As the Six Nations draws to a thundering close – let’s be honest is there anything else to really talk about? Well actually yes there is. A bunch of lads from Fiji turned the form book upside down last weekend in Lautoka and made history in one of the most enjoyable and infectiously joyous rugby games we can remember for a long time. Also our own Arrows started to click courtesy of a young Kiwi and got their first win of the season, even if it was a bit more of a nail biter than we would have liked.
But ultimately as it should the Six Nations took centre stage and gave us some epic moments. Maybe we’d talked Italy up too much, but perhaps as a result of too much ambition the Azzurri played their hearts out but ultimately fluffed their lines against a Welsh side that seemed to have rediscovered their love of the game, despite all the troubles plaguing it back home. France then proceeded to completely and utterly put England to the sword at Twickenham and in the process silenced many of us who had been wondering if they’d peaked too soon ahead of their own World Cup this year. England by comparison are clearly wishing that this was the start of the World Cup cycle and not its conclusion. Lastly on Sunday, Scotland the brave gave everything they had against Ireland but, despite the number of Irish casualties littering the field, they just couldn’t get past the Men in Green. For Ireland who look set to cruise to the Grand Slam this Saturday, their ability to adapt to the ongoing field hospital conditions was nothing short of miraculous, while depth and composure is something that Ireland now appear to have in abundance.
So as always there was plenty of subject matter to keep our pints frothy but here’s what got us jabbering the most.
Wales make sure that it’s a race to the finish for the Wooden Spoon between themselves and Italy
As Wales looked into the abyss of the Six Nations basement last Friday night, they knew that Saturday’s match was critical to breathing life back into a Welsh dragon that is clearly suffering. Sometimes the best teams simply know how to find the strength as a unit to fight their way out of such dark places. Wales’ performance last Saturday in Rome was exactly that. It wasn’t perfect but it was a team playing for each other and in the process remembering that, despite all the turmoil back in Wales, this is a game they love to play together and for each other. It probably won’t be enough to get them past France this weekend but it at least put a smile back on their faces and in the process the mental strength to face a daunting final game in Paris. Wales may be down but they are definitely not out yet. Build on the performance in Rome, and at least be competitive in Paris this weekend and the tough task of building for the World Cup come September can be approached with some degree of optimism.
For Italy, it was almost as if the desire to win was overwhelming. They were filled with ambition and kept trying to play too much rugby and be too clever, and as a result it tripped them up almost every time. There was no lack of enterprise but they simply couldn’t finish off the moves. If ever there was a time to slow it down and keep it simple, the game in Rome on Saturday was a case in point for Italy. Although the promise of what they can do has finally started to take shape this Six Nations, they have a tendency to overcomplicate things. Their handling error count which was already the highest in the competition went through the roof on Saturday, and the number of times we had to look away as a rushed pass or kick/chase was butchered was immensely frustrating.
In short, Italy didn’t play a bad game and Wales didn’t play a brilliant game, but the Welsh were the more patient of the two and it paid huge dividends. Italy did almost twice as much as Wales in practically every statistic but with only a 50% success rate. The Welsh by comparison fed off Italy’s mounting error count, and took their own chances in a much more measured and composed fashion. Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb made an extraordinary return to Test rugby and made Coach Warren Gatland wonder why he’d fallen out of favor in the first place.
Italy now face the daunting trip to Murrayfield to face a Scottish side in serious danger of reverting to type and fizzling out of the Six Nations once more after a promising start. As a result there is still an outside chance that just like last year Italy could pull off a big surprise for the final round. Wales although boosted by the win in Rome must have watched France’s demolition of the English with serious alarm. Beating a feisty Italian side in Rome is one thing, beating the world’s second best team who now appear to be in full song is another thing altogether and in front of a packed Stade de France. The contest for the Wooden Spoon is still very much alive and will keep us in suspense until Australian referee Nic Berry blows the final whistle in Paris on Saturday.
