The start of the Rugby Championship this weekend, the annual dust up between the Southern Hemisphere’s big four, marks the official start to the warm up process for the World Cup in Japan which kicks off in just over two months time from now. The competition as it always is in a World Cup year, is abbreviated down to six matches instead of the normal 12, and although the traditional silverware is still on offer, due to the radically changed format it doesn’t quite have the same value of non World Cup years. In short what the next three weekends are all about for the four countries involved, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is finalizing structures and getting a broad mix of experienced and inexperienced players to gel together ahead of the big show in Japan. Winning the Rugby Championship this year is likely to have little bearing on your chances come September, but being able to put in solid performances and consolidate your depth will say a lot about your preparations.

Consequently all four coaches will be looking to see what their squads are made of and what combinations work. Sure it will be nice to have some silverware to round off the experience, but consistency and an understanding of what’s in your toolbox will be of much more value to the coaching staffs and players alike over the coming weeks. For us there will be plenty to have a look at and lots of excitement on offer as players seek to lay down markers and really compete for those coveted seats on the plane to Japan. The focus may be less on the trophy and more on what can be put on show over the next three weekends, which ultimately should make for some great rugby entertainment. So while the Rugby Championship title may not really matter all that much this year, the tournament certainly will for the players involved.

Here’s what got us talking this week about what’s on offer on Saturday and what we’ll be looking at.

South Africa vs Australia – Saturday, July 20th – Johannesburg

There is lots of experimentation going on here from both Coaches, some injury enforced, but plenty done with an eye to depth in the tank for Japan. As mentioned above it should make for two sides who are perhaps less focused on the silverware and more on the opportunity to shine and thus book a trip to Japan. Of the two sides, South Africa perhaps looks the more familiar from a Test point of view, while Australia drafts in some players we haven’t seen for a while and gives some of the Super Rugby youngsters a chance to  come to the fore in a Test jersey. Either way it should a be a fascinating match and one which should give both Coaches an interesting and much needed look at options with a view to Japan.

It may not be South Africa’s traditional front row, but it is going to make life more than a little challenging for Australia

Quite frankly with Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff out of the mix for this match for the Springboks, we were curious to see what Springbok Coach Rassie Erasmus would come up with. When we saw the starting XV we felt immediately reassured. For us Bongi Mbonambi has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years. He’s a competitor make no mistake and has been pivotal in securing some big wins for South Africa in recent years, even if it has often been from the bench. Consequently, seeing him get the starting nod for this match and a chance to show that he can deliver in some of South Africa’s key games in the pool stages can only be a plus for Springbok depth. Put him alongside Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and all of a sudden you’ve got a unit that can put some real pressure, especially at altitude, on a new look Australian front row. Trevor Nyakane on a good day can also add some bruising beef to the Springboks efforts at the coalface, and with Vincent Koch fresh from Saracens duty in England on the bench, Australia are likely to struggle to keep up here.

Australia do have some hope up front in the second row as they continue to produce some quality here

The Wallabies field a highly rated second rower in the shape of Rory Arnold and a very underrated one in our opinion in the form of Izack Rodda on Saturday. If they can keep their heads in the face of constant niggling from Springbok Captain Eben Etzebeth, then this Australian duo could spark some go forward ability for Australia especially at lineout time. Rodda in particular needs a big stage and this year’s Rugby Championship could really give him the platform he needs to secure that highly coveted ticket to Japan. Arnold and the injured Adam Coleman are likely shoe-ins but Rodda could really stand up and be counted on Saturday, and we think he may just get the better of Lood de Jager who hasn’t really caught our eye the last couple of seasons for the Springboks.

Even with the experimentation South Africa look terrifying up front and even pack a surprise in the back row.

South Africa seem to be going true to form in this match and are packing a formidable punch from 1-8. In short, there is only one real surprise in the starting XV, the inclusion of Toulouse flanker Rynhardt Elstadt. Oh hang on, did you see Toulouse’s road to the Top 14 title? If you did and some of their exploits in the European Champions Cup, then Elstadt’s inclusion suddenly becomes a no-brainer as he was a key player for the French side this season. His Springbok debut may be late at the age of 29, but there is no denying that his European exploits have earned him the jersey and then some.

It all looks great till 9 and 10 for South Africa

Australia are strong here and South Africa just aren’t plain and simple. Elton Jantjies just isn’t a Test level fly half, and although they are not related Herschel Jantjies doesn’t fill us with optimism either. Although he makes his debut for the Springboks, the Stormers scrum half had some great moments in Super Rugby against weaker teams, but was usually shown the door by stronger outfits during the competition. As for Elton Jantjies, as most readers of this blog know, there is just no faith there in his abilities to run games at Test level. South Africa’s biggest problem is kicking perfectly good possession away, a skill that Jantjies unfortunately excels at. We are fascinated to see Nic White back in action for the Wallabies after a spell in the Premiership in England with Exeter Chiefs. With Will Genia on the bench for Australia, South Africa could have real problems here on Saturday. Bernard Foley keeps things steady at fly half for the Wallabies, and we just can’t see South Africa having much to offer here.

This has to be Warrick Gelant and Tom Banks’ big chance

Australia is without the soap opera that comes courtesy of Israel Folau for this match and as a result we finally get to see what Tom Banks can do on the big stage. Although we felt he got marginalised by the Jaguares in the Brumbies Super Rugby semi final, there is no denying the impact the young dynamic fullback had on the Canberra outfit’s campaign this season. By the same token Warrick Gelant has increasingly caught our eye with the Bulls at fullback, and is starting to live up to the hype surrounding him in South Africa. If these two and the rest of their fellow backs on both sides can cut out the handling errors, then we could be in for a fast paced running game with both teams offering up some real speedsters in their midst. If Gelant and Banks can be solid in defence and set up the kinds of counterattacks that their wingers thrive on then we could see some genuine fireworks on Saturday. Gelant will be more comfortable with the thinner air of the high veld, so it will be fascinating to see if he can really turn the screw on Australia in the aerial game.

Verdict

Australia perhaps have more to prove than South Africa in this match, and with the Springboks having home advantage, the Wallabies couldn’t ask for a better start to their World Cup warm up. South Africa though may be making life harder than it needs to be in terms of game management, especially given the wealth of experience Australia offer in Bernard Foley, Nic White and Will Genia. If the Springboks get this crucial aspect of their game wrong on Saturday then it could be a long afternoon at Ellis Park for them. Australia are likely to struggle to gain parity up front, but possess two exceptionally dangerous centres and a back line that has speed and power written all over it. As a result it’s a match where both sides’ positives cancel each other out, but we still think at home it’s South Africa’s game to lose. If South Africa’s forward pack can bludgeon Australia into submission and give their half backs no space in which to operate in, the the Springboks have enough pace of their own out wide to feed off whatever scraps may come their way. We’re concerned about the Jantjies squared combination, but feel South Africa still has enough street smarts and cohesion to get the job done by four points!

Argentina vs New Zealand – Saturday, July 20th – Buenos Aires

This is almost part 2 of the Super Rugby final, as New Zealand’s best take on Argentina’s best, this time on home soil for the South Americans. With the Pumas side looking almost identical to the Jaguares side that traveled to Christchurch earlier this month to take on the Crusaders, it’s hard to not draw the comparison. This time though the Pumas take on instead of the Crusaders, the best of the rest from New Zealand who would arguably be the dream team of most Coaches’ starting XVs.

