A match that has perhaps been as eagerly anticipated as the opening fixture of this year’s Six Nations between Ireland and England in February, kicks off on Saturday, as the final that most people wanted in the European Champions Cup takes place between Ireland’s Leinster and England’s Saracens. The two best club sides in Europe do battle in Newcastle in a match that should be one for the ages. It may be club rugby but it has the aura of a classic Test match in the making.

So here’s what got us talking this week in the buildup to what should be a gripping eighty minutes of top level rugby.

Saracens vs Leinster – Saturday, May 11th – Newcastle

It may only be club rugby but Saturday’s match has all the trappings of a classic Test match. Ireland and England’s finest go head to head in what will be for many of the players involved one of their last big games before the World Cup in September. Consequently, while their primary focus will be on lifting one of rugby’s most coveted cups in Newcastle, a good performance will also lay down some markers of what we can expect to see from Ireland and England come the World Cup. A Cup final in a World Cup year always seems to have double the stakes.

Leinster should have the more dynamic front row, but Saracens are more than capable of negating it.

Leinster’s front office trio of Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Sean Cronin just oozes class and coherence. It’s a tight unit that functions almost effortlessly as one. Consequently on form you’d have to give Leinster the edge here, but in Hooker Jamie George and Loosehead prop Mako Vunipola Saracens have two of the best in the business, with Vunipola consistently making the headlines for Saracens and England all season. We’d argue that George is the more accurate dart thrower at lineout time, but Cronin the more devastating finisher anywhere near the try line. Throw in Furlong and Healy who is a master of the turnover for Leinster, and Saracens are going to have their work cutout for them, especially with Furlong coming back to his bruising best in the Irish side’s semi-final encounter with Toulouse.

Can Will Skelton keep his discipline in a battle with arguably Europe’s best second row partnership?

Leinster’s James Ryan and Devin Toner are masters of the cool, calm and collected approach to life in the second row, with Ryan’s work rate rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and a player who we have yet to see have a bad game. Saracens George Kruis is a reliable workhorse for both club and England, but Australian import Will Skelton is a wild card. A favorite of the referee’s whistle when wearing the gold of Australia in high pressure matches, Skelton is likely to receive special attention from referee Jerome Garces on Saturday. The big Wallaby second rower, can be devastating when on song, but under pressure is prone to giving away endless and silly penalties. Quick to boil over and lose the plot it remains to be seen if he can keep it together in the face of two of Europe’s most composed and unflappable players.

In a back row battle for the ages one of Europe’s most underrated players meets his kindred spirit

As regular readers of our musings know we regard Leinster and Australia’s Scott Fardy as one of Club and Test rugby’s most underrated players. We’d argue the same from a club perspective for Saracens Jackson Wray, even more so given his seeming oversight by the England selectors. When it comes to reliability you couldn’t ask for two finer players. While Fardy has got the recognition from Wallaby selectors he deserves, Wray’s omission from England selections has always perplexed us. Perhaps Saturday will be the day that Wray finally gets on England Coach Eddie Jones’ radar? However, with four other world class players in the back rows – Ireland and Leinster’s Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan up against England and Saracens Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, it could be just another day at the office for Wray.

England’s Eddie Jones and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt will be watching the battles at 9 and 10 VERY closely

Both national coaches will be looking for big performances from the scrum halves in tomorrow’s matches. Leinster’s Luke McGrath has the potential to steal some significant limelight from Ireland’s first choice scrum half – the exceptional Conor Murray. A strong performance on Saturday will surely see McGrath secure the backup scrum half berth for Japan. The same could be said for Saracens’ Ben Spencer, who we think should be a shoe in for England’s number two spot for Japan.

Meanwhile two of the world’s best fly halves once more go head to head. Saracens and England number 10 Owen Farrell has been the more in form of the two this season. Ireland and Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton was voted World Player of the year in 2018, but so far this year his form has at times eluded him. Both players though have clearly lost the plot under pressure this year, and while England and Saracens have perhaps felt this less often than Ireland and Leinster, Saracens’ Owen Farrell is prone to losing sight of the big picture once things are not going his way. Sexton’s frustration has been well documented this year, and with it so has Leinster and Ireland’s dip in form at crucial moments. Both these players need to be at their very best on Saturday, and England and Ireland’s coaching staff will be watching anxiously from the sidelines.

With the World Cup just around the corner this is the Leinster centre duo’s biggest game of the year

Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw need to fire for Leinster and with it Ireland tomorrow. Saracens Brad Barritt and Alex Lozowski will need to do the same, but the pressure on them in terms of future international commitments is perhaps slightly less. Ringrose and Henshaw are vital to Ireland’s World Cup plans, so tomorrow’s match sees them needing to be at their best and also avoid any injuries that would sideline them from the trip to Japan, something that in Henshaw’s case is a genuine concern. We think the Irish center pairing is the more dangerous of the two, but if they are playing with a sense of caution with a view to Japan then this could be a real opportunity for Barritt and Lozowski to run riot.

Two World Class back lines should provide plenty of sparks and more than a few moments to remember

In Leinster and Ireland fullback Rob Kearney and Wales and Saracens winger Liam Williams you have two of the best players in the world under the high ball. Saracens fullback Alex Goode has beaten more defenders in the competition this year than any other player taking to the field in Newcastle. Saracens Sean Maitland and Leinster’s James Lowe are two of the tournament’s leading try scorers out wide. Finally Ireland and Leinster’s Jordan Larmour has X-factor written all over him and clearly relishes a big opportunity like tomorrow to put such skills on display and lay down a marker for the World Cup. There is such strength in all aspects of back line play spread across these six gentlemen’s skill sets, that it should all add up to some thrilling running rugby if both teams earn the right to go wide.

