Coaching setup for 11 years and possibly even won the World Cup. That’s an interesting dynamic whichever way you cut it.
All that aside however, the writing on the wall was plain for all to see. The next generation of the All Blacks post France 2023 needs fresh blood in the Coaching box and Robertson is seen as the way forward in that department. The New Zealand public wants it and the players although loyal to Foster and his team, especially the younger members of the squad, know it’s needed. In short, although it may have been badly handled by all and sundry, everybody now simply has to buckle down and get on with the job at hand. The future will ultimately take care of itself but the here and now is the most pressing concern, and it’s our hope that the players and Coaches are simply allowed to focus on the task at hand.
Six Nations Part 2 anyone? – Yes Please!!!!!
As you all know Womens’ Rugby, especially after the truly memorable World Cup in New Zealand last year, is very much on the radar here at the Lineout. Consequently the opening round of this year’s Six Nations was something we were all eagerly looking forward to, and it’s safe to say we weren’t disappointed. Admittedly we were gutted for Ireland and Scotland who were dispatched with relative ease by Wales and England, but the France/Italy game was a feisty affair that at times had shades of deja vu with the opener between the Mens’ sides back in February.
However, it must be said that England look set to put the disappointment of the World Cup behind them, and return with a vengeance to the winning ways that saw them arrive at the final on an unprecedented 30 game winning streak. It would appear that the World Cup Final was a mere bump in the road for England. It was a dominant 10 try performance against Scotland which also saw back rower Sarah Hunter play her last game for England after an extraordinary 141 caps. Barnstorming flanker and team mascot Marlie Packer crashed over as usual for a hat trick of tries and England looked sharp both physically and mentally. For Scotland it was a very tough day at the office as they simply couldn’t match up to England’s brute physicality and ability to clinically control proceedings.
Wales were perhaps the surprise package of the weekend as they romped to a comfortable 31-5 win over the Irish. Ireland struggled to get into the game and put a stop to the physical prowess of Wales every time they got into the Irish 22. As we thought might be the case Italy continue to be a smoking gun in Womens’ Rugby and made life exceptionally difficult for France at times. Had the weather remained dry it could have been a very different match, but as the heavens started to open in the second half, France coped better with the conditions and showed the composure under pressure that served them so well in the World Cup.
In short it’s only Round 1 and this tournament looks set to provide us with some thrilling encounters. England may be hard to beat and France are likely to get progressively stronger as the tournament unfolds, but at this stage all the participants look more than capable of pulling off some memorable wins. Make sure you don’t miss it!
The Arrows need some good news – FAST!
We’ll be honest we’re struggling to remain positive so far this season about this new look Arrows side. While we were delighted to see so many Canadian players and new domestic talent in the side, there is no denying that Toronto are missing some of their South American contingent from seasons past. Five games in and only one narrow win to show for it, is not exactly the ideal season opener.
A lot of the same problems persist from last season, mainly around discipline and set piece work, but we also can’t help noticing that the Arrows simply don’t look as fit as their opponents with some of the older guard looking distinctly slow out of the blocks. Toronto have turned in some relatively impressive first halves, but seem to completely run out of gas in the second half, even from off the bench. Fly half Sam Malcolm remains a bright spark in an otherwise relatively lacklustre side so far. He seems one step ahead of the play while the rest of his teammates seem at least two behind it. If it wasn’t for his accuracy with the boot, a lot of the scorelines in Toronto’s opening five matches would make for much more painful viewing.
We’re not quite sure what the answer is at this stage. As mentioned in previous posts, we’ve always been willing to give the Arrows the benefit of the doubt in their first few games before they finally get their first game at home in Toronto six weeks into the season. However, by the time they arrived for their first home game last year they already had four wins under their belt. This weekend they face the only team who have fared worse than them this year, the Dallas Jackals and it’s hoped that this is where it all starts to click for them. If it doesn’t then they face a tough three week stint against some of the top teams in the league, so a confidence boosting win this weekend is absolutely critical if they are to start getting their season on track.
Well that’s it for this week folks. Women’s Six Nations action this weekend, Heineken Cup Round of 16 and another party in Fiji with Super Rugby as the Drua host the Rebels. Enjoy it all and hopefully the long awaited start of spring!
As the Six Nations draws to a thundering close – let’s be honest is there anything else to really talk about? Well actually yes there is. A bunch of lads from Fiji turned the form book upside down last weekend in Lautoka and made history in one of the most enjoyable and infectiously joyous rugby games we can remember for a long time. Also our own Arrows started to click courtesy of a young Kiwi and got their first win of the season, even if it was a bit more of a nail biter than we would have liked.
But ultimately as it should the Six Nations took centre stage and gave us some epic moments. Maybe we’d talked Italy up too much, but perhaps as a result of too much ambition the Azzurri played their hearts out but ultimately fluffed their lines against a Welsh side that seemed to have rediscovered their love of the game, despite all the troubles plaguing it back home. France then proceeded to completely and utterly put England to the sword at Twickenham and in the process silenced many of us who had been wondering if they’d peaked too soon ahead of their own World Cup this year. England by comparison are clearly wishing that this was the start of the World Cup cycle and not its conclusion. Lastly on Sunday, Scotland the brave gave everything they had against Ireland but, despite the number of Irish casualties littering the field, they just couldn’t get past the Men in Green. For Ireland who look set to cruise to the Grand Slam this Saturday, their ability to adapt to the ongoing field hospital conditions was nothing short of miraculous, while depth and composure is something that Ireland now appear to have in abundance.
So as always there was plenty of subject matter to keep our pints frothy but here’s what got us jabbering the most.
Wales make sure that it’s a race to the finish for the Wooden Spoon between themselves and Italy
As Wales looked into the abyss of the Six Nations basement last Friday night, they knew that Saturday’s match was critical to breathing life back into a Welsh dragon that is clearly suffering. Sometimes the best teams simply know how to find the strength as a unit to fight their way out of such dark places. Wales’ performance last Saturday in Rome was exactly that. It wasn’t perfect but it was a team playing for each other and in the process remembering that, despite all the turmoil back in Wales, this is a game they love to play together and for each other. It probably won’t be enough to get them past France this weekend but it at least put a smile back on their faces and in the process the mental strength to face a daunting final game in Paris. Wales may be down but they are definitely not out yet. Build on the performance in Rome, and at least be competitive in Paris this weekend and the tough task of building for the World Cup come September can be approached with some degree of optimism.
For Italy, it was almost as if the desire to win was overwhelming. They were filled with ambition and kept trying to play too much rugby and be too clever, and as a result it tripped them up almost every time. There was no lack of enterprise but they simply couldn’t finish off the moves. If ever there was a time to slow it down and keep it simple, the game in Rome on Saturday was a case in point for Italy. Although the promise of what they can do has finally started to take shape this Six Nations, they have a tendency to overcomplicate things. Their handling error count which was already the highest in the competition went through the roof on Saturday, and the number of times we had to look away as a rushed pass or kick/chase was butchered was immensely frustrating.
In short, Italy didn’t play a bad game and Wales didn’t play a brilliant game, but the Welsh were the more patient of the two and it paid huge dividends. Italy did almost twice as much as Wales in practically every statistic but with only a 50% success rate. The Welsh by comparison fed off Italy’s mounting error count, and took their own chances in a much more measured and composed fashion. Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb made an extraordinary return to Test rugby and made Coach Warren Gatland wonder why he’d fallen out of favor in the first place.
Italy now face the daunting trip to Murrayfield to face a Scottish side in serious danger of reverting to type and fizzling out of the Six Nations once more after a promising start. As a result there is still an outside chance that just like last year Italy could pull off a big surprise for the final round. Wales although boosted by the win in Rome must have watched France’s demolition of the English with serious alarm. Beating a feisty Italian side in Rome is one thing, beating the world’s second best team who now appear to be in full song is another thing altogether and in front of a packed Stade de France. The contest for the Wooden Spoon is still very much alive and will keep us in suspense until Australian referee Nic Berry blows the final whistle in Paris on Saturday.
France make it look too easy while England looked as though they hadn’t studied or been to the gym
If you were a French supporter or a neutral you would have found Saturday’s proceedings a glorious exposition of the beauty of the modern game. If you were an England supporter you were most likely looking over the top of the couch in sheer horror and with a very stiff drink in your hand. France were magnificent in every aspect and any doubts about whether or not they are genuine contenders to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in the Stade de France on October 28th can once more be consigned to the rubbish heap. England meanwhile know they have a ridiculously short and painful five months ahead of them in which to get them even close to the point where they can be genuinely competitive once they leave the pool stages, and that’s assuming they even make it out of the pools alive.
For England what really struck us the most was how unfit they looked. Admittedly it must be tiring as all hell chasing around after a bunch of guys in blue jerseys as sharp as France are, but still that porous English defence was once again glaringly obvious. Their forwards were completely outplayed at the breakdown by France who attacked and defended with speed and precision. Far too many English players were left isolated after a promising break, with the rest of their teammates arriving far too late. England were painfully slow at recycling the ball and keeping it moving, whereas the French were doing everything at least twice if not three or four times as fast. England’s lethargic pace at times allowed French defences to reset continuously with every English play being literally telegraphed ahead to the French coaching box before it got underway. Once again England’s handling errors mounted as the game increasingly got away from them, and France were there to pounce on every English miscue and Ireland will do the same this Saturday.
For France it was a faultless performance from start to finish and one which reflected the standards this remarkable team must now set for themselves in the World Cup. Wales should be a relatively straightforward proposition for the Men in Blue on Saturday to finish off their campaign in style. Although France’s chances of lifting the Six Nations silverware now look rather dim, given that they require a badly misfiring England to do them a favor in Dublin on Saturday, a strong second place finish will leave Fabien Galthie and his Coaching team with a warm fuzzy feeling ahead of their World Cup preparations. After watching Saturday’s game at Twickenham you can’t help get the feeling that the best is yet to come from France.
Scotland put up a brave fight in a match that took some heavy casualties, but Ireland’s ability to adapt prevailed
First up, let’s simply say that Sunday’s encounter in Edinburgh was a game of two halves. In the first half two sides went at each other hammer and tongs and ran from every perceivable corner of the pitch. It was thrilling stuff and showed enormous enterprise and skill from both teams. However, in the second half Scotland ran out of gas and once more started to chase the scoreboard as they did in Paris a fortnight earlier and sadly we all seem to know how that ends. Despite a mounting casualty list on both sides, Ireland simply hunkered down and adapted to the crisis they were forced to deal with, whereas Scotland slowly but surely started to look reckless and flustered. It was interesting as the more the game went on the more Scotland started to look like Italy under pressure in the game against Wales the day before. Ireland took a deep breath and focused on the task at hand while Scotland and Finn Russell played an increasingly risky and rushed game.
For Scotland it’s a trend they simply have to fix come the World Cup to realise their full potential. The skill and talent in this squad is exceptional, but just like Italy at times it boasts an ambition that is either inappropriate given the immediate situation they are faced with or not backed by the skills needed in the heat of the moment. Ireland always looked as if they had the measure of the game and the although audacious at times, their moves always boasted the skill set and preparation needed to make them fire. As the game wore on the same could not be said for Scotland. With fullback Stuart Hogg and fly half and star playmaker Finn Russell ultimately succumbing to injury Scotland were clearly starting to lose their cohesion.