Many are writing off the Pumas, given the Jaguares inability to put any big points on the Crusaders a fortnight ago, and a seemingly one sided game when one looked only at the scoreline. However, delve into the statistics for that match and it suddenly becomes clear that the Jaguares were keeping level on most fronts and in some cases well ahead, it was their execution at times and some poor decision making from some of their less experienced players that cost them a match played at full throttle. On home soil and with the value added of star play maker and fly half Nicolas Sanchez back in the mix, the Pumas are likely to be a much different prospect. With a rapturous crowd at the Jose Amalfitani in full voice, the All Blacks couldn’t ask for a more demanding fixture in which to sharpen up those World Cup talons and maintain focus and composure in a challenging environment. Whatever the scoreline come the final whistle, we have a hunch that the adjective boring won’t feature in any post match analysis of this one.

Can Coach Mario Ledesma restore the Argentinian scrum?

As a former front rIower himself for the Pumas, Ledesma must have looked on in horror at the seemingly inexplicable weak link in an otherwise stellar Jaguares Super Rugby campaign. It looked like it was finally starting to come together by the time of the final, and seemed much improved against the Crusaders. However, given that a dominant scrum has been such a traditional staple of Argentinian rugby in the past its seeming demise this past eighteen months is of concern. If they are going to reverse that trend and stop Argentina going backwards then Saturday is potentially a golden opportunity to get some confidence back at the coalface. Apart from the legendary Dane Coles, who to be honest we fear more outside the scrum than in, New Zealand are not bringing anything to Buenos Aires that sets alarm bells ringing. If the Pumas get their structures and techniques right on Saturday they could restore some genuine pride to a battered unit, which they desperately need ahead of the World Cup.

Brodie Retallick vs the Lavanini/Petti axis – one of the weekend’s biggest attractions

The last time these three met in their Super Rugby quarter final, it was the South American duo who made the headlines, giving Retallick an exceptionally quiet afternoon by his standards. We doubt that in an All Black jersey the giant New Zealand powerhouse will be as demure, but there is no denying the spoiler alert that the Pumas pair have become especially at lineout time. After two years of disciplinary therapy Lavanini has transformed himself from masquerading as a giant red card  disguised in a rugby jersey, to becoming a genuine master of the dark arts of the forward battles within the laws, albeit at the very fringes. Petti has been off the charts and in open play is one of the Pumas best opportunists. New Zealand will simply have to be at their very best here, and this contest alone should be worth the price of admission or your TV subscription.

Could these be two of the best back rows in Test rugby right now?

Even without Keiran Reid, we feel this is not an under strength All Black back row. Quite frankly we thought the Crusaders back row came off distinctly second best in their tussle with this Jaguares, now Pumas back row a fortnight ago. Consequently, New Zealand now field arguably a much more mobile back row to counter the bruising ball carrying abilities of the likes of Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer and Javier Ortega Desio. Matera is simply off the charts and we side with the argument that he is currently the best number 6 in the world at the moment. Ardie Savea though is simply brilliant whether at 7 or 8, although we feel he has the slight edge at 7. He was an absolute monster for the Hurricanes against the Crusaders in that epic semi-final a few weeks ago. We all know what Vaea Fifita can do against Argentina, so in short this is likely to be a battle of truly epic proportions with Savea and Matera causing complete havoc at times. You won’t want to miss it.

Is it business as usual again for New Zealand with Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith?

The next three weeks will perhaps shed light on the biggest question facing New Zealand heading into the World Cup. What is New Zealand’s starting halfback combination? Is it these two or Richie Mo’unga and TJ Perenara. Either way the race is on for all four, and Saturday sees Barrett and Smith get the first opportunity to stake their claim. What is not in doubt is the quality of all four, although we’d argue that Smith has more to prove than Perenara, with Mo’unga and Barrett in a photo finish race at the moment for the starting 10 jersey. If life wasn’t challenging enough for Smith and Barrett, Saturday’s match sees the return of star fly half Nicolas Sanchez for the Pumas, alongside established scrum half Tomas Cubelli.

Ramiro Moyano vs Sevu Reece – now you see them – now you don’t!

Sevu Reece’s eagerly anticipated All Black call up comes as no surprise after his explosive exploits for the Crusaders this season. Ally him to the vision of Beauden Barrett and in space he could prove to be Argentina’s worst nightmare and Ramiro Moyano’s ultimate defensive workout. However, the Pumas winger has a sidestep and pace of his own that has seen him carve giant swathes through opposition defenses completely unhindered. On top of that the Argentinian winger tackles like a man possessed and has made twice the number of his All Black counterpart this season. All Black Coach Steve Hansen could ask for no better opportunity to put Reece under the microscope in his All Black debut.

Verdict

This is no doubt for Argentinian supporters the rematch they wanted so badly with a New Zealand side, after the Jaguares failed to secure a home final in the recently concluded Super Rugby season. Expect the Jose Amalfitani Stadium to be standing room only and the noise simply deafening. As a result the All Blacks couldn’t ask for a more fitting opener to their 2019 campaign which culminates with the World Cup. After all is said and done though we don’t buy into the argument that this is a second string All Black side, and if the Pumas make that mistake then it will be all over by half time. It will take an exceptionally focused and disciplined Pumas side, despite their success in Super Rugby, to get past 23 rather gifted men in black jerseys on Saturday afternoon. With so much at stake and the emotional factor of the crowd, it could all get too much for the Pumas in the heat of the moment, and we all know what any All Black side can do once they get a whiff of any kind of uncertainty in their opponents. This is an excellent Pumas team, which now has to translate their Super Rugby success to the Test Arena. Even with home advantage we feel it might still be too much of a tall order on the opening night of their season. Consequently, we have a suspicion that the All Blacks’ combined experience of winning away from home in tough environments might just get them through on Saturday, and in a very tight match, New Zealand to get the job done by five points – but brace yourself for the ride as Argentina make them work for every last inch of it!

 

 

 

 

We’re pretty sure that most neutrals had this match as the dream end to this year’s Super Rugby competition. It’s been a long hard road for the Jaguares since their entry into the competition in 2016, but four years on they thoroughly deserve their shot at glory this weekend. For the Crusaders it’s business as usual as they seek to become champions for a third consecutive year. While the New Zealanders have essentially been the form team in the tournament for as long as most of us can remember, the Jaguares rise to prominence in the short space of four years has been the kind of success story that Super Rugby needed, and a marvelous advertisement for the value of a competition that has lost some of its sheen and appeal in recent years.

The Crusaders are the well seasoned establishment of the competition, while the Jaguares are the plucky upstart and clearly relish the role of the underdog. They have got better and better as the season progressed, and come into this match on an unbeaten streak of seven matches, three of which were on the road, including a victory in Wellington over the Crusaders semi-final opponents last week the Hurricanes. Ironically the Crusaders come into the match with a slightly less impressive winning streak, having only won three games on the trot recently. However, all of those last three games were in Christchurch, and despite that of 18 games played they have only lost two. On paper these teams do look remarkably even in terms of their campaigns this year, and the Jaguares seem to be able to travel well. Nevertheless perhaps the most telling statistic of all is that the Crusaders have not lost at home this season, and as a result it is the Jaguares who have everything to prove on Saturday if they are to break down a side that is more than just a little comfortable on their own turf.

Whatever happens on Saturday, we think we can safely say that a highly entertaining contest is on the cards for both Jaguares and Crusaders supporters and neutrals alike. We for one can’t wait and here’s what got us chewing the fat about this match over a few pints this week.