Verdict

We are so divided on how to call this one, as in reality we feel there is nothing in it between these two sides, we are almost reluctant to do so. However, the tradition of this blog dictates that we must – so with a deep breath here goes. On form we give Saracens the slightest of nods, even if overall we think Leinster has the more dangerous and accomplished side. If Leinster find their killer form then it could be a scary afternoon for Saracens. With the pressure generated by the imminent World Cup being slightly less for some of Saracens’ players, expect them to be slightly more composed and focused on the immediate task at hand. Leinster know that if they can rattle Saracens’ Owen Farrell then their squad of Irish internationals has the experience to take their game to another level. However, if Sexton gets frustrated early on then this is Saracens game to lose. Despite their erratic form at times this season, we think the desire to put a fifth star on that jersey as well as give Ireland a much needed confidence boost leading up to the World Cup, will see Leinster just edge a titanic struggle by two points! However, none of us are putting a bet on tomorrow’s outcome as that’s how close we really think it is. More than anything we’re just hoping for a game that we’ll all still be talking about years from now whoever wins – and let’s face it both these teams have the ability to fulfill such a wish!

 

 

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In Toronto’s first of four games at Lamport Stadium in the heart of downtown, they laid down a marker that they mean business for the rest of the season. In a gutsy fightback they ultimately stole the match at the death from the League’s top ranked team San Diego Legion. It was a nail biting affair from start to finish but Toronto were able to keep their wits about them and get their second win over the men from Southern California by 23-19. Having now beat the League’s top team this year as well as last year’s defending Champions Seattle, Toronto’s Arrows are building some impressive momentum as they head into a tough week which sees them play three matches in eight days .

There was no doubt that the move to Lamport Stadium was popular with fans as the East Terrace boasted a small but healthy crowd. It appeared that the Western Terrace was not available, but it is hoped it will be for the Arrows remaining matches at Lamport. Nevertheless a boisterous and vocal crowd were on hand and the rousing support they provided was acknowledged by an appreciative Captain Dan Moor at the end of the match. Toronto’s entry into professional rugby union would appear to be increasingly well received by local rugby fans. The day before the Arrows’ Rugby League compatriots the Wolfpack had also put visiting English side Bradford Bulls to the sword at Lamport Stadium, so rugby in general would appear to be going from strength to strength in the city.

In perfect conditions for running rugby Toronto poured on the pressure right from the opening whistle. The first five minutes saw the Arrows rooted in the Legion’s 22 and this would continue for much of the first half with Toronto dominating the territory and possession statistics. However, despite their lack of time with ball in hand San Diego proved adept at turning what little possession they did get into points on the board. Some quick ball from San Diego in their 22 would see them open up an otherwise resolute Toronto defense against the run of play, and the visitors get the first points on the board at the end of the first quarter, as South African centre JP du Plessis scored an excellent try. San Diego would miss the conversion and Toronto would answer three minutes later with a shot at goal from a penalty.

Toronto’s passing at times remained poor under pressure with them tending to play far too flat against San Diego’s rushing defense for our liking.. Although the Arrows lineout looked a lot more robust than it did in their first three outings back at home, there were still some worrying misfires at times.

San Diego’s try scorer du Plessis would see yellow on the 25 minute mark, but despite constant pressure Toronto were unable to take advantage of the visitors being a man down other than a successful penalty kick which put the home side ahead 6-5. Back to full strength once more San Diego would have the last laugh of the first half. Another flat pass from Toronto would be scooped up by San Diego and US Eagles fullback Mike Te’o to put the visitors ahead once more after capitalizing on some spilled Toronto ball. San Diego fly half Joe Pietersen made a successful conversion and the Californians headed into the break in the lead at 12-6.

Toronto would once again reassert their dominance in the physical battles and the possession stakes as the second half got underway. The pressure was clearly getting to San Diego and with it their discipline. Three minutes in Arrows fly half Sam Malcolm would slot another successful penalty and the gap was down to three points.

A tug of war would ensue between the two sides for the next twenty minutes but continued Toronto pressure would see another yellow card issued to San Diego for repeated high tackles. This time Toronto would make their one man advantage count and substitute back Leandro Leivas would score a fine try in the right hand corner. Malcolm would convert and all of a sudden the game was Toronto’s to lose with thirteen minutes left on the clock and the home side ahead by 16-12.

San Diego would then apply pressure of their own and three minutes later were back on top after a team try was finished off by fly half and Captain Joe Pietersen, despite some solid defending from Toronto.

With the visitors ahead once more 19-16 and three minutes left on the clock, Toronto had it all to do. Toronto piled on the pressure and once again San Diego’s discipline cracked as they earned yet another yellow card. With a minute and a half to go, Toronto made full use of their one man advantage and their power in their forwards to drive replacement hooker Stephen Ng across the line for the match winning try. Malcolm would make sure of the conversion and Toronto would seal a memorable win at the death 23-19.

The lively crowd had got their money’s worth in a glorious afternoon of sunshine and rugby. Toronto continue to edge closer to that elusive playoff spot, as although the win still sees them in sixth place on the table, they have a make up game against Austin this Thursday which they should win and thus project themselves into contention for a playoff spot. If they were to get a bonus point out of Thursday’s encounter in addition to a win they could well find themselves already in playoff contention by the time they meet the Utah Warriors on Sunday, who they thrashed 64-31 the last time the sides met.

There is no doubt that three games in eight days, even if they are all at home, is a tall order for Toronto but there is no denying the fact their tails are up.  A three game winning streak should give them confidence against two sides who they have already beaten this season. Still Captain Dan Moor was taking nothing for granted when he thanked supporters at the end of the match and looked ahead to a challenging week. Toronto still need to sharpen up some aspects of their game if they are to go all the way in this their first season in Major League Rugby. Nevertheless the will and ability are clearly there, and Sunday’s gritty performance showed that this team is more than capable of upsetting the odds and has no fear of the challenges that lie ahead. Once again if you’re in Toronto this week, make sure you play your part in helping to build the momentum!

 

 

 

 

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Elusive it may still be but, after defeating last year’s Champions the Seattle Seawolves 29-7 at York Alumni Field on Sunday, a playoff spot is not completely out of reach for Major League Rugby’s 2019 debutantes the Toronto Arrows. Toronto put on their best show to date since returning to Toronto for the remainder of the MLR season. It was a thrilling encounter that got the 2000 plus crowd on their feet on a regular basis, courtesy of four well worked tries by Toronto which secured them a valuable bonus point in addition to the win.