For Ireland, they will look at Sunday’s game as a remarkable achievement. As an exercise in depth and crisis management Ireland excelled. To lose both your hookers is every Coach’s nightmare, but somehow Ireland took it all in their stride. Cian Healy proved once more that Test centurions have their value and then some as he made an outstanding shift to being a Test level hooker by necessity. In addition, World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier made a pretty solid effort at throwing lineout darts. Meanwhile the bench rose to the occasion, as Ryan Baird, Jack Conan and Robbie Henshaw all stood up and were counted for their injured counterparts. Jamison Gibson-Park returned from injury and once released from the bench looked as though his time on the sidelines hadn’t caused him to miss a beat whatsoever. Ireland will still be concerned with the number of tackles they are missing, 27 compared to Scotland’s 11, but their phenomenal success at turning the ball over is managing to compensate for it. However, it’s still an issue that simply has to get addressed ahead of the World Cup and unfortunately England are unlikely to give them much of a workout in that department this Saturday.
Scotland will want to end what has been for all intents and purposes one of their most positive Six Nations campaigns in recent memory, despite the two back to back losses. However, a solid win over Italy is absolutely key to ensuring they carry some formidable momentum into a challenging World Cup Pool. For Ireland a Grand Slam beckons and despite the missed tackle count, all of Ireland’s development goals for this Six Nations and building towards the World Cup, provided they dispatch England on Saturday, will have been met and then some.
We need to talk to our travel agents about flights to Lautoka
If you were as fortunate as we were to catch the Fijian Drua’s historic win over the Crusaders on Friday night (here in Toronto time wise that is), then the party atmosphere was well underway by the time you got up to watch Wales and Italy do battle on Saturday morning. We can’t remember the last time we had so much fun watching a Super Rugby game. So much so we’re all planning our winter holidays in Fiji next year to coincide with a Drua game. The atmosphere in the stands was absolutely fantastic and a wonderful celebration of what our glorious sport is all about. Everybody was just having so much fun! We weren’t having fun at the Crusaders expense as they did the match credit by putting up a serious contest, but as a sporting spectacle it took some beating. What’s even more exciting is that over the course of this Super Rugby season we get to watch the Drua put on a show in front of their adoring fans six (yes count them) more times!
As everyone knows who reads this blog, we have a genuine fanboy/girl thing about the Drua. However it’s based on wanting to see a side from a country that clearly struggles with resources but not talent do well in a premier club competition. When they do as evidenced on Friday it’s heady stuff and let’s be honest everyone loves the underdog. Sure you can argue that the Crusaders were missing some of their big guns like Richie Mo’unga but there was still a significant contingent of All Blacks there. Admittedly it looked incredibly humid which clearly didn’t help ball handling skills or fatigue at times for either side, but the Drua played with flair, passion, commitment and above all absolute loyalty to their delirious fans.
Rugby was the winner on the day in Lautoka and we look forward to a lot more of its winning ways.
The Arrows grind out their first win of the season with Sam Malcolm stealing the show
Like we said in the previous post, we wanted to reserve judgement on the Arrows season for 2023 until they were at least 3 games in. Secondly, unlike all the other teams they will not get to play in front of their faithful Toronto fans until their seventh game. That’s a long time whichever way you cut it and in our opinion explains their traditional slow start to the season.
All that aside though, Saturday’s one point win over League newcomers the Chicago Hounds showed just how valuable to the team Kiwi fly half Sam Malcolm is. The Arrows have been fortunate enough to secure his services for a fifth consecutive season, and on Saturday he showed why he is such a good investment. Despite Toronto’s opening two losses, Malcolm remains the League’s second highest point scorer. His composure under pressure is exemplary and his ability to marshall Toronto’s attack even if as a whole the team looks frayed is key to their potential success this year. He has a keen eye for opportunity and an ability to put players in space. Add to that a reliable boot to make sure opposition sides pay dearly for their disciplinary indiscretions and Toronto looks well placed to make some noise this year.
However, kicking points alone is not what wins you a Championship and it’s Malcolm’s speed of thought and decision making which could be Toronto’s greatest asset this season – the rest of the team just need to make sure they can keep up!
So that’s it for another bumper week of top notch rugby. Lots of Super Rugby Trans Tasman action this weekend to look forward to leading up to Super Saturday and the grand finale of the Six Nations as well as our Arrows doing battle with Old Glory. Enjoy folks and hopefully by next week we can finally start to peek over the top of the winter wall towards spring!
We apologise that last week’s Calls of the Week which was a mid-term review of the Six Nations got lost in a myriad of technical problems with this site. Fortunately that seems to have been resolved as we look forward to possibly THE most intriguing Round 4 of the Six Nations in a VERY long time. We also have a quick look at Super Rugby and the start of the Toronto Arrows MLR season.
However, whichever way you cut it all eyes will be on Rome, Twickenham and Murrayfield this weekend. This Six Nations has provided us with some thrilling encounters so far with, for the most part, the form book being thrown out the window. On a weekend where “Le Crunch” match between traditional superpowers France and England takes place it usually tends to take centre stage. This weekend though for a lot of people we can’t help feeling that it takes a back seat to the events to be played out in Rome and Edinburgh. Italy have been fantastic so far this Six Nations even though they remain winless. However, their competitiveness at times has been inspirational and gave both France and Ireland a serious fright. Wales meanwhile appear to be in a freefall that makes England’s trials and tribulations last year in the tournament seem almost trivial. Both Italy and Wales simply have to win Saturday’s match plain and simple and as a result it is perhaps the biggest game of the weekend and if not then surely a close second to the Scotland/Ireland game.
Scotland’s tussle with Ireland on Sunday is not only a dress rehearsal for the World Cup in six months time, as both teams share the same pool, but for Scotland in particular it provides them an opportunity to make a massive statement ahead of the global showdown. For Ireland, it’s a Test of how well they can cope under pressure with a potential Grand Slam on the line and on the road to boot.If you’d asked most of us before the tournament we probably wouldn’t have thought that come Round 4 we’d being seeing Scotland clinging on to second spot on the log.If Scotland pull off a win on Sunday, then all of a sudden life in Pool B for Ireland and South Africa suddenly becomes distinctly more uncomfortable come September in France.
All this is not to say that England’s date with France at Twickenham on Saturday isn’t of the same magnitude, but in the above mentioned matches the stakes just seem that much higher. France will be hoping the Scots do them a favor on Sunday, and that they can get their campaign back on track with a solid win over England, with only a disintegrating Welsh side to face in Paris on Super Saturday. For England an opportunity to lay down a marker for the World Cup lies in wait. The chance to make a genuine statement that England’s trajectory under new Coach Steve Borthwick is clearly upwards is something England will want to seize with both hands. For now they can feel relatively pleased with their third spot on the Six Nations table, even if their sternest Tests lie ahead of them in these final two rounds.
Last but not least Super Rugby has got off to a highly entertaining start, with Australian sides looking genuinely competitive this year. The Toronto Arrows opening two games have not exactly been the start they would have liked to this year’s 2023 season. However, the squad has a very new look and feel to it and it’s likely to take some time for them to find their groove, although hopefully not too much time. As a result their third game of the year against MLR newcomers Chicago Hounds this weekend is a key fixture.
There was much to think about this week and keep our pints frothy so let’s get into it.
Can Italy silence the Welsh dragon twice in a row while Wales desperately need to stop the rot that is hijacking their game
We think that this year it’s a pretty safe bet that as a neutral you’ve been watching Italy’s games live rather than wait for extended highlights once you’ve got the rest of your Six Nations day out of the way. Italy have simply been enthralling this year, plain and simple. They may not have any wins yet this year in the Championship, but many feel that Saturday could well change all that, and in the process watching Italy is a bit like watching Fiji – it’s just great entertainment and 110% passion and commitment.
But let’s put it in perspective, Italy no longer seem a flash in the pan. They have given the number one and two sides in the world during the course of this tournament a serious fright. They beat England in the second half of the game at Twickenham in Round 2 even if they couldn’t win the game itself.
Italy are also boasting some impressive statistics this year and have the second highest run metres of the Championship just behind Ireland along with the number of carries also just behind the Men in Green. They’ve passed the ball more than any other team, and broken more tackles than any other team except France. They are the leading proponent of turnovers won in the tackle and have the best lineout in the competition spearheaded by the outstanding Federico Ruzza. In short there is a great deal to like about the 2023 Azzurri vintage. All this razzle dazzle comes at a price though as their ambition with ball in hand has tripped them up at times and Italy have more handling errors than any other team this year. Also their scrum while effective at times could definitely use a bit more discipline as the Azzurri have given away the most scrum penalties of all the teams in the competition. But it’s still just so much fun to watch and no one can accuse Italy of being boring.
For the game against Wales though they will miss the presence of last year’s sensation Ange Capuozzo, and who has been such a catalyst for the exciting brand of rugby Italy are trying to play. The all star fullback is out for the rest of the tournament with a shoulder injury and it is our sincere hope that he’ll be fit for the World Cup, as Italy have clearly built a lot of their attacking play around him. Nevertheless, Italy have proved that they can be defensively resolute and their forward pack can stand up to the world’s best. There are no slouchers in their backs and the return of their outstanding fly half Paolo Garbisi in the Ireland game added another quality arrow to their bow and he will be a welcome addition to their cause for the Welsh game. Italy know that if they can get back to back wins over Wales, and if Scotland trip up for a second time this Championship in their tussle with Ireland, another Six Nations upset could be within the Azzurri’s grasp when they travel to Murrayfield at the end of the tournament. It’s a tall order but a good result on Saturday against Wales will be a watershed moment for this young Italian team.
For Wales, it’s been a truly miserable Six Nations. With all the off field shenanigans surrounding the game in Wales, it’s a credit to the players that they’ve been able to focus on the business at hand. The results simply aren’t there and the 2023 edition of Wales looks a shadow of the side that has claimed five Triple Crowns, four Grand Slams and six Championships since 2000. Even the return of Warren Gatland as Coach who, let’s face it doesn’t look overly happy in his role these days, but led Wales to many of those milestones doesn’t seem to be helping. Wales like Italy have yet to win a game this Championship but unlike Italy they simply haven’t looked like they know how to. Defensively Wales look a shambles and their discipline is a mess with the highest number of penalties conceded in the tournament. On attack they simply fade away once they get into the opposition red zone despite some impressive graft at times and seem incapable of penetrating opposition defences. The one area they will take comfort from is that they have the second lowest handling error count behind France, but that is probably a function of the fact that they simply don’t get much ball to handle in the first place.
We’re not sure that despite the gravity of the situation facing Wales and the pedigree of some of their players, they can count on Rome being the place where they can attempt to start turning things around. The Stadio Olimpico will be in full voice on Saturday and Italy will rise to the passion of their fans. In short it’s not a place we think you’d want to go when your confidence is at an all time low and your opponents just ooze self belief and finally seem to have the skill sets and organisation necessary to backup that belief. What a contest awaits!
France need to click and England need to rise to the challenge of their biggest Test of the new Steve Borthwick era
As mentioned above, while it still holds all the excitement that “Le Crunch” matches traditionally have in this tournament, it does pale a bit in comparison to the high stakes matchups taking place in Rome and Edinburgh this weekend. Perhaps its usual gravity is being felt more by France this year, as a loss for them has deeper ramifications than it does for England. England appear to have come to terms with the fact that their primary goal this tournament is to demonstrate an upward trend in overall performance and settling on the squad needed to take them to the World Cup. Some Six Nations silverware would be a huge added bonus but it is perhaps not the same driver for them as it is for France.