France make it look too easy while England looked as though they hadn’t studied or been to the gym
If you were a French supporter or a neutral you would have found Saturday’s proceedings a glorious exposition of the beauty of the modern game. If you were an England supporter you were most likely looking over the top of the couch in sheer horror and with a very stiff drink in your hand. France were magnificent in every aspect and any doubts about whether or not they are genuine contenders to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in the Stade de France on October 28th can once more be consigned to the rubbish heap. England meanwhile know they have a ridiculously short and painful five months ahead of them in which to get them even close to the point where they can be genuinely competitive once they leave the pool stages, and that’s assuming they even make it out of the pools alive.
For England what really struck us the most was how unfit they looked. Admittedly it must be tiring as all hell chasing around after a bunch of guys in blue jerseys as sharp as France are, but still that porous English defence was once again glaringly obvious. Their forwards were completely outplayed at the breakdown by France who attacked and defended with speed and precision. Far too many English players were left isolated after a promising break, with the rest of their teammates arriving far too late. England were painfully slow at recycling the ball and keeping it moving, whereas the French were doing everything at least twice if not three or four times as fast. England’s lethargic pace at times allowed French defences to reset continuously with every English play being literally telegraphed ahead to the French coaching box before it got underway. Once again England’s handling errors mounted as the game increasingly got away from them, and France were there to pounce on every English miscue and Ireland will do the same this Saturday.
For France it was a faultless performance from start to finish and one which reflected the standards this remarkable team must now set for themselves in the World Cup. Wales should be a relatively straightforward proposition for the Men in Blue on Saturday to finish off their campaign in style. Although France’s chances of lifting the Six Nations silverware now look rather dim, given that they require a badly misfiring England to do them a favor in Dublin on Saturday, a strong second place finish will leave Fabien Galthie and his Coaching team with a warm fuzzy feeling ahead of their World Cup preparations. After watching Saturday’s game at Twickenham you can’t help get the feeling that the best is yet to come from France.
Scotland put up a brave fight in a match that took some heavy casualties, but Ireland’s ability to adapt prevailed
First up, let’s simply say that Sunday’s encounter in Edinburgh was a game of two halves. In the first half two sides went at each other hammer and tongs and ran from every perceivable corner of the pitch. It was thrilling stuff and showed enormous enterprise and skill from both teams. However, in the second half Scotland ran out of gas and once more started to chase the scoreboard as they did in Paris a fortnight earlier and sadly we all seem to know how that ends. Despite a mounting casualty list on both sides, Ireland simply hunkered down and adapted to the crisis they were forced to deal with, whereas Scotland slowly but surely started to look reckless and flustered. It was interesting as the more the game went on the more Scotland started to look like Italy under pressure in the game against Wales the day before. Ireland took a deep breath and focused on the task at hand while Scotland and Finn Russell played an increasingly risky and rushed game.
For Scotland it’s a trend they simply have to fix come the World Cup to realise their full potential. The skill and talent in this squad is exceptional, but just like Italy at times it boasts an ambition that is either inappropriate given the immediate situation they are faced with or not backed by the skills needed in the heat of the moment. Ireland always looked as if they had the measure of the game and the although audacious at times, their moves always boasted the skill set and preparation needed to make them fire. As the game wore on the same could not be said for Scotland. With fullback Stuart Hogg and fly half and star playmaker Finn Russell ultimately succumbing to injury Scotland were clearly starting to lose their cohesion.