The match was preceded by an emotional moment as Ray Barkwill, Canada’s veteran hooker, marked his last day as a professional player with an honorary one day contract with the Toronto Arrows. Barkwill who turned out 56 times for Canada decided to call time on an illustrious and proud rugby career. The 38 year-old Niagara Falls native was given a rousing reception and sendoff by the crowd and it is hoped, now that he is back home in Ontario, he will keep a close association with the Arrows and their continued success.

Barkwill himself played for the Seattle Seawolves last year, and the American team boasted some strong Canadian content, most notably in the shape of prop Djustice Sears Duru, flanker Nakai Penny, scrum half Phil Mack and winger Brock Staller – with Staller being one of our Canadian players to watch in 2019.

The first half was a tight affair, but the Arrows looked the more composed and focused side. However, once again the Arrows passing at times looked speculative and they were lucky that the Seawolves did not bring their handling game to Toronto. A few miracle no look passes by Toronto did end up being intercepted by Seattle, but outstanding defense from the Arrows and constant handling errors from the Seawolves ensured that no damage was done, despite center Shalom Suniula looking dangerous all match for the visitors.

Nevertheless Toronto were the dominant side from the outset, with their scrum in particular causing Seattle all kinds of grief. The Arrows continued to be inconsistent at lineout time, but that was the only flaw in an otherwise outstanding performance. A strong breeze was also making kicking and lineout duties a challenge for both sides. Seattle were kicking into the wind in the first half and were having a torrid time making their aerial game translate into any kind of useful territory or possession.

In a tight encounter from both sides, the scoreboard would not turnover until the 25 minute mark. Toronto fly half Sam Malcolm would do the honors for Toronto courtesy of a penalty kick. Five minutes later Toronto’s Uruguayan winger Leandro Leivas would be the subject of Toronto’s only disciplinary blemish, as he was yellow carded for a deliberate knock on. Despite being reduced to 14 men, Toronto’s outstanding defense across the park continued to hold firm and they managed to apply some solid pressure on the visitors, resulting in a superb try for big second rower Michael Sheppard. Malcolm would miss the conversion, but Toronto would end the half 8-0 and clearly looked like they were starting to build some momentum.

On returning to the field after sitting out the last ten minutes of the first half, winger Leivas redeemed himself in spectacular fashion at the start of the second half. Centre Giuseppe du Toit spotted the gap off a lovely pass from replacement scrum half Jamie Mackenzie and Leivas finished the job for Toronto’s second try.

Seattle would strike back in a rare defensive lapse from Toronto, as center Shuniula, who had threatened all match, would be put into some wide open space in the inside channel by Seawolves scrum half Phil Mack. Toronto’s defense in their 22, which had looked dramatically better since their last outings against the Sabrecats and NOLA Gold, would get caught napping and a relatively soft try put Seattle back in the match with eighteen minutes left on the clock.

However, that seemed to be the wake up call Toronto needed and they never let up for the rest of the match. The highlight of the game would come in the 69th minute from Captain and Toronto native Dan Moor. A brilliant break down the right wing off some spilled Seattle ball saw the Arrows Captain put in a flying finish from just outside the Arrows 22 and jot the ball down for Toronto’s third try. The crowd rose as one and for the final 10 minutes Toronto simply allowed Seattle no say in the match.

The icing on the cake would come in the 75th minute, as with Moor once more in the thick of things deep in Seattle’s 22, the ball would work its way out to Canadian International second rower Paul Ciulini, who would effortlessly get the ball down between the posts allowing for an easy conversion. Toronto continued to keep up the pressure till the final whistle and although no further points would come their way, it had been an emphatic second half display from the Arrows. The elation on players and fans faces alike was a joy to watch.

Toronto head into their next match with the San Diego Legion, who currently lead the league, full of confidence after such a solid performance against Seattle. Cut out some of the risky passing, build on what is an excellent defensive platform, consolidate a powerful scrum and tidy up some of the lineout work and Toronto will be a force to reckon with, as they head to Lamport Stadium in Toronto’s Liberty village for their remaining four home games before the playoffs. There is still a long way to go before Toronto can comfortably see themselves securing a spot in the knockout stages, but last Sunday’s performance has made it an achievable ambition once more.

We have really enjoyed the quality of rugby on display, and the enthusiasm of the crowd for Toronto’s latest professional sports venture. Furthermore with so many Canadian Internationals in the Arrows side, it is a lot like getting out there and cheering on the national team, until the franchise can hopefully expand to more Canadian cities. Sunday’s game against San Diego is a high stakes venture for the Arrows, and it is our hope that as many people as possible can come out to support a team that is really starting to click and make their city and country proud. Whatever you’re doing this Sunday, if you love the sport of rugby union and you’re in the Toronto area you know where you need to be!

 

20190407_135922In only their second home game of the season Toronto’s Major League Rugby Franchise, the Arrows, put in a solid performance to overcome the Houston Sabercats 35-21 and put them back in contention for a possible playoff spot.

After their rousing home opener against New Orleans a fortnight ago, which saw the Arrows get edged out by the visitors in the dying minutes of a thrilling contest, Sunday’s clash with the Houston Sabercats was a much-needed tonic for players and fans alike. While the attendance was sadly only half of that of the match against New Orleans, it is hoped that the win and some sterner competition in the shape of the Seattle Seawolves will fill the stands once more at York Lions Stadium.

Once again Toronto fans will be concerned at their side’s seemingly porous defence at times in their own 22, but heartened by the fact that the for the most part they are able to stand firm in the rest of the park. Furthermore unlike in the match against New Orleans, Toronto were able to put all the pressure on the opposition in a strong final ten minutes to seal the win. Toronto had a purple patch towards the end of the first half that carried through into the first ten minutes of the second half, which saw them leak 21 unanswered points allowing Houston to draw level. However unlike the match against New Orleans a fortnight earlier, Toronto were able to regroup and stamp their authority on the remainder of the match.