After coming unstuck against Ireland, despite still being the number two side in the world, France find themselves behind England at this stage of the competition in fourth place. A loss at Twickenham would not only kill off their Championship hopes barring a few miracles, but also leave them with more questions than answers heading into the World Cup. In short, England will want to win but France know they simply HAVE to win given what is at stake in the grander scheme of things going forward.
Despite getting a bit of a schooling from the Irish at times in Round 2, and in general looking somewhat off their normally high pace so far this year, France are still very much in the hunt. Righting the ship by breaking Scotland’s Six Nations winning streak was key to both settling the side and getting their campaign back on its feet again. While Scotland pushed them hard for the win, France’s emphatic start to that match in the first half, left few of us in doubt that it would be anything other than a Gallic victory.
Nevertheless, France despite some moments of sheer brilliance have not always looked at the races this year. They clearly got off the bus at the wrong stop in Rome and had to rush to the Stadium and narrowly avoided the biggest upset of 2023. In Dublin a week later they got off at the right stop only to find that Ireland had taken a TGV to the Aviva ahead of them. At home and with two weeks to study bus and train timetables to the Stade de France , France looked like last year’s Grand Slam Champions once more and the Blue Juggernaut started to click especially in those opening twenty five minutes. They also then held their nerve and withstood a Scottish second half revival.
When you look at the tournament statistics, the only numbers where as a team France dominate is in tackles made, having made more than anyone else with second rower Thibaud Flament being the tournament’s top tackler. However, they also won’t be happy with having given away more penalties than anyone else other than Wales and like the Men in Red clearly grappling with the 2023 definition of offside.
For England, they’ve got steadily better since that opening wobble against Scotland. However, they have also only played the two lowest ranked teams in the competition since their duel with the Scots. France on Saturday will be a considerable step up. While France may not be gelling the way they did last year, they are still a force to be reckoned with and the next big Test for the Borthwick era. England unlike France still seem unsure of what their team should look like and what type of game they want to play. What we have seen from England so far is rather conservative and may not respond all that well to the speed at which France and Ireland play the game. Perhaps Borthwick’s biggest achievement in his three games in charge so far is tidying up England’s woeful disciplinary record under Eddie Jones. The fact that England have conceded the least amount of penalties of any team this tournament by a considerable margin will be music to Borthwick’s ears.
Where Borthwick and his coaching team will be concerned though is England’s woeful record at the kicking tee, which is one of the worst in the competition and has led to Captain Owen Farrell being relegated to the bench for “Le Crunch” in favor of Marcus Smith. However, in many ways that is minor compared to England’s continued bluntness in attack, the worst knock on and handling error record of any team and a defensive structure that is the worst in the competition. England has missed more tackles than any other team, even a Welsh side clearly lost at sea fares marginally better than England in that regard albeit only just.
Perhaps England’s best news this tournament has been the revelation of Ollie Lawrence at centre which if you ask us has clearly made the Manu Tuilagi debate a side issue in England’s World Cup planning. Ollie Chessum improves week in week out in the second row and Lewis Ludlam has been solid as a rock in England’s back row along with Jack Willis. A big performance from Marcus Smith and Jack van Poortvliet against France in the halfback berths will certainly give England a genuine shot in the arm ahead of a tricky finale to their Six Nations campaign in Dublin, and their subsequent preparation for the World Cup.
To get one past France this weekend is a genuinely tough ask for a new look England still finding their feet this Saturday. France have assembled an all star cast for this one and there are very few if any weaknesses in it. France may not be as flash as they were last year, but they still know how to win and in the game against Scotland started to look like a team warming to the task of a home World Cup. In terms of making a statement this game is probably the most important one France will play between now and the World Cup, and as a result expect them to take no prisoners even if in the past Twickenham has not always been the happiest hunting ground for them.
Number one and number two – Celtic not Gallic dominance
It’s been 33 years since Scotland last won a Triple Crown, but they must quietly be fancying their chances on Sunday in front of the Murrayfield faithful. Ireland as the number one side in the world are not exactly the team you’d want to have to face in order to pull it off, but there is no denying that there is some serious belief in this Scottish squad and if they can prevent Ireland screaming out of the blocks in the opening 25 minutes, then there are reasons to be optimistic. That opening quarter in Paris a fortnight ago, simply left Scotland with too much to do and as a result they were forced to chase the game for a full hour. Although they made a remarkable comeback, the toll that kind of catch up rugby takes on a team at this level was plain to see. Scotland looked rushed and panicked at times, and playmaker Finn Russell started to once more favor the kind of 50/50 plays that when you’re only five points down are worth the risk, but can appear reckless when you’re 22-0 down.
So the big question on everyone’s lips is was the loss to France in Round 3 merely a bump in the road for Scotland or the start of their traditional Six Nations fadeout? We’d argue the former, as much like Italy there is something definitely different about this year’s Scotland. Scotland have scored more tries this tournament than any other team except their Irish opponents this weekend. In terms of tackles made they are only second to France and have the lowest missed tackle rate in the competition. They have the second best lineout in the competition after Italy and like the Azzurri are pretty handy at winning turnovers from their tackling technique. Their backline is truly lethal with the top three of the top five try scorers in the competition hailing from North of Hadrian’s Wall.
As for Ireland, their exercise in depth development in Round 3 against Italy ultimately paid off, even if the Azzurri made the Irish distinctly uncomfortable at times. Still it’s that kind of pressure for the younger generation of players that will pay huge dividends for Ireland come the World Cup and Ireland’s inevitable injury list. In attack Ireland look extremely dangerous and play at a speed most teams are finding it hard to keep up with, which has ensured they’ve scored more tries than any other team. Ireland have made more metres courtesy of James Lowe and exceptional fullback Hugo Keenan, as well as having carried and kept the ball in hand more than anyone else. The Irish defensive lines are so suffocating that very few teams can penetrate them and they have won more turnovers at the breakdown than all the other teams while at the same time conceding the least amount of turnovers. However, when those lines are pierced all of a sudden Ireland looks slightly less awe inspiring. Coach Andy Farrell and his associates will be concerned with Ireland’s missed tackle count which stands third highest in the competition. We worked it out that over three matches Ireland were only managing a 79% tackle success rate which leading into the World Cup is simply unacceptable.
Sunday’s game has the added frisson of being a dress rehearsal for the Pool game which will feature these two teams in Paris the week before the World Cup quarter finals. Should Scotland beat Ireland this weekend, then all of a sudden Pool B becomes the most hotly contested group in the competition. To say that both sides have points to prove and statements to make on Sunday is putting it mildly to say the least. The weather looks fairly grim, so both sides will fret over the injuries that could arise from what could end up being a slugfest rather than the glorious display of full throttle rugby that both these teams like to showcase. Either way this is most likely the biggest game of Round 4 and you won’t want to miss a second of it!
Australia rising – or another false dawn?
After some years in the wilderness, Australia’s Super Rugby contingent is starting to look rather tasty again. In the past few years the Brumbies have been the only side to carry the mantle of Australian rugby with any degree of consistency, but so far this season things are starting to look tasty across the board in the Land Down Under. In the past Australian sides have always looked impressive on attack but utterly porous in defence. So far this year things appear to be looking up in that department. The Brumbies are already showing they are a force to be reckoned with but the Waratahs are also starting to look the business with their turbo charged winger Mark Nawaqanitawase rapidly becoming one of the most exciting Wallaby prospects in a long time.
While all of this may be premature, especially after only two rounds and limited exposure to their New Zealand rivals, there surely must be grounds for cautious optimism in Australia this season. This weekend won’t tell us much, but if the Western Force can handle Moana Pasifika’s exciting ball runners and the following weekend the Waratahs keep the Hurricanes in check, the Rebels get one over the Chiefs away from home and the Reds shut down Fijian Drua’s bruising speedsters then what a Super Rugby season we have in store, as all of a sudden it’s not just about New Zealand anymore.
TheArrows struggle to hit the target in the opening two rounds of MLR – but it’s early days for this new look squad
Don’t get us wrong there has definitely been spirit and heart at times in the Toronto Arrows opening two games, but we have to say we didn’t feel there was enough of it, and the precision was lacking as a new look team clearly struggled at times to find their shape. We appreciate the start of the season is always tougher for the Arrows than the other teams, as they spend the first two months of the season on the road and away from their fervent supporters now taking up residence at York Lions stadium here in Toronto. Furthemore while there are plenty of familiar faces on the team sheet for this year, there are also a lot of wholesale changes. The South American contingent that had served the Arrows so well in their opening seasons is no longer present and their absence has been clearly noted in the opening two rounds. Furthermore we were sorry to not see Irish import Ronan Foley in the lineup for this year in the back row, as he lent a genuine edge to the Arrows in the loose last year.
On the plus side we like the look of Mason Flesch in the back row and Kobe Faust looks to provide some genuine spark out wide on the wing. Carrying on from last season, Ross Braude is an exciting prospect for the Arrows and Canada in the nine jersey. However, in the set pieces in their opening two games the Arrows looked creaky and their lineouts remain an area of concern carried over from last year. Handling errors and missed tackles also seemed to be an issue, though the frigid temperatures in New York in Round 2 clearly didn’t help the former issue. However, in their first game against Atlanta, Toronto really only showed up in the final ten minutes which as impressive as it was ended up being too little too late. A week later they were dominated by a team who, in fairness, are last year’s defending champions, so perhaps hardly the team you want to face while still trying to settle your structures and processes with a new team.
So like we say, it’s early days yet and not fair to judge these initial slightly lacklustre performances. The Arrows face MLR newcomers for 2023 the Chicago Hounds this weekend. Hopefully having had a break to review what worked and what didn’t from their opening two rounds, the Arrows will get their season underway in earnest and give their fans some genuine spring cheer, ahead of their Toronto homecoming on April 8th for a rematch with New York. Check out the link on the TV page for ticket links.
So till next week, make sure you’re near a TV somewhere this weekend for what should be some legendary Six Nations action, have a glance at the action going on in Super Rugby and get behind the Arrows. Take care everyone!
Probably the first question is have you all caught your breath yet? What a weekend that was as Round 2’s Six Nations action gave us an extraordinary game between the number 1 and 2 sides in the world, France and Ireland, and completely lived up to the hype surrounding it in the process. Meanwhile in Murrayfield Scotland put in a performance that oozed class and most important of all consistency as they completely dismantled a truly hapless Welsh side. Finally, England found their mojo against a very spirited Italian outfit that despite coming out on the losing side, still looks ominous. In short, a Six Nations tournament that already looks set to be one for the ages simply didn’t take its foot off the accelerator!
There were so many talking points that came out of last weekend, it’s unlikely that we’ve even scratched the surface in our musings below, but what follows is what got us talking the most over some rather feisty and frothy pints.
Ireland stun France and in the process old and new heroes are found!
There is no question that the dustup between France and Ireland last Saturday at the Aviva in Dublin will take some beating in terms of spectacle this year. As a dress rehearsal for a potential World Cup quarter final between these two we couldn’t of asked for better. Both teams went at each other hammer and tongs and the first forty minutes alone left most of us reaching for the nearest oxygen tank – we can only imagine what the players must have been feeling like. It was a classic Six Nations match and one that will live on our highlights reels for a long time.