Crusaders vs Jaguares – Saturday, July 6th – Christchurch

There is no denying that the Jaguares have been the feel good factor of this year’s Super Rugby competition, and have injected some much needed variety and excitement into a tournament that has seemed to lose its way in the last few years. The rows and rows of empty seats in the grounds of many of the big teams has been juxtaposed against healthy and highly vocal crowds in Buenos Aires. For neutrals in the competition the Jaguares have become firm favorites. While some Australian commentators seem to feel aggrieved about the fact that you could mirror a Pumas starting XV from a Jaguares one, that simply can’t be helped given the small player base in Argentina and the fact there is only one Argentinian team in the competition. What they have given us is some truly brilliant attacking rugby and a style all of their own, which has become remarkably successful. In doing so they have also unearthed some young talent that will serve the national cause exceptionally well in the coming months.

The Crusaders on the other hand need no introduction whatsoever, having one the tournament nine times, more than any other team. Back to back champions since 2017, they will be exceptionally hard to beat on their home ground. In addition they too boast a host of All Black internationals. Well coached and well drilled they are the masters of their craft and it will take a rather extraordinary team to break them down. Are the Jaguares that side? We’re not sure but of any of the teams we’ve seen this year, they perhaps are the one that the Crusaders might find hardest to predict, especially as this will be the first time the two sides meet this year.

Where’s the beef?

Argentinian sides have always been renown for their scrummaging ability, but in an otherwise emphatic performance over the Brumbies last week, the Jaguares often struggled at scrum time. The Crusaders on the other hand had no such issues, and their front row alone oozes quality and ability, especially as it is for all intents and purposes and All Black front row. Even with the talismanic Agustin Creevy packing down at Hooker, this is one area where the Jaguares just haven’t looked convincing. The Crusaders will be fully aware of this and will look to make their tag as favorites in this area of the game work to their full advantage. If they get the upper hand and really start pushing the Jaguares around, then frustration and ill discipline is likely to get the better of the South Americans, and with fly half Richie Mo’unga not missing with the boot they could pay dearly for it. Therefore we have a hunch that the Jaguares will be trying to play with as little reliance on the scrum as possible, and ensure that their handling skills don’t give away costly knock ons. Fortunately the weather gods are predicting a dry day and clear skies in the evening, so fortune favors the Jaguares in that respect.

One area where the Jagaures will really look to rain on the Crusaders parade is the lineout

While they may struggle at scrum time, the Argentinians are likely to cause the Crusaders all kinds of problems here on Saturday. Jaguares second rower Guido Petti has been an absolute menace all tournament, having won 122 lineouts this season, which is more than the Crusaders Sam Whitelock and Mitchell Dunshea put together. As a result while the Jaguares may try and avoid the scrum, we imagine that the Crusaders will be cautious about kicking to touch, even for penalties, as the Jaguares defensive lineout abilities with Petti in the mix are second to none. Throw Tomas Lavanini into the mix as well for the Jaguares, and that is a potent unit that the Crusaders are really going to have to manage and hope that Hooker Codie Taylor is clinical in his lineout throwing accuracy, even though it is unlikely to stop Petti having a say.

The battle of the back rows is the Jaguares to lose

When the Crusaders have the likes of All Black Captain Keiran Reid and Matt Todd in their back row, you are justified in thinking why we could even make such a statement in the first place. However, when you look at that Jaguares back row it is fast, mobile and highly destructive. Captain and flanker Pablo Matera has been off the charts this year and has become the new talisman for his team that Agustin Creevy once was. Seemingly indestructible, expect the Jaguares back rower to be a constant thorn in the Crusaders defensive arrangements. As regular readers of this blog know, we rate Matera’s partner in crime Marcos Kremer as one of the best in the world of up and coming back row internationals. With Javier Ortega Desio completing the picture, the Jaguares have a devastating strike weapon here which will take its toll on the Crusaders if they are constantly having to keep these three in check. With a bench boasting veteran Manuel Leguizamon and powerful youngster Tomas Lezana, the Crusaders Keiran Read and Matt Todd will have to draw on every last drop of their combined wealth of experience to keep the Crusaders on a level footing in this part of the park.

There are two things the Jaguares should be afraid of – very afraid!

What we saw last weekend in the Crusaders/Hurricanes semi-final convinced us that fly half Richie Mo’unga and winger Sevu Reece are going to be making a lot of headlines in Japan in a few months. Put the two together on a rugby pitch and any opposition side could suddenly get tunnel vision. Mo’unga is a live wire with an extraordinary eye for opportunity and the accuracy in his kicking and passing abilities that make them stick. He knows what winger Reece can do and how to put him in space. The Jaguares may be so busy just trying to figure out what these two are doing, that they could very easily end up at sixes and sevens defensively. If too much focus is placed on trying to contain these two Crusaders X-factors then far too many gaps will open up in the Jaguares back line defences, which the likes of centre Jack Goodhue, Reece’s partner George Bridge and fullback David Havili will ruthlessly exploit. How this gets managed by the Jaguares on Saturday will be key, and if not done properly will make the South Americans’ phenomenal attacking prowess null and void.

We all know what the Jaguares backs can do – but will the Crusaders allow them the space to do it?

Here lies the rub, players like Reece and Mo’unga need space to operate in but too much space also allows the Jaguares back three opportunists to counterattack from any part of the park if the execution isn’t spot on. The Jaguares have five backs who have shown time and again that they can create something out of nothing. The Crusaders have traditionally relied on the calm head and experience of veteran centre Ryan Crotty and the electric youngster Jack Goodhue to keep things tidy in the centre of the park. However, with Crotty out injured, it will be the raw power and youth of Goodhue and the impressive Braydon Enor having to keep an experienced Jaguares and Pumas centre partnership of Matias Orlando and Jeronimo De La Fuente in check. Given the unpredictability of the Jagaures backs in open play, we imagine that the Crusaders will keep it much tighter than perhaps their own backs are used to playing. With fullback David Havili safe at the back for them and also able to run and kick it from deep, expect to see Reece and his fellow Crusaders winger George Bridge have a slightly quieter game than they are used to, and a lot more of the ball played up the middle of the field and through the forwards as opposed to out wide.

Verdict

We are really looking forward to this contest as we imagine are most neutrals, with England and France also probably taking a keen interest in Saturday’s match given that they will be up against most of the Jaguares when they meet Argentina in Japan in a few months time. The weather should favor a fast running game, but given what is at stake it remains to be seen if either team favors such a strategy. The Crusaders are likely to keep it close and slowly wear down a potentially travel fatigued Jaguares side. That’s what we think is likely to happen, although in terms of a spectacle that we know both these teams can put on display, we hope it doesn’t. The next time a lot of these players meet it will be back in Buenos Aires in a fortnight for the opening game of the Rugby Championship between Argentina and New Zealand. So with that being said and given what’s on the line, form and home advantage clearly favor the Crusaders. It would probably be too much of a fairy tale ending for the Jaguares dream season to end with the silverware, so we’re handing it after much heated debate to Super Rugby’s seasoned finalists the Crusaders by 10 points as they seek to tire out the visitors in the final quarter.