Toronto got proceedings off to a flying start early on in much the same manner as they did against New Orleans a fortnight ago. Lock Kolby Francis peeled away from an effective maul to get Toronto’s first points on the board. Minutes later Toronto fans would feel justifiably robbed as the officials somehow missed flanker Lucas Rumball squeaking the ball onto the line under a pile of bodies. However, fullback Theo Sauder would make amends by touching down from a lovely floated pass out the back of the ensuing scrum. Fly half Sam Malcolm would convert and only 12 minutes in Toronto found themselves ahead 12-0.

Five minutes later after another bruising passage of play from Toronto’s forward pack, Hooker Andrew Quattrin dotted the ball down for the home side after a superb lineout drive. Malcolm converted and on the half hour Toronto found themselves 21-0 up.

The next twenty minutes however are ones the home side will most likely want to forget. Whether it was complacency or a lack of concentration, we’ll never know but Toronto took their foot off the gas and paid dearly for it. In some chaotic defending in their 22, Toronto got caught off guard allowing Houston fullback Zach Pangelinan to score a soft try.

Five minutes later and as the halftime whistle was about to be blown, Toronto were again caught napping in their 22. Houston Hooker Pat O’Toole appeared to have acres of space to operate in as Toronto simply looked on in what was some truly sloppy defence again in their 22. Two soft tries in five minutes and Houston were right back in the match as the teams headed off for the half time break.

Houston’s scrum had looked solid and clearly buoyed by their resurgence at the end of the first half, they came storming back into the second and used their strength in the set pieces to maximum advantage. Toronto once again struggled under pressure in their 22 and with it their discipline suffered allowing the Saber Cats to be awarded a penalty try. With the scores now level Toronto and their fans were left wondering how such a dominant performance in the first 30 minutes had evaporated.

However, Houston’s third score appeared to be the wakeup call Toronto needed. On the 52 minute mark, Toronto would take advantage of Houston’s continuous handling errors in the back line, and after some sustained pressure as a result of some spilled ball by Houston, Toronto’s forward pack would take up residence on the visitors’ five metre line. This would ultimately see second rower Michael Sheppard crash over for Toronto’s bonus point try.

Toronto’s defence had always looked solid in the midfield but by now they appeared to have shored up their earlier problems in their own 22. For the remainder of the match despite some concerted efforts from Houston, they would hold firm and keep the visitors frustrated and at bay. Replacement Arrows winger Kainoa Lloyd would put the icing on the cake in the 67th minute after pouncing on yet another spilled ball from the visitors, and in a 60 metre sprint that got the crowd on their feet would dot it down under the posts for an easy conversion.

Houston would continue to fight to the end, but their execution at times just wasn’t there and Toronto appeared to have recovered from the lapses in concentration that had almost undone them at the end of the first half. Houston threw the kitchen sink at the Arrows but the Toronto side held firm.

The win sees Toronto make a valuable points haul including a bonus point try, though they will be kicking themselves for leaking those 21 points when such differences come into play in determining playoff spots. Nevertheless it was an important win and one which should help build some confidence for a much tougher tussle against third placed Seattle Seawolves this coming Sunday. There is still a lot of work to do, but Toronto rugby union fans can take great heart in seeing a home-grown team that boasts so much local talent, doing so well in what should be an excellent run of home games in only their first season in Major League Rugby.

 

 

Increasingly the European Champions Cup semi-finals have become one of the most anticipated weekends of the year for us here at the Lineout. It may not be Test rugby but in name only. This weekend’s action sees the cream of Ireland, England and France go head to head. Although Wales, current Six Nations champions, are not represented this weekend, it still has an almost Test like feel to it. Ireland’s two best teams face off against the best England has to offer in the shape of Saracens along with France’s Toulouse who have become the epitome of great French sides of the past. We look to be in for a roller coaster ride, so strap yourselves in!

Munster travel to Coventry to take on English premiership giants Saracens. While Munster are missing some key players, most notably winger Keith Earls and fly half Joey Carberry who have played such a big part in getting the Irish province to this point, there is no denying that it is a quality match day Munster squad that is making the trip across the Irish sea. Saracens meanwhile boast many of the names that made life so unpleasant for Ireland in their clash with England earlier this year in the Six Nations, and with home advantage they will be hard to beat.

In the second semi-final current title holders Leinster play host to French side Toulouse in Dublin. The French side are playing some truly glorious rugby at the moment, and as the two most successful sides in the tournament’s history, Sunday’s clash looks set to be the stuff of legends. Leinster much like Ireland, have looked good this year, but not quite the side that swept all before them last year. With the World Cup just around the corner, the Irish and French internationals in both sides will really be looking to lay down some markers in this match, over and above the burning desire to become the first side in the competition’s history to win five titles. A mouth-watering prospect? We’d say so!

So here’s what got us talking over some pints heading into what should be an epic weekend of top quality rugby!

Saracens vs Munster – Saturday, April 20th – Coventry

Both these teams have lifted the trophy twice since the inaugural tournament final back in 1996. Saracens have the better run of form recently in the tournament, having been back to back champions in 2016 and 2017. For Munster it’s been 11 years since they last hoisted the Cup.

As would be expected, both sides come into the tournament in stellar form. Saracens sit second in the English Premiership and are undefeated in their Champions Cup campaign so far this year. On form Munster do not look as polished, sitting third overall in the PRO 14, and having suffered one loss and a draw on their road to the Champions Cup semi-final. However, known as a traditionally gritty team capable of upsetting the odds and with a travelling fan base probably second to none, Munster are more than capable of punching well above their weight and more than comfortable with the underdog tag.

A World Cup Irish front row in the making?