The handling and skill on display from both of these sides was of exceptional quality. In the end Ireland looked the fitter and better organized side, with many of their clearly rehearsed moves going to script. France on the other hand were equally ambitious but they are perhaps not as comfortable yet with the groundwork and tactics being developed to keep opposition sides guessing come the World Cup. However, the intent was there and had the Men in Blue not made as many uncharacteristic errors as they did last Saturday, then we would probably be writing a very different postscript. Nevertheless the danger signs are all there and France are unlikely to be as much of a rough diamond in the months to come as they are now.
For Ireland, it was a great day at the office with some sublime handling skills, well rehearsed moves and perhaps most important of all a control of proceedings that made it exceptionally difficult for France to develop any kind of rhythm. Ireland’s line speed and defence was extraordinary and as a result France were having to live off scraps and create opportunities from whatever they could scavenge. The fact that they were able to do so outlines just how dangerous France are even when things aren’t quite going their way.
The Irish will be happy that veteran scrum half Conor Murray was able to put in his best shift in a green jersey since the heady days of 2018. This was made all the more remarkable given the back story to it. His father was involved in a horrific bicycle accident with a truck and sustained serious injuries on the Tuesday before the match. That Murray was able to play and in such a composed, calm and effective manner is true testimony to the remarkable player he is and we’re all delighted to see him back at the height of his powers in the Irish setup. There were some touching moments as French Coach Fabien Galthie was seen to give the Irish scrum half a warm embrace after the match, and Murray himself showed genuine compassion for fellow teammate second rower Tadgh Beirne who was pitch side on crutches after the final whistle.
New heroes are also stepping up to the plate in the Irish camp. Fullback Hugo Keenan was truly imperious under the high ball all afternoon and his spectacular opening try demonstrated just what a world class player he really is. Caelan Doris is rapidly becoming one of the best number eights in the world, giving France’s Gregory Alldritt and New Zealand’s Ardie Savea serious food for thought. Meanwhile Ross Byrne stepped majestically into Johnny Sexton’s boots for the bulk of the second half. Ireland still have some serious work to do ahead of their trips to Rome and Murrayfield and that potential Championship decider against England back in Dublin, most notably sorting out their missed tackle count which was one of the few blemishes on an otherwise immaculate performance. A 73% tackle success rate is simply unacceptable at this level no matter how well you are able to control proceedings and their lineout success also at 73% needs some serious work.
For France, Dublin was a setback and their hopes of back to back Grand Slams are now dead and buried – but it is definitely not all gloom and doom. There was enough inventiveness on display that once it starts to fire, probably by the time of that opening World Cup match against the All Blacks, France will once again be back to their most dangerous and unpredictable best. The next three games will be critical in getting some traction towards that goal, but we hardly think it’s time to start ringing alarm bells. France had to play a largely reactive game on Saturday, but they will have learnt much in the process. Although they were on the wrong side of the score line there was much to be pleased about. If, as it should have been, James Lowe’s try been disallowed then there would only have been one score in it. Make no mistake this was a close game and when France were able to create something they did it in typically spectacular fashion – just watch that Damian Penaud try if you doubt it for a second.
Antoine Dupont didn’t perhaps have his best day for France, but was still able to mesmerise us and do the unthinkable when required, just watch that try saving tackle on Mack Hansen if you’re not convinced. Back rower Anthony Jelonch was one of the heroes of the day in a blue jersey and for us he remains perhaps France’s most underrated weapon. Meanwhile new kid on the block winger Anthony Dumortier continued to embrace Test Rugby at the highest level and between himself and Penaud France look to be a genuine threat out wide.
In short a classic, and for now these two sides can comfortably still claim to be the most dangerous outfits heading into the World Cup. For New Zealand and South Africa, along with everyone else the benchmark has been set!
Scotland at long last find that missing ingredient – consistency – and in the process honor a fallen warrior
We said before the start of the Championship that consistency was Scotland’s biggest goal this Six Nations and building towards the World Cup. Scotland have started the tournament guns blazing in recent years only to end with a whimper. Saturday’s festivities in Murrayfield would seem to indicate that Scotland have at long last turned a corner. Their cohesion as a team with a clear sense of what kind of game they wanted to play and how to execute it was clear for all to see. Finn Russell’s goalkicking may leave a lot to be desired, but everything else about his game and how Scotland feeds off it, is so much better. Gone is the mindless recklessness replaced with daring but measured audacity. Russell has been labelled as a magician on the pitch and Saturday’s display was a masterclass in that regard.
However, it would be unfair to single out Russell alone. Scotland’s back row particularly Captain Jamie Ritchie and the outstanding Matt Fagerson were exceptional. Ben White had another stellar game in the nine jersey, while the Centre partnership of Huw Jones and Sione Tuipolutu looks world class and, in addition to its attacking prowess, also looks remarkably robust defensively allowing Chris Harris to spend some time relaxing on the bench. Duhan van der Merwe was once again unstoppable especially in the second half, but in many ways his colleague Kyle Steyn stole the show out wide last Saturday. In short there were so many positives in perhaps one of the most clinical Scotland performances we’ve seen in a long time.
To top it all off, this fixture is now known as the Doddie Weir Cup in honor of the legendary Scottish second rower who lost his inspirational fight with motor neurone disease at the end of last year. It was a moving and fitting tribute to a figure whose courage and humility was exemplary, and someone who was taken from us far too soon.
However, now it’s time to put it all in perspective. Wales were poor last Saturday whichever way you cut it, allowing the Scottish diamond to shine at full intensity. However, a dangerous opponent in the shape of a wounded French side lie in wait next Sunday in Paris followed by a seemingly unstoppable Ireland, albeit at Murrayfield. As we said before the competition, the game in Paris will be the most important litmus test of where Scotland really are this year and whether or not they have genuinely managed to turn a corner in terms of their old bugbear known as consistency. We can’t wait to find out!
Not exactly Wayne Barnes and the officiating team’s best day at the officeand no this is not a Rassie Erasmus rant
We’ll keep this one short. We are big fans of referee Wayne Barnes, and although he may be seeking some of the limelight of one of his illustrious predecessors the legendary Nigel Owens, a couple of mistakes were made last Saturday in Dublin which need to get tidied up.
As aggrieved as French supporters may feel about the James Lowe try, they should also be grateful that prop Uini Atonio only saw yellow for his blatant shoulder to the head on Irish Hooker Rob Herring who left the field for an HIA and was unable to return. Had as he should of done seen red and not yellow, then France would have been down to 14 men for a full hour. There likely would have been a few more Irish points on the board, and as a result whether or not James Lowe’s try was legitimate would have been irrelevant. Atonio makes no attempt to dip in the tackle and Herring is upright when it is made. It’s poor technique all day long and not the first time Atonio has been called out. He has since received a three match ban, which ultimately means his Six Nations is over but that was a red card plain and simple and needed to be adjudicated as such.
However, on the flip side we can empathize with French supporters over the Lowe try. Despite the Irish winger’s truly dazzling attempt to defy the laws of physics, he doesn’t quite pull it off. As the one camera angle they needed all day long shows, but was somehow only available after the match, his foot clearly strikes the ground in touch. Given the priority given to getting all the angles to adjudicate such potentially game changing decisions, we were literally gob smacked that this was only provided after the match. While ultimately it wouldn’t have changed the game’s final outcome, with a World Cup just around the corner the officials really have to get this right.
England start to show us what the future might look like
After coming unstuck against Scotland for the third consecutive year, new Coach Steve Borthwick and his charges desperately needed the shot in the arm that the match against Italy gave them. Make no mistake Italy were no pushover and actually won the second half, but a fired up England put in a first half performance that finally gave English supporters reasons to be cheerful. It wasn’t perfect by a long stretch, but England did enough in the first half to allow them to paper over the cracks that Italy managed to expose in the second half.
Borthwick is known as a set piece specialist and in that regard he can feel exceptionally pleased with England’s performance last Sunday at Twickenham. The scrum could use a little work but at the rucks and at lineout time England were outstanding and their rolling maul looked a weapon that will cause Ireland and France some heartache. Even in attack they started to finally show some shape particularly in the form of centre Ollie Lawrence who put in a massive shift, gaining 58 metres and beating 8 defenders and surely the whole obsession with Manu Tuilagi is now irrelevant. Add to that the fact that when Marcus Smith came on, along with Alex Mitchell at scrum half and Henry Arundell on the wing England literally sparkled on attack.
England won’t be happy with the fact that they missed 41 tackles and defensively they still need a lot of work, but given this was only Borthwick’s second match in charge there was plenty to start to get excited about for England and their supporters. The future made an appearance on Sunday at Twickenham and it does look rather promising at long last.
As for Italy, we always thought that beating a new look England at Twickenham was rather a tall order, but they can still head back to Rome and await the Irish and Welsh with some degree of confidence. It was a strong second half performance from Italy, with some massive performances most notably from back rower Sebastian Negri and rugby’s hottest property in the back three fullback Ange Capuozzo. We have a hunch that it won’t be Italy holding the Wooden Spoon this year.
The train wreck known as Welsh Rugby
Whichever way you cut it, Wales is not a fun place to be right now if you’re a professional rugby player. A governing body that regards its players with contempt and seems incapable of managing the game at national and provincial levels with any degree of competency, is wreaking havoc with Wales’ Six Nations aspirations. With the players threatening to go on strike and put next weekend’s fixture against England in jeopardy while the men in suits fiddle as Cardiff burns, you have to wonder just how the rot entrenched in the management of Welsh rugby has been allowed to go on for the past ten years the way it has.
The end result of this is evident on the pitch and in the Coaching box. Warren Gatland looks as if he genuinely hates his job, with his players looking frustrated, demoralised and confused. Wales have been shambolic in both their performances in the Six Nations so far. Ireland was bad enough but perhaps the Principality crowd were enough to ensure that Wales weren’t completely humiliated. However as the machinations in Cardiff boardrooms reached fever pitch last week, it clearly meant that players had too much time to think about it on the trip to Murrayfield. Wales just weren’t at the races, and simply failed to fire as a unit. Their much vaunted new look back row just didn’t gel and for much of the match was irrelevant despite an impressive solo effort from Christ Tshiunza. Defensively they looked at sixes and sevens while failing to get any kind of attacking momentum despite some promising opportunities that they seemed incapable of finishing.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of Wales state of disarray was fly half Dan Biggar’s temper tantrum with Welsh new boy winger Rio Dyer after the former Captain was on the receiving end of a very poor pass from Dyer. Biggar is part of the leadership group and to be seen visibly remonstrating one of his colleagues on the pitch and TV screens around the world was not a good look. The senior group of Welsh players need to be seen to be supporting and encouraging the new crop of talent that Wales is trying to develop. Biggar has since apologized but whichever way you cut it it left a bad taste in the mouth. Unless the frustrations seeping into the national cause are addressed with both empathy and a view to a sustainable future, then we have a hunch that such outbursts are likely to be commonplace over the coming weeks.
This is not an attempt to denigrate Welsh rugby and its players, many of whom are venerated here at the Lineout. However, we share their frustration and are disheartened that such a proud rugby nation and a group of talented and committed players are being treated as poorly as they are. May the rot be brought to a halt forthwith and Wales and its players be allowed to get on with the game they so treasure and which we love watching them play.