Having said that, should the Jaguares make history on Saturday, then we unashamedly admit that we’ll be raising the roof. We have enormous respect for the Crusaders and their proud legacy in the tournament, but there is no denying that a Jaguares win on Saturday would be great for Super Rugby as a whole, the game and add a fine element of spice to the build up to the World Cup. Also it would be nice to see the Jaguares Coach Gonzalo Quesada have something to celebrate after a long season stuck in his lonely coaching box. We have to confess to feeling a bit sorry for him all on his lonesome up there this season, when all the other teams have a coaching staff of at least three, but all the more credit to him pulling off such a memorable season with such limited resources. So in short all the very best of luck to two superb sides and their supporters and give us a game to remember!

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted apart from the French Top 14 final this weekend, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten. As the six teams take a much needed break before the August warm ups in preparation for September’s World Cup in Japan, the 2018/19 season has been a pivotal one for all six teams involved.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the World Cup. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams, and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season, as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in Japan three months from now. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 1 where we take a look at how Italy fared.

Italy – 6/10

Italy got their season off to a difficult start as they made their way across the Atlantic for an exhibition game against Ireland at the beginning of November. The game was played in Chicago’s iconic Soldier Field and which in many ways has become Ireland’s home away from home, after their historic win there over New Zealand’s All Blacks in 2017. Italy were able to hold their own in a scrappy first half, but which saw Ireland ahead by only 14-7. However, in the second half the floodgates opened as a disorganized Italian defense struggled to contain a rampant Irish side who would run in 6 unanswered tries. Ireland would end the match as comfortable winners 54-7, and Italy would return home with a less than auspicious start to their season.

A week later however, Italy regrouped and were able to put together a performance that was able to silence the critics that have increasingly called for their relegation from the Six Nations in favor of Georgia. Georgia traveled to Florence and ensured that it was a highly entertaining match, but Italy would ultimately prevail but were made to sweat right to the end. Both sides had everything to prove, Italy would kick themselves for some poor discipline at times which allowed Georgia to constantly keep in touch with two fine tries. However, Georgia would let their concentration slip with five minutes to go and Italy ensured that they were able to hang onto possession and close out the match.

Next up Italy would take on an Australian side that was under performing almost as dramatically as they were, and as a result some felt this could be Italy’s chance to cause an upset and build on the momentum of their win over Georgia. Once again, as in the contest with Ireland at the beginning of the month, the first half was a closely fought affair, but Australia were still able to run in two unanswered tries and take a 14-0 lead into the break as in the final ten minutes of the half, Italy’s defence once again proved porous. The Wallabies would continue to build on this out of the gates in the second half with yet another try, but Italy were able to strike back with a fine try of their own. Australia’s discipline began to slip as Scott Sio was the recipient of a yellow card, but Italy were unable to capitalize on their man advantage. Australia’s defence held firm against some opportunistic but ultimately poorly executed Italian attacks and ultimately the visitors would once more get control of the match and seal it with their fourth try at the death. After such promise only a week earlier, Italy would limp off the field suffering an agonizing 26-7 loss.

A clearly demoralized Italian side then had the singular misfortune of having to face an angry and wounded New Zealand, after the All Blacks’ historic loss to Ireland the week before. The All Blacks fury knew no bounds and Italy were sadly lambs to the slaughter and never really looked like they were in the match from the get go, as New Zealand ran out an emphatic 66-3 victory.

Italy would take a much needed break to lick their wounds, but in the interim would take heart from club side Benetton Treviso’s healthy exploits in the PRO 14 league and the European Challenge Cup.

The Six Nations promised a fresh start, and their opener in Edinburgh against Scotland did not disappoint, even if Italy were to ultimately walk away on the wrong side of the scoreline. Italy were under the hammer for much of the match, but a yellow card picked up by the hosts with just over ten minutes to go would transform the Azurri. In one of the best passages of play we’ve seen from an Italian side in a long time, Italy would run in three tries in the space of ten minutes. It showed what Italy can do if they put their minds to it, and what’s more do it at the end of a game, instead of doing as they usually do, and fade away by the final quarter. Still it was all too little too late and Scotland would ultimately come away with a bonus point 33-20 win.

Italy’s next opponents were ultimate Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales in Rome. It was not exactly a spectacle that most of us will choose to remember. Wales did enough but didn’t really impress in the process and Italy were just badly organised and scrappy. However, it was starting to ring alarm bells as Italy registered their 4th straight loss in a row 26-15.

Italy would then take on an Irish side who would look distinctly average in Rome. Italy took the fight to Ireland and looked the part, frustrating their Celtic visitors beyond belief. Italy made Ireland work exceptionally hard and the sight of a clearly rattled and out of sorts Johnny Sexton leaving the field summed up just how effective Italy had been at getting under Ireland’s skin. Ireland would ultimately come out on top and take the match 26-16 but courtesy of constant Italian pressure, it was one of the worst Irish performances we saw all year and sweet revenge for Italy after their 54 point thumping by Ireland just a few months earlier in Chicago.

A difficult trip to Twickenham was next on the agenda, and once more Italy appeared to have little if anything to add to a very one-sided contest. A porous Italian defense would see England run in 8 tries to Italy’s two, and yet another thumping was dished out to an Italian side that by now most had written off, as England ran away the winners 57-14.

Italy’s last match of a depressing season overall, given the fact that with the upcoming World Cup there would be no June tour, would be against France back in Rome. France were also suffering from poor form and many felt this would be Italy’s last shot at redemption ahead of preparations for the World Cup. Italy would at times play some sparkling attacking rugby, but ultimately just fall short of finishing off some excellent opportunities. There were times in the match were the margins would close up and you felt it could go either way, with Italian scrum half Tito Tebaldi continuing to be one of Italy’s genuine play makers. However, France somehow managed to regroup and even under pressure with a man in the sin bin, it would be les Bleus who would have the final say through a brilliant Damian Penaud try in a match that Italy should have won. Italy would once again have to settle for yet another loss and a Six Nations wooden spoon.

In short, not a good year for Italy. One victory from nine attempts simply doesn’t look good. Once more given the fact that they didn’t exactly put Georgia to the sword, the call for a relegation system in the Six Nations raised its head once more. However, let’s put it in perspective for a moment. What Italy did show off this year was some very promising young talent that is making a name for itself on the club scene in Europe. At times this year they looked genuinely exciting on attack and they are able to defend when they get their structures right. Yes Italy are still the work in progress that everyone has been saying they are since their inclusion in the Six Nations in 2000, but we felt a lot more optimistic about them after this year.

They have a World Cup pool that will sadly do them no favors in terms of advancing beyond the pool stages as that would necessitate them getting past the New Zealand juggernaut and a revitalized South Africa. However, a strong third place finish in their pool is surely on the cards as Namibia and Canada should prove relatively soft targets for them. If Italy can emerge from the World Cup having won the games they will be clearly targeting and putting up a good fight against the heavyweights in their pool, then we’d argue that the next four year cycle for Italy between World Cups could just turn out to be those golden years they have been waiting for for so long. For their sake we certainly hope so!

Match of the year – Italy vs Georgia – Florence – November 10th – Italy 28/Georgia 17

It was definitely their best performance of the year, and it needed to be. With the rest of the rugby world asking questions regarding Italy’s merit and right to a place in the Six Nations, they simply had to beat their arch rivals for European ascendancy – Georgia. While they may not have done so emphatically, they nevertheless carved out a gritty and important win and showed that there is no lack of passion in the Azurri jersey. They had the lion’s share of possession and territory and outscored Georgia four tries to two. Georgia was forced to make twice as many tackles and Italy even got the upper hand over the much vaunted Georgian scrum. It may not have been pretty at times but Italy looked the part when it mattered most.