Ireland as we saw in the Six Nations, struggled at times in the front row and some new blood is likely to figure in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans. For that look no further than Munster’s offering on Saturday. Niall Scannell has impressed both for Munster and Ireland at Hooker and looks the more likely replacement for outgoing Irish Hooker and Captain Rory Best after the World Cup, while props John Ryan, Steven Archer and Dave Kilcoyne have all put in solid performances in the red of Munster and green of Ireland. In short, we think Munster have the more powerful platform here on Saturday. Saracens boast some top names in the shape of England hooker Jamie George and prop Mako Vunipola, although the latter has been plagued with injury problems of late. However, of interest to those speculating about the World Cup will be the performance of the Munster quintet tomorrow and how they may stake their claim to a first choice ticket to Japan.

The King of the turnover meets an established England partnership

Munster’s Tadgh Beirne’s turnover statistics this year make for impressive reading, 31 compared to 28 for Saracens Maro Itoje and only 6 for George Kruis. Beirne will be up against it when dealing with Itoje, but overall the Munster and Ireland second rower just seems to go from strength to strength. Both the Englishman and Irishman have a disciplinary Achilles Heel with Itoje seeming to manage it slightly better this year. The battle of the second rows should be one of the highlights of the afternoon and the effectiveness of Beirne will clearly dictate who gets the upper hand. It won’t be a question of who makes the most turnovers, but more one of Saracens’ ability to stop Beirne making them in the first place.

It’s that Munster second row that perhaps sends shivers down the spine of the Saracens coaching staff the most

Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander need no introduction whatsoever, with the South African born Stander back to his barnstorming best in the red jersey of Munster. Billy Vunipola is also back with a vengeance for England and Saracens after a long run with injury, and despite some of the off field attention being given to his religious views, he will be keen to deflect attention away from the sidelines and onto his devastating abilities at number eight. The battle between him and Stander will be worth the price of admission alone. Jack O’Donaghue is also one to watch for in terms of a role in Ireland’s World Cup preparations. Saracens pack some weight here and some golden international experience in the shape of South African international Schalk Burger, but our money is on the Munster crew to quietly grab more of the headlines on Saturday.

Once you get beyond the forward pack it looks like a Saracens afternoon provided their suspect defence can hold

Munster may look slightly more menacing up front, but from the half backs on we feel that Saracens may have the edge in attacking prowess. Furthermore Munster are without one of their key defensive weapons in the back line – winger Keith Earls. Saracens have outscored Munster in the try department by 30 to 16 in this year’s Championship, scoring twice the number of tries per match. However when it comes to their defensive record, though Saracens are no slouches, Munster have the more solid platform. It remains to be seen how much of a defensive loss Earls absence will be on Saturday, but as a tackling machine Munster are going to take some beating.

Talking of half backs this surely must be another opportunity for Ben Spencer to make his claim for a ticket on England’s plane to Japan

There is no denying that England desperately need some depth at scrum half, with this year’s Six Nations doing little if anything to promote that. Eddie Jones in his desperation to redeem England’s dismal record in 2018, refused to experiment in the position. Saracens’ Ben Spencer has caught the eye all season and a big performance from the youngster must surely give him the recognition from Jones he deserves, especially if he can hold one of the world’s best, Munster and Irish scrum half Conor Murray, to task. Saracens do look like they have the upper hand here as Owen Farrell completes the half back partnership for the English side, and provided he can address his costly tackling technique, Saracens should feel comfortable about dictating proceedings here.

Verdict

If you’re looking at form alone, then it should be Saracens day on Saturday. Munster send an impressive unit to Coventry but without the likes of Keith Earls and Joey Carberry, they will be up against it as Saracens field a team that looks like it has the edge in terms of experience and form. Still it’s Munster and to write them off would be a folly of epic proportions. However, it’s Saracens all out attacking prowess expertly guided by Owen Farrell that should see the English side grabbing more of the five pointers on Saturday, providing question marks around their defensive structures are resolved. If Munster’s forward panzer division don’t suffocate Saracens into submission and get under the skin of Owen Farrell causing him to lose both his cool and technique, Saracens should be on their way to the final in Newcastle by 8 points!

Leinster vs Toulouse – Sunday, April 21st – Dublin

Who will be on their road to add a fifth European star to the jersey and arguably the most succesful record in the competition on Sunday? In short impossible to say. Toulouse have looked simply breath-taking in Europe this year and in France’s Top 14 competition. Perhaps most heartening for French supporters is that the majority of backs making the headlines for Toulouse are French. While South African winger Cheslin Kolbe may be leading his teammates in terms of creating memorable moments, there is no doubt that he is playing within the nucleus of a very exciting set of French backs. Fly halves Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack and fullback Thomas Ramos are all names likely to play a big part in France’s World Cup plans. There is speed and flair here out wide that will test defences to the full.

Leinster will be painfully aware of the threat Toulouse poses as the French team were the cause of Leinster’s only defeat in an otherwise flawless journey to the semi-finals. However, that defeat early on in the competition was away from home, and in the repeat fixture in Dublin Leinster made it absolutely clear who was boss. With home advantage again on Sunday it will be a tall order for Toulouse to upset Leinster at the Aviva in Dublin. However, Toulouse have simply looked better and better all season and currently sit in first place in the French Top 14. Leinster currently sit second overall in the PRO 14, and field a squad that on Sunday is almost a mirror image of a starting Irish XV. Toulouse will have to bring their X-factor to the fore to realistically stand a chance.

A surprising statistic but one that should concern Toulouse

With Ulster now out of the competition it may come as a surprise that the tournament’s leading try scorer is not a back. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact it’s a hooker. That honor goes to Leinster’s Sean Cronin. If we can all look past his disastrous game in an Irish jersey in the Six Nations against Italy, Cronin is a proven threat and we simply need to put his Six Nations performance down to an off day. His ability to score tries is almost unique and within 5 metres of the try line almost guaranteed. In short a lethal weapon that Toulouse will need to be at their sharpest to contain.

Even though they may not have been at their best in the blue of Leinster and the green of Ireland this season, Leinster’s prop contingent should have the edge.