It’s that most WONDERFUL time of the year again – as the song goes. Yes it’s the Rugby version of Christmas with, as our good friend Squidge Rugby likes to say, Friday being Sixmas Eve. Sure we love the Rugby Championship and the World Cup is something we all eagerly build up to over four years, but somehow the next two months of Test Rugby strike a special chord in our hearts. For all its faults the Six Nations is without a doubt the highlight of our annual Rugby calendar. The drama, the pomp and ceremony, the age old rivalries, the personalities and the exuberant, passionate and colorful crowds make this tournament unique. It’s dubbed as “rugby’s greatest championship” and although we think that’s pushing it a bit, it’s not far off the mark. What it does do though year in year out is give us memories shared with our rugby mates that live on for decades – and measured against that criteria it takes some beating.
So sure there have been other things going on in the rugby world this week, but we haven’t been able to think about anything else other than the Six Nations. So here’s what kept our debates raging as we looked ahead to what should be a tournament that has the potential to be one for the ages. With a World Cup just around the corner, this is the last big hurrah before the global showdown in September for all six participants. Consequently there is so much at stake in terms of final preparations, lessons to be learned, game plans to be honed and Coaches hoping to settle on the groups that they will be handing out tickets to for that trip to France come September. So we broke it down into where we think the teams will finish and what they need to get out of this Six Nations apart from winning it. We pick the most critical game for each of the six sides and the player most likely to influence it.
Naturally all this may be completely academic by Super Saturday, March 18th, as the inevitable injuries take their toll and upsets that we just didn’t see coming turn the table upside down. But for now after much agonising over numerous frothy pints here’s our look ahead to the Six Nations in the order in which we think the teams will finish,though just like last year even though we got it wrong we don’t think there will be anyone pulling off a Grand Slam this year.
Ireland – 1st but no Grand Slam
Ireland enter this Six Nations feeling full of confidence but for most Irish supporters there’s that ominous sense of deja vu once more. Just like in 2019 Ireland looked on top of the world only to crash out spectacularly in the World Cup later that year in Japan. Furthermore while Ireland had a successful Autumn Nations campaign last year dispatching South Africa, Fiji and Australia there were times when they looked far from convincing. Adding to the concern was the fact that none of those wins were overly emphatic. Even in the Fiji match which had the most positive scoreline Ireland looked shaky at times. Against South Africa and Australia, Ireland ensured through some stellar defence that they were low scoring affairs but struggled to make their own attacks stick. In short, despite holding up well in a massive physical contest with South Africa Ireland’s Autumn Nations campaign failed to light the imagination after the euphoria of the first ever series win in New Zealand earlier that summer.
Nevertheless Leinster, from which a large chunk of this year’s Ireland Six Nations squad originate, are sweeping all before them in Europe and look on target to be one of the favourites to lift the Champions Cup in May. Munster are starting to click as well, while Ulster and Connacht have plenty of talent but lack consistency. However, Irish depth is ridiculously strong with only the halfback positions leaving us with some unanswered questions. In Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park they have one of the best 9/10 combinations on the planet but should either of them succumb to injury then it remains to be seen if Ireland’s rank as the number one team in the world is truly justified.
What they need from this Six Nations: While winning the Championship, especially with a Grand Slam would be an enormous confidence booster in a World Cup year, we’d argue it is not Ireland’s most important priority over the next two months. It is common knowledge that without a firing Johnny Sexton on the pitch Ireland are a very different beast. It’s that nagging uncertainty that has caused them to come unstuck too often. Furthermore despite the fact that Sexton is considered perhaps the greatest Irish player of his time, when he has a bad day his whole team suffers.
As a result Ireland need to find his understudy and someone who can stay the course under pressure. It would appear that Leinster’s Ross Byrne is the chosen successor, but his appearances in the green jersey have not been convincing unlike his masterful performances in the blue of Leinster. Munster’s Jack Crawley is rapidly being touted as the next best thing in a 10 jersey but Ross Byrne’s brother Harry is also a potential candidate.
Meanwhile at scrum half the debate rages with Munster’s Conor Murray seemingly past his prime and fellow teammate Craig Casey considered too small and inconsistent despite a blistering speed of delivery and ability to seize opportunities that are presented to him. Even Leinster stalwart Jamison Gibson-Park is still not back to his best after injury.
In short, Ireland need this tournament to provide them with a convincing Plan B for both these positions. That means that in addition to Gibson-Park and Sexton Ireland need to get as much game time as possible for their respective understudies without jeopardizing their chances at Six Nations silverware. These players need pressure game time in some of the big games, if Ireland are truly serious about getting past the Quarter Final stage of the World Cup in eight months for the first time in their history.
Most important game: Ireland vs France – There is no denying that this along with possibly the England game at the end of the tournament will be this year’s Championship defining match for Ireland. If Ireland put in a convincing performance against Wales in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium in the opening weekend, then a confidence boosting win at home in front of the Aviva faithful against World Cup favourites and potential quarter-final opponents France will be critical to not only their Six Nations chances, but also their preparations for the World Cup. With two relatively straightforward trips to Italy and Scotland to follow this match, only a rejuvenated England back in Dublin on the final weekend could spoil Ireland’s Six Nations party. As number one in the world meets number two the pressure will be intense for both sides, and as a result this is probably the most eagerly anticipated game of the tournament for both supporters and neutrals alike.
Most important player : Johnny Sexton – We simply cannot understate the importance of the 37 year old veteran fly half to Ireland’s aspirations in 2023 both in the Six Nations and the World Cup six months later. Despite his age he appears to defy the ravages of time and is probably playing his best rugby of an exceptionally distinguished career. The desire and ambition to end on a high note for both himself and his country is clearly there for all to see and his teammates feed off his motivation. Without him on the pitch, Ireland need its other leaders to step up, and should Sexton succumb to injury which is always a concern Ireland has to find a way to maintain the shape and direction he provides them. While Ireland will need to find their Sexton Plan B this tournament, his importance to Ireland’s aspirations over the next eight months is paramount. How he is managed as a result will be fascinating to see.
France – 2nd as some very classy runners up
As last year’s Grand Slam Champions, World Cup hosts and number two ranked side in the world France have EVERYTHING to prove this Six Nations. Undefeated in 2022 and blessed with a depth of talent across the pitch that is the envy of every International Coach, France look the business in this World Cup year. However, a raft of mounting injuries and a disturbing lack of form in European club competition this season have raised some uncomfortable questions for the Men in Blue, most pressing being have they peaked too soon ahead of the World Cup? This question has tended to be reserved for Ireland in recent times, but there is no denying that France perhaps more than their rivals in green need to lay down a marker this Six Nations.
Their saving grace is an almost abundant depth of talent across every position. France can at any time choose between three world class players no matter what the number on their jersey. Perhaps their only concern this tournament is finding a bit more proven depth in the centre channels, but everywhere else their stocks are plentiful, despite the mounting casualty list. They may not necessarily be this year’s Six Nations favourites but they are not far off it, and whatever work is done over the next two months will be excellent preparation to iron out whatever wrinkles and doubts they may have ahead of the World Cup.
What they need from this Six Nations: French clubs’ lack of form in Europe at the moment can in part be put down to the injury crisis sweeping French rugby and causing Coach Fabien Galthie and his selectors such headaches. However, what France seem able to do better than any other team at the moment is take a third choice player and elevate him to world class in the space of a few matches. Expect to see a lot of that this Six Nations, and while winning it will be as important as ever to Galthie and his charges, consolidating their depth when it comes to selection choices will be equally important. France will want to head into the World Cup with a Plan A,B and C for every position, and we’d argue that this Six Nations will be the proving ground for a lot of players aiming to stamp their ownership on a World Cup jersey. France along with Ireland are clear favourites to win this year’s Championship but a Grand Slam won’t be the driver it was last year. Consistency of performance and lessons to be learnt in terms of depth ahead of the World Cup are likely to be more important concerns.
Most important game: England vs France – This will be the big one for Les Bleus. While the game in Dublin will be of huge significance, if France come short at the Aviva this game will be critical to righting their Six Nations ship. Lose this one if things have gone badly against Ireland, and France’s Six Nations aspirations are over and their preparations for the World Cup will take a serious knock. Twickenham although a difficult place to travel to can be a happy hunting ground for the French and a win here will set them up nicely for a home Championship decider on the last weekend of the tournament against Wales.
Most important player: Antoine Dupont – The Toulouse scrum half is regarded by many as the best player of his generation and is already being venerated as one of the greatest to grace the international game in its long and colorful history. Much like Ireland’s Sexton, when Dupont fires France take their game to an almost existential level. France are good without him, but with him they look unstoppable. His ability to read a game almost three plays in advance is uncanny and means that he is constantly able to put his team one step ahead of the opposition defences. Ally this to a turn of pace and an eye for opportunity, and it’s easy to see why his teammates dub him the “little magician”.
England – Third but potential finally unleashed
England start a new chapter in their troubled recent history as Coach Steve Borthwick takes charge of his first Six Nations campaign as the man in the hot seat. Hopefully, the inconsistent and at times baffling selection decisions regardless of form made by his predecessor Eddie Jones are a thing of the past. In the process what English supporters hope will emerge is a settled side that has a clear idea of the game they want to play and which suits their colllective abilities, particularly in attack. England need a game plan and the discipline to execute it properly. Their at times laughable disciplinary record under Jones has to be a thing of the past. Borthwick, although sticking with some of England’s golden oldies has already shown a refreshing penchant to really unearth and fast track the younger generation of talent seen at club level in English rugby.
Consequently, England and their supporters should feel more than a little optimistic about their chances this Six Nations. While asking Borthwick to turn around the fortunes of the Men in White in the space of a mere five weekends and win the Six Nations is probably too much of a tall order, expect England to put in a much more consistent and disciplined Six Nations challenge than in recent years.
What they need from this Six Nations: England need to get three things out of this Championship plain and simple. First get some consistency in selection decisions and really embed an exciting younger generation of players into England’s plans for not only the World Cup but the future beyond it. Second develop an attacking game plan that all the players can buy into, understand and which suits their individual and collective skill sets. Three improve England’s overall discipline and put a halt to giving away silly and mindless penalties.
That’s it Steve – pretty simple really so have at it! If you do we fancy England will once again be a side on the rise and one which can pose a genuine threat come September in France.
Most important game: Ireland vs England – If England have done well by the time they get to Dublin by dispatching France at Twickenham and overturning the Welsh in Cardiff, then this their final game of the Championship will be a watershed moment for Steve Borthwick in his first tournament as the new England boss. If the two aforementioned games have gone in England’s favor then all of a sudden there is everything to play for on the final day of the Championship. England would then find themselves in a realistic hunt for the silverware with only eighty minutes left on the tournament clock, especially if Ireland have had a Championship that is a flashback to their 2019 Six Nations effort. Dublin on the last day of the Six Nations is a place few people would want to end their campaign, but what a potential feather in the cap for Steve Borthwick and his charges if they could knock Ireland off their perch. If things have gone well for England this Six Nations expect their motivation to be off the charts when referee Jaco Peyper blows the whistle for kick off at the Aviva.