Player of the year – Tito Tebaldi

At the heart of everything that Benetton and Italy did well this year, the 31 year old scrum half really has had a year to remember even if he was only on a winning Italian side once. His speed of passing and eye for opportunity was a joy to watch this year, and his tackling proved ferocious. In short, he may not have many years left in an Azurri jersey but he has clearly reached the top of his game and certainly looks to be a big part of whatever successes Italy may have in the next few years. A player that Italy can be genuinely excited by every time he takes to the field and one who leads by example.

Player to watch in 2019 – Federico Ruzza

Italy had quite a few this year, but Ruzza really stood out for us. A constant menace in the lineout and a very handy and pacy wing forward when needed, the second rower has impressed for both club Benetton and the Azurri. His tackling has been solid, and his ability to turn loose ball into opportunity for club and country has been exciting to watch. With head of steam up, he’s a hard man to bring down and has a pretty nifty sidestep to boot. Ruzza is definitely a player we feel can translate Benetton’s success onto the international stage for Italy. Expect him to feature heavily in press releases for the Azurri come the World Cup.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Italy’s best Test of the year against Georgia during the November Internationals, and the type of performance they will need and then some for a very difficult World Cup challenge that lies ahead!

Up next – Scotland!

If you didn’t catch the Super Rugby quarter-finals last weekend, you missed a treat, but fear not this weekend’s semi-final action is likely to be edge of the seat stuff and then some. A New Zealand derby sees two powerhouse sides go up against each other, and in the process give the All Black selectors a tantalizing look at how their Rugby Championship and World Cup plans may unfold. In Argentina, a flash looking Brumbies side makes the long journey to take on the Jaguares in a venue that is proving to be a bit of a fortress for the South American side.

There are lots of questions to be answered, especially for the All Blacks in a couple of key positions as a result of how events turn out in Christchurch on Saturday, while in Buenos Aires Australian fans will hope that the Brumbies can deliver a much needed renaissance for Australian rugby. For the Jaguares it’s been a dream season that has gone from strength to strength, and in the process injected some much needed life into the Super Rugby tournament.

In short it’s a weekend you won’t want to miss, so here’s what got us talking as we look forward to two games that should keep us guessing to the final whistles.

Jaguares vs Brumbies – Friday, June 28th – Buenos Aires

While the rest of Australian rugby may be in a bit of a shambles, the Brumbies have been a ray of hope for the game in the land down under this season. Consistency may not have been their strong point in the first half of the season, but they still managed to comfortably top the Australian conference and at times have played some brilliant rugby, with last weekend’s quarter final a case in point and which saw them complete a seven game winning streak. However, it’s a long journey from Canberra to Buenos Aires, and given the rather short turnaround it remains to be seen how well the Australian outfit has coped with the travel issue.

No such issues are faced by the Jaguares who are coming off the back of  their own six game winning streak as well as a three week residency at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani which has become a fortress for them this year. Unlike a lot of Super Rugby venues this year, the Buenos Aires stadium has packed exceptionally healthy and enthusiastic crowds and Friday’s encounter should be no different. The Jaguares have played some of the most entertaining rugby of the competition and on home soil will be a very daunting prospect for their Australian visitors.

So how much will the Brumbies short turnaround and long journey play a factor?

As some have already said in other forums, the Brumbies may well have studied the Jaguares playbook on how to cope with travel on the road, as the South American team pulled off some memorable wins on the road this season, and furthermore were consistent in the way they did it. The Brumbies played only last Saturday night in Canberra in their quarter-final against South Africa’s Sharks, and the next morning were on the bus to Sydney airport. With only a few days to acclimatize, there is no doubt they have the bigger challenge of the two sides running out tomorrow night.

Is the transfer of leadership in the Jaguares complete and will this translate to the Pumas next month?

There is no doubt that Pablo Matera has risen to the call of leadership this year and is the spark and talisman to the team that Agustin Creevy has been up to now. Although the powerful flanker departs for France after the World Cup, he has led from the front from the opening whistle of the Jaguares 2019 season. Creevy is clearly the talisman he always has been, but Matera has been the catalyst for the Jaguares success this year. We should get a good idea on Friday of how the two will share the role in the Pumas forthcoming Rugby Championship and World Cup campaign – but so far it seems a natural chemistry and ascendancy.

The Jaguares have one of the best lock partnerships in the competition plain and simple

Big, powerful and exceptionally mobile the Jaguares second row is a thing to be feared. The Brumbies pack a real threat in Rory Arnold and he is no doubt clearly on the radar for Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika. However, despite Arnold’s presence we fear that the Brumbies are going to be put to the test here on Friday. Petti in particular has been outstanding for the Jaguares and Argentina since last year, and his mobility and spoiler factor at lineout time, will be something the Brumbies and Arnold in particular will have to really get to grips with.

Nicolas who?

Yes we know we’ll see him again come the Rugby Championship and the World Cup, but it would seem the Jaguares really haven’t missed their star fly half of last year Nicolas Sanchez. Joaquin Diaz Bonilla and Domingo Miotti have been revelations at 10 for the Jaguares and are likely to get some serious international exposure in the forthcoming Rugby Championship. If that goes well then Argentina travel to the World Cup with three solid playmaker options in the number 10 jersey.

Plenty of positives for both sides that will pay dividends come the World Cup in terms of new talent coming of age

You know all about the Jaguares backs and we’ve talked about the dynamic duo the Jaguares have at fly half. However, there has been plenty of new talent that has emerged for both sides. The Brumbies scrum half Joe Powell was absolutely outstanding last weekend and for Wallaby selectors a genuinely refreshing option in terms of looking at life after Will Genia. Brumbies fullback Tom Banks has been on fire this season, and makes the current Israel Folau fiasco rather meaningless to the Wallabies long term plans. The Jaguares have found a gem in winger Sebastian Cancelliere, though he’d already caught our eye in the Americas Rugby Championship two years ago when he represented the Argentina XV side that destroyed Canada in the snow. These are just a few of the names you will want to watch on Friday among a refreshing crop of young talent on both sides likely to make a statement in Japan.

Verdict

Much has been made of the travel factor weighing against the Brumbies, and the fact that the last time these two sides met in Buenos Aires it went the Argentinians’ way. However as the flagship side of a country whose rugby scene is in turmoil, expect the Brumbies to be Australia’s ambassadors of good cheer on Friday night with a point to prove both to their nation and themselves.

Nevertheless, it’s the Jaguares home ground and they are on a definite roll at the moment. Furthermore for most neutral supporters they are the firm favorites of the tournament, as their success has added a genuine frisson of excitement and unpredictability to a competition that was starting to lack both qualities. New Zealand sides have dominated Super Rugby for the most part since the last World Cup, and the Jaguares have in the four years since they joined proved that they were worth their admission and then some. We think they will be very hard to beat on Friday in Buenos Aires and with an almost delirious crowd egging them on, it may be rather lonely in Estadio Jose Amalfitani for the Brumbies. If the Australians can overcome the jet lag and the noise then what’s to say they can’t go all the way this year. Nevertheless we think it’s too much of a tall order, and consequently hand it to the Jaguares by four points!