Cian Healy has less to apologise for here than fellow prop Tadgh Furlong, and even the latter has performed. However, in Furlong’s case he has been effective this season rather than the devastating force of nature he was last year. With the World Cup only months away, a player so key to Ireland’s fortunes really needs to get back to being the unstoppable engine he was last season. However, in both cases the Leinster unit really needs to lay down a marker that this is not only Champions Cup material but also the type of grit and determination Ireland needs if they are serious about lifting the World Cup in Japan later this year.

Once more it could be a last chance for Ireland and Leinster’s Sean O’Brien

We almost feel like traitors in saying it, but we have a horrible feeling that O’Brien’s ship has sailed. He simply hasn’t been the same player he was since coming back from a series of debilitating injuries, and one almost senses he knows it. With Scott Fardy having to come to his rescue from the bench this season on several occasions, and a fairly lacklustre performance from the Irish flanker in the Six Nations, another anonymous performance on Sunday could well see the Irish legend get overlooked in Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans. With Leinster number eight Jack Conan playing out of his skin at the moment, O’Brien’s spot in Ireland’s flanks is under threat from the likes of CJ Stander amongst others – although with fellow teammate at Leinster Dan Leavy out of contention for the World Cup due to injury, O’Brien may be safe for another year.

Johnny Sexton is another Irish player who really needs to be back to his best

Sexton just hasn’t had it this year, and his understudy at Leinster Ross Byrne has looked much better for the most part. Sexton’s importance to Leinster and Ireland is without question but with only a few games to go before the summer break, the Irish fly half and last year’s World Player of the Year really needs to get back to his best. After a disappointing Six Nations which saw Sexton well off form for the majority of the tournament, Irish Coach Joe Schmidt will want to see one of Test rugby’s best players really find his groove on Sunday. If not this could be the biggest opportunity of Ross Byrne’s career to date. There is going to be a battle royale going on amongst the half backs on Sunday with Toulouse and France fly half Antoine Dupont likely to provide Sexton and Leinster scrum half Luke McGrath all kinds of headaches if they fail to read and control the game properly.

Cheslin Kolbe vs Jordan Lamour – one of THE most fascinating contests of the weekend

We have a hunch that these two will be dominating your video highlights reel of this match. However in defenders beaten Kolbe’s statistics are truly frightening. The South African has beaten 115 compared to the Irishman’s 65 this season and made over 1500 metres compared to his rival’s 1200. Add to that the fact that the pint-sized South African has made three times the number of tackles that Larmour has made and one has to wonder who will get the upper hand on Sunday. However, although Kolbe outdoes his Irish counterpart on the tackle count, the Irishman is much more successful at making his tackles stick when he does make them. Furthermore, despite Kolbe’s abilities Larmour is outscoring him in the try department. Both players have X-factor written all over them and a pair of feet that would be the envy of most salsa dancers. Expect fireworks aplenty from these two and without a doubt one of the most entertaining contests of the weekend.

Verdict

Leinster had a field day with Toulouse in this same fixture in January in Dublin with almost an identical match day 23 that takes to the pitch this Sunday. Toulouse are possessing some truly dazzling form at the moment and have some very capable internationals amongst their ranks in addition to some mesmerizing home-grown French talent. However, it’s Leinster at home in front of what is likely to be a rapturous and fervent crowd. It’s hard to see the French getting past a composed Leinster side that is not all that familiar with losing. In a battle of X-factor versus form, we lean on the side of form and thus feel that in what should be a thrilling encounter, Leinster will book their spot in the final by 7 points!

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Canada’s first foray into professional rugby union, as represented by the Toronto Arrows, saw Major League Rugby play its first game on Canadian soil this afternoon at York University’s Lions Stadium. While the Arrows suffered a narrow loss to New Orleans Gold by 35-31, as an event it was definitely something to savor. We were delighted to be there and felt it heralded a bright start to the growth of professional rugby in this country. Toronto have played their first eight games away from home, and their remaining eight of the season will be played in Toronto in order to fit around the vagaries of Toronto winter weather in February and March.

Sunday’s match saw Toronto play their first game in front of their home fans against current Major League Rugby’s top ranked team, New Orleans or NOLA Gold as they are known as. It was a sellout crowd and despite problems with the scoreboard keeper clearly having difficulty understanding the scoring etiquette of rugby union, leading to some interesting scores posted early in the match, Toronto’s first home game was clearly a big hit with an enthusiastic and very vocal sellout crowd of 3,081.

Toronto came out of the blocks firing on all cylinders and would get the first points on the board in just two minutes through an excellent try out wide from winger Dan Moor. From there NOLA would hit back and put in a solid shift for the next 12 minutes which would see them score three tries. The first was a penalty try at the seven minute mark after some solid defence up front from Toronto but their discipline started to take a hit in what was proving to be a very physical challenge being put in by both sides. To be honest we felt the refereeing at times seemed slightly off the mark, with some calls clearly not going Toronto’s way. In a few instances this gave way to some justified righteous indignation from Captain and number 8 Lucas Rumball, who himself was the subject of one slightly suspect call which ultimately would contribute to the buildup towards NOLA’s first points on the board through a penalty try.

With the scores level, NOLA bagged two quick and relatively soft tries. The first from NOLA fullback JP Eloff exposed some of Toronto’s defensive frailties out wide, while the second from South African born centre Tristan Blewett was a gift as Arrows fly half Sam Malcolm threw a wildly speculative cutout pass that was superbly read by the NOLA centre.

Toronto however was clearly having the advantage in the scrum as a series of scrum penalties went their way. They used their set piece dominance to full advantage and ultimately released Uruguayan fullback Gaston Mieres out wide in the corner for their second try, even if some of the passing seemed slightly overambitious at times – a characteristic that typified much of Toronto’s first half. While it certainly thrilled the home crowd with an exciting display of free-flowing attacking rugby at times, it no doubt left the coaching staff with a few more grey hairs.

NOLA would soon hit back and in a period of sustained pressure in Toronto’s 22, prop Ben Tarr would crash over to give the Americans their fourth try and a comfortable lead heading towards half time.