Most important player: Jack van Poortfliet: Surely it’s Marcus Smith we hear you say. We’d argue that although Smith is critically important to England’s plans for this Six Nations and beyond, it’s the Leicester scrum half who really needs to shine in a white jersey. His talents are there for all too see, but his lack of game time at this level has been evident, most notably during the Autumn Nations series which clearly rattled his confidence. Veteran scrum half Ben Youngs is not the player to take England to the World Cup and beyond. England need van Poortfliet’s pace and speed of delivery as well as his ability to surprise opposition defences. Ben Youngs game is both ponderous and predictable allowing opponents to read England like a book. Van Poortfliet just needs to develop confidence in his role and alongside Marcus Smith England could well end up with a genuine world class halfback axis.
Scotland – Fourth but everybody’s banana skin
Scotland are the Six Nations greatest conundrum – they can be brilliant and on any given weekend beat any of the Six Nations competitors. The problem is they just can’t do it with any degree of consistency – spectacular one weekend and then a disaster the next. Until Scotland fix this they’ll always be seen as the team that will upset other teams’ title aspirations but never be a genuine contender themselves. Add to that some obvious friction between key players and Coach Gregor Townsend which causes Scotland to trip up when they and the rest of us least expect it. They seem to have adopted the trait of French teams of old, as we find ourselves asking each weekend of the tournament which Scottish side will show up?
Scotland are a frustrating side to watch. For a country with a relatively small player pool, they still manage to turn out some extraordinarily gifted players and as a team they are often a joy to behold in action. At times their running game is akin to the Northern Hemisphere’s version of Fijian rugby. The problem is they just can’t seem to replicate it week in week out. Scottish rugby is a great product make no mistake, you just never know which version you’ve just bought.
What they need from this Six Nations: Consistency – That’s it nothing more to be said. Sure some injuries have got in the way for this Six Nations, most notably superstar winger Darcy Graham, but there’s enough talent in this Scottish squad to deliver it and still leave us wanting for more. Scotland often seem to want to try and play a different style of rugby every week, and what they need to do this Six Nations is just be Scotland – plain and simple. Don’t try and be New Zealand one week and South Africa the next. The players and Coaches need to be reading from the same script for the five weekends of the Championship. Do that and all of a sudden Scotland are no longer that banana skin that might catch you unawares, but instead a side that poses a genuine threat week in week out and has a real chance of finally getting their hands on some Six Nations silverware.
Most important game: France vs Scotland – In our humble opinion Scotland’s Six Nations campaign will be decided in this fixture. Paris is never an easy place to visit at the best of times. However, if France have come unstuck prior to this match against Ireland then they will be wounded and perhaps lacking in confidence. If Scotland manage to once more turn over England at Twickenham in the opening weekend, followed up by teaching Wales a lesson at Murrayfield then all of a sudden it’s game on for their Championship hopes. If they can do the unthinkable and defeat a French side harboring some doubts in the Stade de France in Round 3, they then can await Ireland’s visit to Murrayfield with a fair degree of optimism prior to hosting Wooden Spoon specialists Italy. Lose badly in Paris and Scotland’s trend of imploding in the latter stages of the tournament will be reinforced, leaving them vulnerable to not only a rampaging Ireland but an Italian side who knows how to win away from home against all the odds on Super Saturday.
Most important player: Finn Russell – Scotland’s maverick fly half along with his relationship to Coach Gregor Townsend is the key to whether or not they go deep into this tournament or lose the plot from the outset. What we have noticed of late is that Russell’s play is more measured – though never predictable. His ability to keep defences guessing is still world class, but the reckless risk taking appears to have been toned down. If his teammates can keep up with him and click with his remarkable vision then Scotland could finally become the team we’ve all been waiting for in the Six Nations.
Wales – Fifth as “Warrenball” takes its toll on a side with plenty of talent
Wales head into this Six Nations once more reeling from an injury list and a governing body that much like England’s seems woefully out of touch with the game it is supposed to be managing. Wales may be low on confidence but are not short on talent. Even though Welsh club rugby is a mess, Ospreys’ recent resurgence in the URC and the European Champions Cup will give Welsh supporters some confidence heading into a tricky Six Nations.
The Coaching reshuffle that has brought in Warren Gatland after Wayne Pivac’s summary dismissal at the end of 2022 has raised some eyebrows. Gatland may know more about Welsh rugby than any other Coach out there, and may be more familiar with its nuances than how to renew his New Zealand passport, but there’s no denying that the aura surrounding his Coaching talents has dimmed somewhat since the last World Cup. If anything his sides have looked ponderous and predictable.
However, despite the problems racking Welsh rugby, the Six Nations is a tournament in which, despite whatever is happening at club level, the Men in Red seem to rise to the occasion for. We expect no less this year and as a result opponents will write them off at their peril. Their fixture list may not be ideal, but if they can start well then Wales’ problems of last year may suddenly seem like a distant memory at least for the Six Nations.
What they need from this Six Nations: Stay injury free as much as possible – plain and simple. Wales have assembled a talented Six Nations squad, but if the stretcher bearers start depleting the ranks too early there is simply not enough depth to carry Wales through to the end of the tournament. Given that the injury lists are are already relatively full and even some of the current squad have injury concerns, Wales have a tricky two months ahead of them. Add to this some genuine problems with the set pieces and disciplinary lapses and Warren Gatland has a long to do list coupled with some sleepless nights fretting over the fitness of some of his key players. “Warrenball” Welsh style needs to evolve from what worked in the past and rotation of his player base will be key in ensuring that Wales survive this Six Nations intact and in a position to prepare for the World Cup in six months time.
Most important game: Italy vs Wales – If Wales’ campaign has gone badly by the time they arrive in Rome by having lost to Ireland, Scotland or England you can be sure that Italy will smell blood looking to repeat their Six Nations redemption heroics of last year. As a result this game could see Wales staring at the handle of the Wooden Spoon should they lose to Italy as well. If that proves to be the case then they only have a difficult trip left to Paris a week later in which to attempt to rescue some Six Nations pride. The games against Ireland and England will be challenging enough even if they are being played in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, and a road trip to Murrayfield to face the Scots is always a difficult proposition. Consequently this, their last but one match of the tournament, will be critical as a second consecutive loss to the Azzurri would be anathema to their supporters and leave them heading into their World Cup preparations in a crisis of confidence.
Most important player: Justin Tipuric – Any regular reader of this blog over the last few years will know that we regard Justin Tipuric as one of the greatest Welsh players to don the red jersey this century, a fact that until recently seems to have gone unnoticed by his fellow countrymen. Back from injury with a vengeance, the back rower with one of the highest workrates in the International game is once more lighting up the pitch for his Ospreys club in the URC and the Heineken Cup. The seemingly tireless loose forward has reversed the fortunes of the Ospreys in both the URC and Europe. His presence is an enormous source of inspiration to his teammates and he is rapidly becoming the talisman that up until recently has been the sole preserve of the legendary Alun Wyn-Jones. He simply pops up everywhere on the pitch and is at the heart of everything that Wales and the Ospreys do well. A player who just never gives up will bring enormous confidence to a team in desperate need of some good old fashioned never say die attitude.
Italy – Sixth with the Wooden Spoon once more but one that has the potential to stir the odd upset along the way
Yes we know we’re falling into the annual trap that catches so many observers of the International game. You’ve all heard it before that this is the year that Italy’s dismal Six Nations record finally becomes a thing of the past. Italy looked exceptionally competitive at times last year, and no-one will forget their heroics in Cardiff at the end of the Six Nations. Although still a long way from the finished product, Italy under Kieran Crowley are no longer a pushover, and their opponents will need to take them seriously. We have a hunch that the days of Italy being an easy points haul for the teams trying to secure a points difference advantage on the table are a thing of the past. Italy actually look like they are enjoying their rugby at long last, and Benetton are becoming a tricky side in the URC especially at home. Kieran Crowley who hardly ever cracked a smile while he was coaching Canada, is now prone to sudden outbursts of genuine merriment. In short, something positive is happening in Italian rugby at long last.
What it means in the long run and whether or not it will change the fact that Italy are still likely to be clutching the Wooden Spoon on March 18th remains to be seen. The difference this year, especially with a favourable fixture list which sees them with three home games, is that Italy looks organized with a young and talented squad who know what it’s like to win big games under pressure. There’s still a long way to go, but nobody will be taking Italy for granted this year.
What they need from this Six Nations: Some big wins plain and simple. They got one last year and this year they need to up it to two. That may be a tall order but they simply have to win one of their home games at the very least most likely against Wales. They find themselves in a Pool of Death at the World Cup, which makes it almost impossible for them to get to the Quarter Finals as to do so they would have to beat either New Zealand or France. However, a strong third place Pool finish will be vital to ensure that this young squad can build with confidence for Australia 2027, having guaranteed automatic qualification. Consequently this Six Nations will be seen as the platform to achieve that goal as a bare minimum and ensure that Italy is seen as a genuinely competitive and tricky side to deal with.
Most important game: Scotland vs Italy – Some might think that getting back to back victories over Wales, especially given that they play the Men in Red at home, would be Italy’s target for this year. There is no doubt that this will be at the forefront of their planning. However, we’d argue that if Italy are to really make a statement that they are now a force to be reckoned with, another Six Nations win on the road at the end of the tournament is of paramount importance and will stand them in excellent stead for their preparations for the World Cup. If Scotland have imploded in the latter stages of the tournament as they have had a tendency to do in recent years, then Italy will once again see an opportunity that bears an enormous similarity to the situation they found themselves in last year in Cardiff, but now benefitting from having the experience needed to win such games. Italy have beaten Scotland at Murrayfield twice since joining the Six Nations so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
Most important player: Paolo Garbisi – When we learned that the star Italian fly half and playmaker was set to miss at least the first three matches of the tournament, we couldn’t help but consign Italy to the fringes of the tournament despite a squad boasting some genuine talent. However, it’s Garbisi that brings it all together and makes it sing. Possessing a wisdom and understanding of the game well beyond his 22 years and 21 caps, Garbisi is vital to Italy’s plans to finally turn a corner in their rugby fortunes. If he can keep fit, and furthermore catch France by surprise in their tournament opener in Rome, especially given the fact that France have a tendency of forgetting to get out of bed for their first Six Nations fixture, we all may well find ourselves having to rewrite these predictions. We can’t wait to find out!
Well that’s it folks, only three more sleeps till referee Karl Dickson blows the whistle in Cardiff to open this year’s festivities. We can’t wait and as always you can catch it here in Canada on DAZN and Premier Sports Asia. A tournament that always surprises and never fails to entertain awaits – let the games begin!!!!!
Well, what a week or more accurately 10 days it has been!!!!First there was the bombshell that Wallabies Coach Dave Rennie had been sacked and replaced by former England Coach Eddie Jones after his own summary execution by the RFU last month.Then there were the announcements of the Six Nations squads as the tournament gets set to kick off in less than two weeks. Finally we were treated to a thrilling weekend of European rugby as the last round of European Champions Cup pool games took place which decided who will make it to the first round of the knockout stages at the end of March.
Consequently there has been rather a lot to digest and more than a few issues to keep our pints frothy over the last fortnight.So without any further ado here’s what kept the commentary lively over the last few days in our rugby corner.
Is Eddie really the saviour that Australia think he is and hasn’t Dave been rather harshly judged?