Crusaders vs Hurricanes – Saturday, June 29th – Christchurch

As an exhibition of our great game you couldn’t ask for two more clinical and exciting sides in New Zealand’s Crusaders and Hurricanes. With both teams having the competition sewn up between them since the last World Cup, it is hard to not see the same happening again this year. However, Saturday’s clash will ensure that only one is left in the hunt as opposed to a final split between the two of them. It’s hard to conceive of the Crusaders not lifting the trophy for the third consecutive time next Saturday, but the Hurricanes as their name so aptly says are a force that can lay to waste the best laid plans.

The Crusaders have been the form team of the tournament this year having only lost 2 games. Saturday’s match should be a Clash of Titans and while the Crusaders are almost impossible to bet against on form, the Hurricanes have shown that they can knock anyone off their lofty perch on their day.

There are lots of talking points in this game but the one on everybody’s lips is the battle for the All Black 10 jersey

While we agree that it’s still hard not to see the Hurricanes’ Beauden Barrett remaining as All Black Coach Steve Hansen’s number one choice, the Crusaders Richie Mo’unga’s claim on the jersey is undeniable. He has been the form 10 of the tournament in New Zealand, and his repertoire of skills is in some ways superior to Barrett’s. Barrett may be the better game manager but Mo’unga’s eye for opportunity, kicking and ball handling skills have been off the charts this season. One of the most fascinating contests of the weekend by a country mile and one which will tell us much about New Zealand and the World Cup.

Next contest for an All Black starting jersey – Dane Coles vs Codie Taylor 

After being on the sidelines with injury, Hurricanes Hooker Dane Coles is back to his absolute best and despite the Crusaders’ Codie Taylor stepping into his enormous boots with steadfast reliability and a skillset all his own, it’s hard not to see the Wellington man continue to be Steve Hansen’s first choice. Reliable and probably the only Hooker who can genuinely play as a winger, Coles’ abilities are the stuff of legend. Taylor however has really stood up in Coles’ absence and while perhaps not as flash as his Hurricanes counterpart is the slightly more reliable of the two in the set pieces. Tough choice and another fascinating battle to watch.

Ardie Savea – the Hurricanes own force of nature

We just love watching this guy play – plain and simple. He is the only player we know who appears to play with an almost frantic abandon, accentuated by his hairstyle, yet at the same time appears to know exactly what he is doing and ends up being devastatingly effective at it. He arrives at a ruck causes complete chaos and in the blink of an eye the Hurricanes or New Zealand are suddenly on the front foot and moving forward. In short a defence coach’s worst containment nightmare. Expect to see him causing complete havoc on Saturday.

The Jack Goodhue/Ryan Crotty partnership – the perfect blend of youth and experience

In our opinion this is one of the best centre combinations in world rugby right now and expect to see these two gentlemen in action together a lot in a black jersey over the coming months. Goodhue the youngster has been such a complement to his mentor the veteran Ryan Crotty, that these two alone can swing a game in the Crusaders’ favor, especially allied to the talents of the exceptional Richie Mo’unga. The Hurricanes’ Ngani Laumape has been one of the tournament’s standout players, but the Crusaders pair have ruled the centre of the park.

David Havili vs Jordie Barrett – another fascinating dilemma for the All Black selectors at fullback

With Damian Mackenzie out of the World Cup due to injury, these two are clearly the front runners for the 15 jersey if Ben Smith is switched to the wing. Barrett has the more useful boot and is better in the defensive contests, but Havili’s ball skills are exceptional coupled to an ability to read the run of play and leave defenders in his wake. A real threat with ball in hand, Havili will make sure that the selectors will be faced with a real conundrum after Saturday, especially if both players put in noteworthy performances.

Verdict

In a clash of giants, it’s always hard to pick a winner. But home advantage and an incredible run of form tip the odds fairly heavily in the Crusaders’ favor. There is slightly more of an All Black look and feel to the Crusaders lineup, and while it is likely to be a pulsating contest from both sides, our money is on the men from Christchurch wrapping up proceedings by five points. It should be one hell of a ride and while it may be a domestic derby, it will be at Test level intensity!

 

 

 

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In a titanic struggle with fellow playoff hopefuls Rugby United New York, the Toronto Arrows kept fans on the edge of their seats until a 77th minute drop goal from fly half Sam Malcolm would secure a 22-20 victory for the Arrows, and that coveted spot in the finals. Toronto will kick themselves for not getting the bonus point try which could have secured them a home semi-final as well as allowing their rivals a losing bonus point. However, for a team’s first season in Major League Rugby they and their fans can still feel pleased and proud of a remarkable regular season that has shown that the sport of rugby union is in rather rude health in Toronto.

This was a punishing match from the outset with both sides evenly matched and literally throwing the kitchen sink at each other, as the game seesawed from end to end in the opening 15 minutes. New York would get the first points on the board through a relatively soft try as winger Mike St. Claire found himself in plenty of open space down the blind side.

Toronto would strike back ten minutes later through a lovely passage of play from their own lineout. Spreading the ball right across the field in some silky running and deft passing, winger Leandro Leivas would put his fellow winger and Captain Dan Moor in space through a brilliant one-handed offload after beating two defenders. Moor would touch down and although Sam Malcolm would miss the conversion Toronto were back in the hunt trailing 7-5.

Toronto would continue piling the pressure on New York and four minutes later after a prolonged period in New York’s 22, center Spencer Jones would spot a comfortable gap just outside the posts and dot it down for Toronto’s second five pointer. Malcolm would get the easy conversion and Toronto would draw ahead 12-7. Some heroic defending from Toronto would see them close out the half with their lead intact.

New York came out of the blocks firing after the break, and Toronto by comparison had what could only be described as a purple patch for the opening quarter of the second half. They seemed to lack focus and shape and New York took full advantage of the home side’s lapses in concentration. Once more Toronto’s habit of passing dreadfully flat against a rush defense cost them dearly, as a pass that was so obvious it was probably in the previous week’s papers, was intercepted by the visitors’ blindside flanker John Quill. The New Yorker ran completely unopposed for almost half the length of the field to jot it down between the sticks for a straightforward conversion.

Toronto continued to struggle to find their shape and with it their discipline, allowing New York’s fly half Cathal Marsh two relatively simple penalty kicks and enabling the visitors to pull ahead 20-12.

A shot of espresso in the Arrows water bottles was clearly called for and seemed to have the desired effect as the team regained their composure in the 65th minute. Toronto would exert some genuine pressure on the visitors as they set up camp in New York’s 22. It had the desired effect as New York began to lose their discipline. A quick tap penalty from replacement scrum half Andrew Ferguson would see the number nine dive across for Toronto’s third try. Malcolm would not miss with the boot and all of a sudden the game was on a knife edge at 20-19 for New York and 14 minutes left on the clock.

The next ten minutes would see a pitched battle between two evenly matched sides, with neither able to gain the advantage. Then in the 76th minute with Toronto applying another period of sustained pressure in New York’s 22, fly half Sam Malcolm would drop into the pocket and slot the perfect drop goal. The stands erupted as one, and Toronto had that all important lead, albeit by a mere two points with three minutes left on the clock.

Toronto would maintain their composure in the dying minutes of the game, despite New York piling on the pressure. Toronto held firm and after a dominant scrum by the home side in the 80th minute, Andrew Ferguson would kick it into touch knowing that Toronto’s big adventure would continue beyond this, the final match of the regular season.