Canadian International and NOLA lock Kyle Baillie would pick up a yellow card for a high tackle with five minutes to go in the half, forcing NOLA to see out the half with just fourteen men. Toronto would use it to their advantage to strike back once more through Mieres in the last act of the first half, as the flying Uruguayan showed off some fancy footwork to dot the ball down in the corner once more off the back of a Toronto lineout. It had been a frenetic but highly entertaining first half and the crowd had clearly enjoyed it as the teams headed into the break with NOLA in front 28-19. However, Toronto’s organization had let them down at times coupled with some overly ambitious attacking play. They needed to head into the second half looking more structured and better organized defensively.

Toronto had to score first in the second half and proceeded to do just that. After some solid pressure on NOLA, which showed Toronto’s physicality count once more, scrum half Andrew Ferguson would get the Arrows fourth try off the back of a scrum after Toronto had spent much of the first ten minutes camped in NOLA’s 22. At 26-28 it was definitely game on and the home crowd really began to get behind the Arrows.

Another solid passage of play from Toronto would see prop Morgan Mitchell crash over for Toronto’s fifth try and put the home side in the lead at 31-28. Toronto looked tighter and much better organised in the second half, and their defence for the most part was outstanding particularly in midfield. However, it needed to be as from this point on NOLA slowly started to exert a stranglehold on the match and were beginning to dominate the possession stakes.

NOLA were still being made to do all the hard work despite having more of the possession and were continuing to have to run from deep, with Toronto effectively shutting down their assaults on the halfway mark. However, with five minutes to go, NOLA managed to find some chinks in the Arrows armor. Some poor discipline at the end under pressure would ultimately see Toronto concede the try that would see their first home game end in a loss, as NOLA fly half Scott Gale would find the gap that up to that point had been eluding his side close to the try line. At the final whistle NOLA would emerge the victors 35-31 but knew they had been made to work for every inch of it in a highly entertaining match that provided a worthy spectacle as the Arrows first home game. Had Toronto been slightly more effective in converting their tries from the kicking tee, then it could easily have been a draw, as NOLA managed to slot all their shots at goal.

Despite the loss there is no doubt that Toronto’s first home game can be classed as a raging success. The loud and enthusiastic local support was there for everyone to see, and the team rose to the occasion. They were unlucky to lose, but to hold the top team in the league as close as they did, will surely mean that with a run of seven home games till the knockout stages, the next two months should be very productive for the Arrows. Boasting a healthy contingent of some of Canadian rugby’s most promising young talent, today’s match was an excellent advertisement for the development of the game in this country and we look forward with great enthusiasm to the remainder of the Toronto Arrows’ promising start in North American professional rugby!

After a disastrous 2018, only salvaged by Canada’s last-ditch stand to grab the final spot up for grabs in this year’s World Cup, it was with a sense of hope and optimism that we looked ahead to this year’s Americas Rugby Championship (ARC). Although there was slightly more to cheer about at times this year, Canada still couldn’t progress beyond a fifth place ranking once the dust had settled on the tournament for another year. Fifth last year and fifth again this year, with humiliating losses at home to Argentina and on the road to Uruguay, Brazil and the USA it was hard to see much progress for Canada from 2018. The 56-0 thumping of Chile brought some comfort, along with the fact that at least Canada ran the USA and Uruguay relatively close. But overall it was another cold start for Canada in the lower reaches of Tier 2, and not exactly the kind of confidence booster you want heading into the World Cup in less than six months time. So let’s have a look at how it panned out and what if anything we learnt from the whole process.

Uruguay vs Canada – Uruguay 20/Canada 17 – February 2nd – Montevideo

Remember how Canada seemed to take a commanding lead of games before the last World Cup and then somehow would inexplicably throw away a match in the final quarter? If you do then this match would have provided you with an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Plain and simple this is a match that Canada should have and could have won. To add insult to injury Uruguay played with only 14 men for three-quarters of the match.

Canada you felt had a grudge against Uruguay going into this match as it was the South Americans who robbed them of their first shot at World Cup qualification last year. With half of Canada’s squad now playing professionally either in North America with the newly formed Major League Rugby setup or in Europe, there was a genuine sense of optimism that the new infusion of professionalism would raise the standard of Canadian rugby.

Uruguay looked full of intent and were rewarded with a solid opening try, but then on the 16th minute a nasty tackle from Uruguayan scrum half Santiago Arata on Canadian winger Andrew Coe would see the South Americans a man down for the rest of the match. Canada would score three fine tries that showed some genuine enterprise on attack with the back three and centres looking particularly impressive. Jamie Mackenzie had a solid outing and the Toronto Arrows scrum half was rewarded with an excellent try for his efforts. Ciaran Hearn and Ben LeSage hooked up nicely at centre, though the latter’s yellow card in the last quarter of the match put a blemish on an otherwise positive showing. Andrew Coe and Kainoa Lloyd  put in some blistering pace out wide and expect to see big things from Toronto Arrows winger Lloyd in years to come, along with his fellow Arrows teammate Theo Sauder at fullback.

However, up front Canada for the most part looked clumsy and poorly organised and as the match wore on, discipline started to collapse and execution started to slip. Uruguay even with a man down set up a relentless physical assault on the Canadian defences in the final fifteen minutes and on the final whistle scored the try that would seal the win for the South Americans. Canada were left wondering how they let a match they appeared to be in control of slip away from them at the death. Still it was early days and overall it had been a positive showing for Canada and something to build on as they headed to Brazil.

Brazil vs Canada – Brazil 18/Canada 10 – February 9th – San Jose dos Campos

This in theory should have been a comfortable win for Canada after having summarily dismissed the Brazilians last year. However, apart from a superb opening ten minutes from Canada and Ciaran Hearn in particular as a last-minute change to fullback, Canada simply never looked like they were in this match. Whether it was the Brazilian heat and humidity and gruelling travelling that wore the Canadian players down is still up for debate, but it was a poor and lacklustre performance from Canada whichever way you cut it. Their discipline was atrocious as Brazil slotted six unanswered penalty goals. The Canadian defence was solid enough to prevent Brazil from crossing the whitewash but in so doing it gave away its fair share of penalties. In short there were no positives for Canada from this match, and it must have been a rather subdued flight home.