OK let’s get the cat out of the bag here – we’re not happy about this one. Unlike the people running Rugby Australia, we liked Dave Rennie and despite his poor results in 2022 felt he was getting the Wallabies on the right track to make them a genuine smoking gun come the World Cup in September. He managed to unearth and embed in the Wallaby squad a raft of exciting new talent that seemed to have a coherent idea of the type of rugby they wanted to play. Australia narrowly lost a series to England, came within a whisker of beating New Zealand, and managed to beat Argentina and South Africa. Despite a truly grueling end of year tour to Europe they beat Scotland, lost by a mere point to the number 2 ranked side in the world France and two weeks later put world number one Ireland under enormous pressure, and kept the green machine to a low scoring game which the Wallabies only lost by three points. They finished the year with one of Test Rugby’s greatest comebacks to put Wales to the sword in the second half.
Compare that to Eddie Jones’ record last year, who according to his new employers is “the best Coach in the world”. First off there was England’s dismal Six Nations and which is still a wound that stings for many an English supporter. Sure there was that series win in Australia, that in reality was an intensely hard fought contest over three matches that all had to go to the wire. Then there was England’s wretched Autumn campaign which saw them lose to Argentina and South Africa, while settling for a draw against New Zealand in a match that they should of and could of won had they decided to play with purpose for more than the final ten minutes.
If you look at Australia last year their Achilles Heel was some appalling discipline, but the rest of it was looking extremely promising. Given that England themselves under Eddie Jones in the last two years have become a disciplinary laughing stock, we really struggle to see what he can fix that Rennie couldn’t. Rennie seemed to have the buy in and support of his players, while avoiding for the most part the annoying media baiting that Jones is famous for. In short, he generally kept his mouth shut and got on with the job at hand without the media sideshows that Jones seems to revel in and regard as so crucial to game management, and which generally have backfired spectacularly on him and his team in the last two years.
In conclusion we’ll sound like a broken record, and although Jones does have a track record of having a remarkable effect on teams in the short term, we can’t help feeling that in the long term it’s a decision Australia will regret. He’s a divisive persona, and we’re not sure that a Wallaby side big on ambition but low on confidence will respond positively under pressure to his management style.
Time will be the judge but from all of us here, our genuine commiserations to Dave Rennie who we definitely feel has been given a raw deal on this one, and best of luck to him for the future.
While everyone appears to be looking at Ireland as a team that has peaked too soon– is France perhaps a more pressing case in point?
Are Ireland finally being given some room to breathe and step out of the limelight of being the number one side in the world by France? Every pundit and Irish supporter across the globe are watching and waiting to see if Ireland have once again peaked a year too early ahead of the World Cup. After watching the last two rounds of the Heineken Cup however, we feel that the microscope when it comes to this question is now being focused on tournament hosts France – at least until this year’s Six Nations comes to a conclusion on March 18th.
Last year France were unbeatable, sweeping all before them in the Six Nations, in their tour to Japan and in the November Internationals. In the space of 12 months they managed to beat the three sides that are looking most likely to upset their ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in the Stade de France on October 28th. New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa all fell to the Men in Blue. While Ireland may be the number one side in the world at the moment, few could argue against the fact that playing at home France would appear to be the side to beat when the Webb Ellis festivities get underway this September. French clubs also dominated European Competition last season with La Rochelle and Lyon lifting the silverware in both tiers of the European Club competition.
So why the alarm you say? Despite the fact that last year’s Heineken Cup Champions La Rochelle look truly ominous and comfortably dominated their pool, the last two rounds of the pool stages saw the other 7 French sides struggle. In Pool A all four French teams occupied the bottom rungs of the Pool standings and failed to qualify for the knockout stages. In Pool B, Toulouse managed to finish second but despite the presence of their all star International halfback pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they struggled to put away an impressive Munster outfit at home in one of the heartlands of French rugby. Last year’s Challenge Cup champions Lyon only showed up in their final game against the Bulls by which time it was too late. Montpellier looked far from convincing throughout the tournament and must surely feel lucky to have squeaked into the knockout stages where they have the unenviable task of a road trip to Exeter. As for the rest including traditional giants like Racing 92, Clermont Auvergne and Bordeaux they just weren’t at the races. In the Challenge Cup apart from Toulon French teams fared no better.
While there have been injuries aplenty many of which have affected French Coach Fabien Galthie’s selections for the Six Nations, we have to confess to starting 2023 being far less in awe of French rugby than we were at the end of 2022. This will be a World Cup defining Six Nations for all the participants, but of all the teams expect France to be the one most under the microscope. Right now the image looks a little blurry! The age old question is back folks – “which French team is going to turn up next month and beyond?”
New England Coach Steve Borthwick chooses familiarity over radical change despite some surprising inclusions and omissions
We have to be honest and say that we don’t exactly envy the task that new England Coach Steve Borthwick has been handed. Nine months out from the World Cup he has been given a rather daunting to do list. Somehow he has to turn England from being a side only able to win two of their Six Nations games last year, into a force to challenge for this year’s silverware and build on that to make England a title contender for the World Cup only five months after that. It may be too much of a tall order to get the Men in White beyond the Quarter Finals in France come the fall, but a strong showing in the upcoming Six Nations is certainly a realistic ambition. Apart from difficult trips to Cardiff and Dublin, England has a relatively favorable draw with the bonus of having to face France at Twickenham. Furthermore England will have the opportunity to settle under Borthwick in their first two games by being at home. However, their opener against Scotland is a potential banana skin and has provided for some genuine thrills and spills in the last few years.
In the forwards the big surprise for us was the inclusion of veteran prop Dan Cole, but then Borthwick is familiar with him from his time at Leicester and there has been a trend to pack his squad with some trusted club faces. Cole has value added no doubt but whether or not he is fit enough to withstand the rigors of five weeks of Six Nations competition remains to be seen. We’re not overly thrilled with the second row selections and surely David Ribbans deserved a spot. The back row does look solid and possibly for the first time in many a year actually balanced. The half back offerings look tested and exciting, especially with the addition of debutant Fin Smith.
It’s in the centres and the back three where we’ve been scratching our heads. We would have thought Guy Porter would have deserved a shot, and despite Borthwick seemingly persisting with the belief that Manu Tuilagi is England’s “Messiah”, we’ve seen absolutely nothing this season from the Sale Shark to convince us that such convictions have any merit. Lastly in the back three surely with a view to the World Cup there is a place for Harry Arundell – although Elliot Daly’s injury may make room for the young speedster.
It’s a competitive side that is likely to see some major tweaking with an eye to the future as the tournament progresses. It will be fascinating to see how Borthwick adapts to his new role given all the hype surrounding him as well as how his charges accept what he brings to the table and his vision for the future. Either way we have a hunch that the misery of the last two years for England can start to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Coach Fabien Galthie’s French selection leaves us with more questions than answersas he takes a gamble on depth
There is no question that injury has forced Coach Fabien Galthie’s hand to a certain degree for this Six Nations. In our view the biggest omission is Cameron Woki, who along with Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne is perhaps the best second rower in the Northern Hemisphere right now. However, in our view the more pressing concern for Galthie and his team is the rather poor showing by French clubs in European competition this season, with only La Rochelle turning in consistent performances week in week out.
The front five selections with the exception of the outstanding Cyril Baille and Julien Marchand haven’t exactly had us sitting up and taking notice but as a depth development exercise it’s likely a good set of calls. It’s a capable if not flash set of second row selections, but certainly there is redemption in the shape of the back row choices. We have a hunch that Sekou Macalou will really cement his spot in the French squad with a view to the World Cup, especially given the fact that he can actually put in a genuinely handy shift on the wing if needed. The fact that Gregory Alldritt could be rated as the best number 8 in the world and Charles Ollivon is back to his bruising best will also bring comfort to Galthie and French supporters.
In the halfbacks the injury count is telling and even superstar Antoine Dupont has not looked all that flash so far this season – brilliant at times but opposition sides are clearly starting to figure him out and how to contain him. One to watch could be the Racing 92 input from Nolan le Garrec who looked so sharp against Leinster last weekend in the nine jersey, despite being part of a losing cause. In the fly halves it’s steady as she goes with some genuine proven depth, though all of them need to up their game after some less than stellar club performances. In the centres we’d rate their threat on par with England, but in the back three there is excitement aplenty. One to watch for us will be Ethan Dumortier of Lyon who definitely looks like a potential find of the year for Les Bleus.
France are still clearly one of the favorites, and if they do end up lifting the silverware as defending Grand Slam Champions this year, then the rest of the world needs to live in fear come September. If France performs with this squad then they know they head into the World Cup with some genuine world class depth at their disposal.
While it looks an exceptionally strong Irish side heading into this Six Nations, a few of Andy Farrell’s selection choices have raised eyebrows
It’s an impressive list of names that Andy Farrell has assembled for Ireland’s Six Nations challenge, but no good list would ever be without its surprises. Clearly the two big talking points are Joey Carberry’s loss and Jacob Stockdale’s gain. The Munster fly half has been a conundrum for the Irish selectors – a development player racked by injury problems and generally not living up to the expectations his Coaches have had for him. He’s not a bad player by any stretch of the imagination and has put in some useful efforts in a green jersey. However, consistency is not his strong suit.
Despite a good run of form of late with Munster under their new Coach Graham Rowntree, it’s clear that there are other upstarts challenging Carberry for his place who are making more of an impression. Carberry’s erratic form off the tee as evidenced last weekend against Toulouse and which could have swung the game clearly in Munster’s favor, also hasn’t helped his cause. While we feel it’s a bit harsh that he has been dropped, we’ve been saying all along that Farrell simply has to learn as much about his fly half options ahead of the World Cup as possible. As a result Carberry’s Munster teammate Jack Crawley gets given the nod which we have to say we are delighted by, provided he gets some genuine game time against some of Ireland’s easier opponents such as Italy. Ross Byrne’s form at Leinster has also ensured that he simply had to be on the bus to Cardiff next weekend.
The other surprise in Farrell’s selection was the return of Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale to the Irish fold. After turning heads in 2018 the winger has dropped off Ireland’s radar, not helped by distinctly average performances at club level and ongoing defensive frailties. However, the talent that turned heads five years ago must still surely be in there somewhere. Nevertheless we’d have thought that there would have been a place for his Ulster teammate Robert Balacoune rather than Stockdale. Either way it’s our hope that this Six Nations is the chance Stockdale needs to finally get back to his barnstorming best. You’d have to argue that if he doesn’t then it’s unlikely he’ll feature in Farrell’s World Cup plans, so there is more than just a little pressure on the 26 year old’s shoulders.
As for the rest of the squad it looks more than capable of giving France a run for their money at Six Nations glory as well as any other pretenders to the crown. Ireland should be dominant in the front row, but we can’t help feeling that despite the presence of Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, Ireland’s scrum is the one area that doesn’t look as sharp as it could be despite the world class talent in its ranks. Nevertheless, their work in the loose is always something to behold and expect to see Hooker Dan Sheehan in particular causing absolute mayhem over the next two months. Their second row looks mean and hungry with Tadhg Beirne rapidly becoming the Lineout’s favorite player no matter who we support – expect him along with Sheehan to be one of Ireland’s primary agents of chaos. It’s a back row the envy of the world and a set of half backs who on their day can make a game of rugby look like a finely tuned orchestra.