While Toronto will kick themselves for going off the boil for that crucial opening quarter in the second half, as well as not getting a bonus point try and at the same time allowing their rivals a losing bonus point, it was a historic win. The jubilation on players and fans’ faces alike was there for all to see. The party is not over yet and while there is still plenty of work to do and things to fix, there is no denying that this has been a dream start for Canada’s first team to compete in Major League Rugby.

Toronto now face a tough trip out to the Pacific Northwest to face Seattle’s Seawolves in the semi-finals. Toronto comfortably beat Seattle when they came to York University’s Alumni field in April, but in Seattle it was a tight contest back in February which saw the Seawolves who are defending MLR champions come out on top.

Whatever happens next Sunday in Seattle, Toronto rugby union fans have been treated to 8 glorious games of rugby, and the Arrows have made some real inroads into the city’s sporting landscape this spring. We have thoroughly enjoyed turning out every Sunday since April and wish the boys all the very best in Seattle this coming Sunday. Furthermore given the fact that so many of the team are from Ontario, it has done wonders for the profile of the sport in the province. In addition, many of the players who have made their presence felt over the last few months, are likely to be on the plane to Japan in three months time to represent Canada in the World Cup. They’ve made us proud and we have a hunch they’re not done yet! And as for next season…….WE CAN’T WAIT!!!!!

The scorers:

For Toronto:

Tries: D. Moor, S. Jones, A. Ferguson

Conversions:  S. Malcolm 2

For New York:

Tries:  M. St. Claire, J Quill

Conversions:  C Marsh 2

Penalties:  C Marsh 2

Toronto:  1 Rob Brouwer, 2 Andrew Quattrin, 3 Morgan Mitchell, 4 Mike Sheppard, 5 Paul Ciulini, 6 Peter Milazzo, 7 John Moonlight, 8 Luke Campbell, 9 Jamie Mackenzie, 10 Sam Malcolm, 11 Leandro Leivas, 12 Guiseppe du Toit, 13 Spencer Jones, 14 Dan Moor, 15 Gaston Mieres. Replacements:  16 Steven Ng, 17 Pat Lynott, 18 Cole Keith, 19 Tom Van Horne, 20 Marcello Wainwright, 21 Andrew Ferguson, 22 Pat Parfrey, 23 Kainoa Lloyd

New York:  1 James Rochford, 2 Dylan Fawsitt, 3 Patrick Ryan, 4 Trevor Cassidy, 5 Nathaniel Brakeley, 6 John Quill, 7 Matthew Hughston, 8 Ross Deacon, 9 Michael Petri, 10 Cathal Marsh, 11 Michael St. Claire, 12 William Leonard, 13 Mark O’Keefe, 14 Connor Wallace-Sims, 14 Ben Foden. Replacements: 16 Callum Mackintosh, 17 Chance Wenglewski, 18 Anthony Parry, 19 Alexander MacDonald, 20 James Denise, 21 Harry Bennett, 22 Christopher Mattina, 23 Marcus Satavu

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In an emphatic 40-12 win over the Glendale Raptors at Lamport Stadium, the Toronto Arrows secure third spot in the league heading into the final game of the regular season this coming Sunday. It was a dominant performance which saw the home side make few if any mistakes, and secure a win that will give them huge confidence going into their final match with Rugby United New York this weekend.

As they have in most of their matches to date, Toronto got proceedings off to a flying start, with prop Morgan Mitchell bludgeoning his way through the Raptors defenses after a superb rolling maul which showed off Toronto’s complete dominance in the set pieces. Five minutes in and it was Toronto leading by five points after fly half Sam Malcolm missed a tricky conversion.

Glendale would hit back five minutes later after some sustained pressure in Toronto’s 22, and a rare lapse in concentration by the Arrows, saw Glendale scrum half Carlo de Nysschen dart across the line off a quick tap penalty. Glendale’s Fly half Will Magie would get the conversion and Glendale would enjoy their only lead of the match at 7-5.

Thereafter it was all Toronto, as the home side focused on getting not only the win but an all important bonus point as well. Toronto seemed to have given up on some of the slightly risky flat passing that had characterized some of their earlier performances and their lineouts showed some marked improvement. With a dominant scrum and better handling skills than the visitors, Toronto looked the more comfortable of the two sides especially under pressure.

A brilliant dummy from fullback Gaston Mieres would see Toronto regain the lead on the 16th minute, and this time Sam Malcolm would make no mistake with the conversion, putting the home side into a 12-7 lead.

Toronto continued to pile the pressure on the Raptors and ten minutes later number eight Luke Campbell would crash across the line after a prolonged period of possession and the home side’s scrum continuing to cause headaches for the visitors from Colorado. Toronto knew they were in with a shot at the bonus point, with just under an hour still to play, as they led 19-7.

And so it was as on the 33rd minute fullback Gaston Mieres once again put in a brilliant sniping run, that saw him weave his way past four defenders and secure Toronto their bonus point. Sam Malcolm was successful with the boot once more and Toronto went into half time with a commanding 26-7 lead.

Glendale would open the scoring early in the second half, as on the 45th minute centre Mika Kruse would take a superb pass floated out wide to find Toronto wanting on defense. Unfortunately Glendale were unable to secure the two points for the conversion and Toronto still found themselves with a comfortable 26-12 lead.

On the 53rd minutes Toronto scrum half Andrew Ferguson would spot an opportunistic gap in Glendale’s defenses in the visitors’ 22 and dive across for the home side’s fifth try. With fly half Sam Malcolm really finding his rhythm with the boot, Toronto further increased their lead to 33-12.

Just over ten minutes later another bout of sustained pressure from Toronto in the Raptors’ half, saw some dominant forward play allow replacement lock Tom van Horne to crash over for Toronto’s sixth try. Another successful conversion and with the score 40-12 for the home side and only 15 minutes left on the clock, Toronto knew they had got the job done.

Glendale would still try and take the fight to Toronto and looked close to getting a consolation try on the the stroke of full time, but centre Ata Malifa overcooked a chip through and the ball went out of bounds.

It had been a clinical and solid display from Toronto, and helped put them firmly in playoff contention. Barring a major slip up against Rugby United New York this coming Sunday in their final game of the regular season, Toronto should easily secure a place in the knockout stages. Furthermore a home playoff is now an an achievable ambition, if they can bring the same kind of intensity to Sunday’s match we saw against Glendale. New York sit in second place on the table just ahead of Toronto but three teams in the top four in the MLR sit on 53 points, so it really is right royal scrap for the knockout stages placings.

It was great to see over 2700 highly vocal fans in attendance last Sunday on a glorious spring afternoon. The stakes couldn’t be higher for our home town heroes this coming Sunday so if you’re in the Toronto area make sure you get out to Lamport and make some noise!

 

Although we don’t necessarily cover the PRO14 in any detail, this year’s final has a real international flavor to it. With a good proportion of their respective World Cup squads involved in Saturday’s club final, Irish and Scottish eyes will be keenly focused on events in Glasgow. In their last big game before the World Cup warm ups start in August, this is a chance for key Irish and Scottish players to really standout in front of the selectors in a match that mirrors the opening encounter for both sides in Japan in September. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt and his Scottish counterpart Gregor Townsend will be watching proceedings closely.

Title holders Leinster come into this match off the back of an agonizing loss to Saracens in the European Champions Cup final a fortnight ago. Meanwhile the Warriors failed to get past Saracens in the quarter final stages of the same competition. Despite that loss one could argue that Glasgow are the form team going into tomorrow’s fixture, and continue to be the masters of a frenetic attacking style of rugby.