Canada vs Chile – Canada 56/Chile 0 – February 22nd – Langford

Canada’s first home game, gave them an emphatic victory over a courageous but completely outclassed Chilean outfit. Once again Canada’s wingers, Andrew Coe and Kainoa Lloyd had an absolute field day, with Lloyd scoring a hat trick. It was also a good day out for the forwards, and lock Kyle Baillie in particular had a superb outing and was rewarded with a fine try of his own. In short it was a performance all about Canada and one which they dominated from start to finish. However, there was no getting away from the fact that Chile were weak opponents, and thus it was hard to judge just what the 56-0 thumping really meant in terms of where Canada was really at.

Canada vs Argentina – Canada 23/Argentina 39 – March 1st – Langford

Argentina have always been a problem side for Canada in the tournament and this year would prove to be no exception. Argentina would ultimately emerge as undefeated champions in this year’s Championship so Canada were always going to be up against some serious opposition in this match. Argentina play a fast and brutally physical game and Canada’s inexperienced youngsters could not have asked for a better Test.

Despite the loss Canada for the most part acquitted themselves well against such quality opposition. Argentina came out of the blocks firing and, as they would throughout the match, exposed some of the defensive frailties of Canada’s back line. Argentina dominated the first half and Canada was clearly struggling to keep pace with them.

A halftime chat clearly did Canada some good and they struck back with a vengeance, and once again it was that man Kyle Baillie who led the charge through the forwards. The first quarter of the match was all about Canada and saw them play some of their best rugby of the tournament, with winger Andrew Coe following up Baillie’s try scoring efforts six minutes later. Thereafter though it was once more all about Argentina as their physical prowess came to the fore, leaving Canada exhausted and literally on their knees in the final quarter. Discipline started to slip and saw yet another costly yellow card against Canada with four minutes to go. By that point it was all over bar the shouting and Canada would end the contest 16 points behind, with Argentina hoisting the trophy after four rounds. There had been some positives in Canada’s performance, and to score 23 points against such a potent side is no mean achievement, but from a discipline and defensive point of view Canada just looked far too vulnerable.

USA vs Canada – USA 30/Canada 25 – March 8th – Seattle

In one of the Americas greatest rivalries, it is getting hard to remember the last time Canada beat the USA. However, the intensity of this fixture was there for all to see in this final match of Canada’s ARC campaign for 2019. It was a solid effort from Canada and one that should have got them the win as they had a slender lead at the seventy minute mark. Once more it simply wasn’t good enough as the USA put the chokehold on a clearly exhausted Canadian side in the final 10 minutes. Yet again Canada looked naive defensively when it mattered most.

In a game that saw plenty of ebb and flow and the lead changing hands several times, Canada put in one of their better performances. They got an early lead through the first try of the match and both sides would then engage in a tit for tat scoring fest for the rest of the game. It was a fast paced encounter with plenty of punishing physical contact which to Canada’s credit they handled well. However, perhaps one of the saddest moments of Canada’s whole 2019 ARC campaign was seeing lock Kyle Baillie sent off in the 76th minute with a yellow card for an unfortunate high tackle. Baillie had been one of Canada’s star performers all tournament, and to see such a quality player end the Championship in such circumstances seemed harsh medicine. However, once again Canada caved under pressure in the final ten minutes and it cost them – a trend which has become all too familiar in the last few years and something they seem no closer to fixing. Nevertheless it had been an exceptionally equal contest and Canada can feel pleased that they were able to hold the Americans so close for most of the game. The forwards did some outstanding work, perhaps best epitomised by newcomer number eight Luke Campbell who really caught our eye in this match.

So where to from here?

After eighteen months in charge Canada’s fortunes have sadly not improved under Coach Kingsley Jones, and if anything they have got worse. Nevertheless, we feel that despite the results this year’s ARC showed Canada in a slightly better light. They were competitive against the USA and Uruguay and fought hard against ultimate champions Argentina. There is a group of exciting and talented young backs who simply need to lose their defensive naivety, but with their increasing exposure to professional rugby at club level in the MLR and elsewhere this will come. The forward pack is impressive, but perhaps needs to lose some of the veteran stalwarts, while retaining a core group of younger experienced heads such as Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie to mentor the likes of promising youngsters like Luke Campbell. Canada have finally identified a scrum half with pace and vision in the shape of Jamie Mackenzie, but the fly half berth still remains a conundrum. Gordon McRorie has often been drafted in at fly half from his usual position of scrum half, but it has not worked well, and as regular readers know we don’t really favor his rather pedestrian and conservative playing style in either position. Canada’s front row also would appear to be a liability with no real sign of who might take up the mantle of veterans like Ray Barkwill and Hubert Buydens, although we thought prop Jordan Olsen showed some real promise in the USA match.

Canada now has only three games before the World Cup, and all of them take place away from home, as they face first the USA and then Fiji and Tonga. All three are very tough opponents who could also leave Canada with an injury list from hell as they head to Japan. Given that Canada’s depth is exceptionally limited, this must surely be a concern. Canada’s draw at the World Cup is the stuff of nightmares with both New Zealand and South Africa in their pool. Their first match against Italy is surely one they are targeting but then so will the Azurri as they know that their only real chances of victory in the World Cup are against Canada and Namibia. Consequently, Canada’s only real shot at World Cup glory is against Namibia, but sadly this will be Canada’s last match of the tournament and one can only hope that the injury gods will have been kind to them up to that stage.

It wasn’t a great ARC for Canada but we felt that as it wore on Canada got better to the point where there is some hope for the future. That future is unlikely to materialise at this year’s World Cup. However, come 2020 and beyond Canada is starting to look like they have the kind of talent that could help them claw their way out of the international rugby wilderness that they have found themselves in since the last World Cup. With the growth of the game at a professional level in North America now through Major League Rugby, we’d argue that the future looks a lot brighter than it did a year ago. Time will tell but we hold that the results will come even though we may not necessarily see them in Japan in September.