In the backs we like the look of the centre offerings and are particularly excited to see how newcomer Jamie Osborne’s club form at Leinster translates to Test level, even if the lack of Robbie Henshaw due to injury is a bitter blow. We also would have liked to see Ulster’s James Hume in the mix. Lastly in the back three we’ve already mentioned our surprise over Stockdale. While some are also raising their eyebrows over veteran Keith Earls, in a green jersey he is always something else and turns up when Ireland need him most. Reliability is the term that comes to mind when we think of Earls and although he may not be Ireland’s most dynamic player we always feel a little uncomfortable if we don’t see his name on the planning sheets. We also expect this to be a massive tournament for Leinster sensation Jimmy O’Brien. The only omissions that caught us by surprise here were that of Robert Balacoune and Michael Lowry from Ulster despite their side’s recent struggles in both the URC and the Heineken Cup.
Ireland look good on paper, with the inevitable question swirling around their preparations being did they peak too soon heading into this Six Nations as the number one ranked side in the world? We’d argue it’s different this time around, and despite some lingering concerns particularly around the fly half berth and what kind of team Ireland really is without Johnny Sexton on the pitch, we have a hunch that they find themselves in as good a place as they could hope to be in a World Cup year. So bring on the Six Nations and let’s see where the Northern Hemisphere really stands!
This week we primarily focus on events taking place in the United Rugby Championship. There was some thrilling action this past weekend but a couple of things stood out for us and caused some rather heated debate. Some poor tackling by Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton gave rise to yet another debate as to how the game is being officiated, as well as ongoing concerns around Sexton’s health ahead of the Six Nations given his critical importance to Ireland’s ultimate World Cup aspirations later this year.
We were shocked to see URC favorites Ulster suffer yet another defeat this time to Benetton as well as their two losses in the Champions Cup. Ulster have played thirteen games so far this season across the two competitions but so far have only managed a 50% win rate and the problems seem to be getting worse. Meanwhile Glasgow seem to have suddenly found their mojo, after a disappointing start to the season. Of their thirteen games they’ve won 9 including both their Challenge Cup games. They currently sit right behind Ulster in 5th on the URC table and it would appear to be onwards and upwards for the Men in Blue.
Lastly we can’t help noticing the impact of Argentinian players in Europe this year, but particularly in the English Premiership. While Argentina as a team may not be getting much time together as a unit ahead of the World Cup, a core contingent of their players are getting to know their fellow Pool D partners England very well indeed as well as others lighting up pitches in France and Scotland.
So without any further ado, here’s what kept our pints frothy this week.
No-one wants to see Ireland’s most important player injured, but does it present a short term opportunity that Ireland simply has to seize with both hands as they seek to find some depth in the ten jersey?
Sexton, a bit like Owen Farrell has occasionally had issues with his tackle technique – often tending to be a touch too upright for our liking. In the holiday derby with Connacht, he had to retire from the field after yet another ugly tackle which saw him, rather than his opponent Jarrad Butler, come off worse for wear. Sexton later required facial surgery to his cheekbone, and question marks hung over his participation in Ireland’s rapidly approaching Six Nations campaign.
Fortunately for himself and Ireland, it would appear that the Leinster maestro will be fit for duty when Ireland meet Wales on February 4th in Cardiff. However, given his ongoing issues with injury and the absolute necessity that he is fit for the World Cup if Ireland are ever to hold a hope of getting beyond the quarter finals stage for the first time ever – then surely perhaps now is the time to rest the old warhorse and let his understudies really show their stripes this Six Nations? Although Sexton is Ireland’s Plan A, there is a worrying lack of an effective Plan B should he falter.
So we got out our pencils this weekend and had a look at what we think Ireland Coach Andy Farrell has to do this Six Nations in order of his starting fly half and the bench replacement for all five games. A lack of proven depth at fly half is Ireland’s only genuine depth deficiency and the Six Nations is not only a golden opportunity to address it ahead of a World Cup – it’s also a necessity.
Wales vs Ireland – Joey Carberry to start with Ross Byrne on the bench. Ireland vs France – Ross Byrne to start with Johnny Sexton on the bench. Italy vs Ireland – Harry Byrne to start with Joey Carberry on the bench. Scotland vs Ireland – Ross Byrne to start with Jack Crowley on the bench. Ireland vs England – Johnny Sexton to start with Ross Byrne on the bench.
Bold we think or perhaps even foolhardy we hear you say, but fortune favors the brave and in the buildup to the World Cup Ireland needs answers and needs them fast. Winning the Six Nations in our view should be second to learning some valuable lessons that can be used to fill in the missing gaps ahead of the big show in France later in the year!
Once again England’s Owen Farrell is in the spotlight for yet another dangerous tackle, while still being allowed to help his team to victory – begging the question where is the consistency in what constitutes a dangerous tackle and the issuing of a card?
While it’s hard to deny Owen Farrell’s value to England’s cause, it’s fairly easy to once more shake your head over the liability he poses to the Red Roses’ efforts as a result of his ongoing issues with tackling technique. It’s sadly becoming a bit of a broken record, but Farrell’s deficiencies in the tackling department once more highlight the much larger issues with an ongoing lack of consistency in how the tackle laws are applied on the pitch – especially if the ultimate goal of World Rugby is to safeguard player welfare.
Referee Karl Dickson appeared to be basing his decisions on the fact that play had moved on since the offence and could not be taken back for it. Quite frankly this is ridiculous, as literally every pundit we have read this week felt that it was a red card all day long. The fact that Farrell has since been cited for it post match in our view is irrelevant, despite its negative consequences for England’s Six Nations campaign. The player should have been booked on the field plain and simple. The fact that Farrell was then able to continue play and kick the winning penalty goal just adds insult to injury, and we can only imagine the ranting that must have gone on in Gloucester pubs after the game.
As we approach a critical Six Nations campaign for all six competitors in the build up to the World Cup later this year, we can only hope that somehow the nonsense we witnessed in Gloucester on Friday night is stamped out once and for all. Foul play is foul play and must receive the necessary punishment on the field and not after the fact!
Can Ulster stop their dizzying fall from grace in time to rescue their season?
What on earth is going on at Ulster? They were semi finalists in the URC and gave a strong showing in the pool stages of last year’s Heineken Cup. This year however, Ulster are starting to look a million miles from the form that got them to such lofty heights in 2022. Despite a strong start to this year’s URC campaign they have fallen off the boil dramatically in recent weeks and as for their Heineken Cup challenge, it is essentially over before it’s even started. 13 games into the season and they can only manage a paltry 50% win rate even if they still somehow manage to be clinging on to 4th spot on the URC table. However, with a tough Champions Cup game on the road against La Rochelle this weekend, followed by England’s Sale Sharks at home in Belfast things aren’t going to get any easier for a side clearly struggling to find its groove. And if that’s not enough their last game of the URC before the Six Nations sees them hosting last year’s defending Champions the Stormers.
Looking at Ulster’s stats and general trends emerging from games, what’s wrong is fairly obvious. Their scrum is genuinely starting to creak and their goal kicking is leaving far too many valuable points out on the pitch. The lack of a genuine top flight European fly half is also hampering their playmaking and restricting the talents of some seriously talented backs. Their discipline is starting to slide badly and they are falling off tackles at key moments, making them start to look defensively frail. They often look disjointed in attack and much of that can be put down to the lack of a top notch playmaker calling the shots in the ten jersey. Injuries are also wreaking havoc amongst their ranks which further hampers the cause.
It should be fixable as there is still talent aplenty in this Ulster side, but it is clearly not gelling the way it needs to or in the manner it did with such success last year. Ulster’s backs are unable to express themselves and players like James Hume and Michael Lowry who made such an impression last year are often nowhere to be seen. Time is running out, and perhaps with their European campaign in tatters it is now time to focus all their energies on getting their URC campaign back on track and giving the Kingspan faithful something to cheer about once more.
All Hail the Warriors once more!
Glasgow fizzled out of both the Heineken Cup and the URC last year. Their start to this year’s URC competition appeared to indicate they were headed for more of the same as they received a genuine schooling from Italian side Benetton in their opening game. They then entered a stop start phase of being brilliant one game and then an utter shambles the next. In December though all the lights appear to have come on at maximum intensity. Glasgow now find themselves on a six game winning streak heading into this weekend’s Challenge Cup fixtures.
Last month they thumped Zebre Parma, then travelled to Bath for their first Challenge Cup fixture against Bath and emerged the victors. They followed that up with an impressive at home win against French side Perpignan. However, perhaps most important of all, was their two back to back wins over Edinburgh in the URC over the holidays and with it the 1872 Cup which means they will once again be Scotland’s representative in the Champions Cup next year.
Although they face a tough trip to Perpignan this weekend, they have the luxury of Bath at home before their final URC fixture and the start of the Six Nations. That sees them with an easy home fixture against URC bottom feeders the Dragons. With the likes of Huw Jones, Sebastian Cancelliere, Rory Darge, Sam Johnson, Rufus McLean, Kyle Steyn and Sione Tuipolotu in their ranks it’s no wonder they lead the league in defenders beaten, as well as looking rather flash in the metres made and clean breaks numbers as well. They also sit second in the number of turnovers won.
In short, Glasgow could be one of the big surprises of the second half of the URC season and its resulting business end. Either way they have become one of our favorite teams to watch in the last six weeks and it’s a fitting return to form for a side that has been such a force in the tournament in the last few years.
Pumas adjusting well to the greener pastures of England and Scotland
By the time the English Premiership wraps up this season, World Cup Pool D opponents England and Argentina will have a very good idea of their individual strengths. The Pumas may not actually get together much before the summer if at all, but there is no question that the majority of their squad are at the forefront of top flight European club rugby in England, Scotland and France and the European Champions Cup.
Gloucester’s all star Argentinian trio of Matias Alemmano, Santiago Carreras and Santiago Socino are making their presence felt in Gloucester’s Premiership campaign. So valuable are they to the team that it was elected to rest them for their European Champions Cup clash with Leinster, which Gloucester limped away from in a 57-0 thrashing. You have to wonder how they might have fared if these three had, along with some other key players who were absent, been able to lend their hand in that match.
An electric trio of Argentinian backs are lighting up Newcastle’s efforts in the Premiership, and the names Moroni, Orlando and Carreras are becoming part of Tyneside rugby folklore. Meanwhile London Irish are also packing some serious Pumas heat, especially in the form of the exceptional back rower Juan Martin Gonzalez. Julian Montoya continues to be a powerhouse for Leicester Tigers and north of Hadrian’s Wall Emiliano Boffelli continues to slot the ball between the posts for Edinburgh with effortless ease while Glasgow’s Sebastian Cancelliere is carving up pitches across the URC.
Don’t get us wrong we are not saying that these Argentinian players are single handedly shaping the fortunes of their club sides, far from it and all these teams boast some outstanding English and overseas talent in their ranks as well. However, it is noticeable the impact the Pumas are making in their respective squads. Given the highpoints of Argentina’s International season last year, Pumas Coach Michael Cheika must surely have a lot of reasons to feel cheerful this New Year as he no doubt looks on with a rather large grin on his face, even if he and his charges will not see much of each other until the summer.
Well that’s it for this week folks – some great Champions Cup action to look forward to this weekend and even more exciting a World Cup defining Six Nations is only three weekends away. Happy New Year from all of us!