Leinster on the other hand have done enough to get them to this point, but simply haven’t been the all conquering side of last year. Relying on a possession dominated game that starves opposition sides of quality ball, Leinster have been effective but it remains to be seen if they can handle Glasgow’s fast paced and highly opportunistic brand of rugby. The two sides have only met once this year, and Glasgow were the dominant side, winning that encounter by a comfortable 15 point margin. Glasgow were able to pull off that victory away from home, and Saturday’s final sees them enjoy the luxury of playing in front of their supporters at Glasgow’s famous Celtic Park.

So without any further ado, here’s what got us talking over our pints this week in relation to Saturday’s eagerly anticipated match.

Glasgow Warriors vs Leinster – Saturday, May 25th – Glasgow

How many of the players wearing their club jerseys on Saturday will end up wearing their national colors on September 22nd in Yokohama remains to be seen, but there is no denying that the match tomorrow has more than just a few overtones of Ireland and Scotland’s opening encounter in the World Cup later this year. Although Leinster come into the match as defending champions, one could almost argue that they have more to prove. With their form, that served them so well last year, seeming to have deserted them at key moments this season, Leinster know they have it all to prove to their supporters on Saturday. While Glasgow are unlikely to have underestimated the threat posed by one of Europe’s best club teams – home advantage, the return of key players and a team in scintillating form in the PRO14 will make them hard to beat on the day.

Glasgow have to concern themselves with not only being competitive against Leinster’s powerhouse front row but also keeping try seeking missile Sean Cronin in check

Most teams would fear the prospect of keeping up with Leinster’s front row, but making sure that one of the competition’s top try scorers is kept at bay is an added complication they would probably rather do without. Leinster’s Hooker Sean Cronin has been a constant thorn in the side of opposition teams this year both in the European Champions Cup and PRO14. While Cronin’s dart throwing at lineout time has not been the most reliable at times, Leinster’s overall prowess in the front row is the stuff of legends with Irish props Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy adding some real grunt and go forward ability at the coal face. Glasgow will be highly competitive here, and a good showing by them is likely to give Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend great heart heading into the World Cup, but there is no getting away from the fact that they are going to have their work cut out for them.

Glasgow simply have to make sure that Leinster don’t overpower them up front and must try and disrupt the lineout as much as possible

We feel Glasgow will struggle to get parity with Leinster in the forward battles, but if they can disrupt the lineout to the point where Sean Cronin’s dart throwing starts to unravel, there is the potential for loose and scrappy ball which Glasgow seem to thrive on. However, Leinster’s Scott Fardy and James Ryan are two of the most reliable assets in European Club rugby and providing Cronin finds his targets, they are unlikely to cough up much opportunistic loose ball. With Jack Conan lighting up the back row for Leinster and Josh van der Flier back to his best on the open side, Glasgow really need to dig deep here to prevent Leinster having the lion’s share of possession. Scottish eyes will all be on van der Flier’s opposite number Rob Harley who is on fire this season and is likely to feature heavily in Scotland’s World Cup plans, while youngster Matt Fagerson is definitely a raw talent in the making for both Glasgow and Scotland at number eight. Fagerson and Harley could not ask for a better warm up for the World Cup and a big performance on Saturday will be a massive confidence booster for them.

Johnny Sexton seems to have found the composure once more that has eluded him this season, but Glasgow’s half back duo packs plenty of speed and the element of surprise

Sexton is such a benchmark for both Leinster and Ireland, that his loss of composure at key moments in 2019 has been worrying for Irish supporters in the run up to a World Cup that has so much riding on it for Ireland. In the PRO14 semi-final against Munster, Sexton seemed to finally settle back into his groove and Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt will hope that his star playmaker’s last performance before the August warm-ups exhibits the same qualities. Glasgow’s halfback duo of fly half Adam Hastings and scrum half Ali Price are more than capable of catching Sexton off guard. With Hastings rapidly rising through the ranks as a more than capable understudy to Scotland’s first choice number 10 Finn Russell, Leinster and Sexton will have to keep an eye on the wily youngster. Meanwhile Ali Price is renown for his frenetic energy and pace off the back of the scrum. His opposite number Leinster’s Luke McGrath will really need to keep the energetic Scottish youngster in check, and in doing so make his claim for Irish colors come September over a raft of up and coming contenders for the no 2 spot on Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s scrum half list for Japan.

Gary Ringrose has impressed all season for Ireland and Leinster so expect him to finish the year with a bang on Saturday

While his centre field partner Rob Henshaw may be the more established name, in our opinion it’s Ringrose who has been the most consistent player for both club and country this season. Though many have compared him to the great Brian O’Driscoll, we feel Ringrose brings his own unique character and skill set to the game. Increasingly though he is making those kind of breaks that his predecessor was famous for. If a try is to be scored you can almost bet your next paycheck that Ringrose will feature heavily in its execution. With his defensive abilities improving with every outing, he is well on his way to becoming the kind of unique well rounded centre that the Emerald Isle seems to excel at producing. Glasgow and Scotland’s Sam Johnson has also caught the eye all year, most notably in Scotland’s recent thriller at Twickenham in the final match of the Six Nations. A key talent for Scotland and definitely someone likely to have a big say in Scotland’s quest for glory in Japan in a few months time.

Plenty of Canadian interest on the left wing for Glasgow

Canadian fans will be keen to see arguably their country’s best player in action for Glasgow on Saturday. Winger DTH van der Merwe is back to some of his best form for Glasgow after returning to the club this season after three years in England and Wales. Glasgow appear delighted to have him back, and the Canadian is clearly relishing being back at the club that got his international career off to such a promising start. DTH will feature heavily in Canada’s exceptionally difficult World Cup challenge this September, and expect the winger to put on a show to give his international opponents something to think about later in the year.

A swansong in their respective colors for two of Europe’s finest fullbacks?

In the case of Stuart Hogg, that is definitely the case as the Scottish fullback parts company with a club that he played such a vital role in over the last eight years. The final on Saturday sees the Scottish International head south of the border to take up with English premiership side Exeter. Glasgow will miss the extraordinary talents of a player who seems able to strike from anywhere on the pitch. Rob Kearney’s future post Saturday’s match is still undecided, but could well see him heading to France after the World Cup, and as a result tomorrow’s game could be the last time the veteran fullback wears the colors of his beloved Leinster. Much like Hogg, Kearney has played a huge role in the Dublin club’s successes in Europe and Ireland’s triumphs on the world stage for the last fourteen years. Expect these two to put on a vintage display for their fans to remember them by.

Verdict

We have to admit that we are really looking forward to what should be a thrilling contest, between two teams desperate to make a statement, with perhaps the need to do so being more pressing for Leinster. Glasgow at home will be exceptionally difficult to overcome and the crowd will do their bit as the sixteenth man, despite a healthy and numerous contingent of visiting Leinster supporters. A very hard contest to call, but despite some rather heated debate, we have ultimately decided to nod our heads across the Irish sea. Glasgow have home advantage and some truly dazzling attacking rugby up their sleeve in their favor but we side with the Irish team’s experience and big match temperament. It will be close of that we’re fairly certain and the lead may swing back and forth with some real heart in the mouth moments, but ultimately we feel Leinster will batten down the hatches and squeak out a tight win by four points! Either way make sure you don’t miss it as it is likely to have some influence on proceedings on a certain Sunday in September this year!