For Ireland, they will look at Sunday’s game as a remarkable achievement. As an exercise in depth and crisis management Ireland excelled. To lose both your hookers is every Coach’s nightmare, but somehow Ireland took it all in their stride. Cian Healy proved once more that Test centurions have their value and then some as he made an outstanding shift to being a Test level hooker by necessity. In addition, World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier made a pretty solid effort at throwing lineout darts. Meanwhile the bench rose to the occasion, as Ryan Baird, Jack Conan and Robbie Henshaw all stood up and were counted for their injured counterparts. Jamison Gibson-Park returned from injury and once released from the bench looked as though his time on the sidelines hadn’t caused him to miss a beat whatsoever. Ireland will still be concerned with the number of tackles they are missing, 27 compared to Scotland’s 11, but their phenomenal success at turning the ball over is managing to compensate for it. However, it’s still an issue that simply has to get addressed ahead of the World Cup and unfortunately England are unlikely to give them much of a workout in that department this Saturday.
Scotland will want to end what has been for all intents and purposes one of their most positive Six Nations campaigns in recent memory, despite the two back to back losses. However, a solid win over Italy is absolutely key to ensuring they carry some formidable momentum into a challenging World Cup Pool. For Ireland a Grand Slam beckons and despite the missed tackle count, all of Ireland’s development goals for this Six Nations and building towards the World Cup, provided they dispatch England on Saturday, will have been met and then some.
We need to talk to our travel agents about flights to Lautoka
If you were as fortunate as we were to catch the Fijian Drua’s historic win over the Crusaders on Friday night (here in Toronto time wise that is), then the party atmosphere was well underway by the time you got up to watch Wales and Italy do battle on Saturday morning. We can’t remember the last time we had so much fun watching a Super Rugby game. So much so we’re all planning our winter holidays in Fiji next year to coincide with a Drua game. The atmosphere in the stands was absolutely fantastic and a wonderful celebration of what our glorious sport is all about. Everybody was just having so much fun! We weren’t having fun at the Crusaders expense as they did the match credit by putting up a serious contest, but as a sporting spectacle it took some beating. What’s even more exciting is that over the course of this Super Rugby season we get to watch the Drua put on a show in front of their adoring fans six (yes count them) more times!
As everyone knows who reads this blog, we have a genuine fanboy/girl thing about the Drua. However it’s based on wanting to see a side from a country that clearly struggles with resources but not talent do well in a premier club competition. When they do as evidenced on Friday it’s heady stuff and let’s be honest everyone loves the underdog. Sure you can argue that the Crusaders were missing some of their big guns like Richie Mo’unga but there was still a significant contingent of All Blacks there. Admittedly it looked incredibly humid which clearly didn’t help ball handling skills or fatigue at times for either side, but the Drua played with flair, passion, commitment and above all absolute loyalty to their delirious fans.
Rugby was the winner on the day in Lautoka and we look forward to a lot more of its winning ways.
The Arrows grind out their first win of the season with Sam Malcolm stealing the show
Like we said in the previous post, we wanted to reserve judgement on the Arrows season for 2023 until they were at least 3 games in. Secondly, unlike all the other teams they will not get to play in front of their faithful Toronto fans until their seventh game. That’s a long time whichever way you cut it and in our opinion explains their traditional slow start to the season.
All that aside though, Saturday’s one point win over League newcomers the Chicago Hounds showed just how valuable to the team Kiwi fly half Sam Malcolm is. The Arrows have been fortunate enough to secure his services for a fifth consecutive season, and on Saturday he showed why he is such a good investment. Despite Toronto’s opening two losses, Malcolm remains the League’s second highest point scorer. His composure under pressure is exemplary and his ability to marshall Toronto’s attack even if as a whole the team looks frayed is key to their potential success this year. He has a keen eye for opportunity and an ability to put players in space. Add to that a reliable boot to make sure opposition sides pay dearly for their disciplinary indiscretions and Toronto looks well placed to make some noise this year.
However, kicking points alone is not what wins you a Championship and it’s Malcolm’s speed of thought and decision making which could be Toronto’s greatest asset this season – the rest of the team just need to make sure they can keep up!
So that’s it for another bumper week of top notch rugby. Lots of Super Rugby Trans Tasman action this weekend to look forward to leading up to Super Saturday and the grand finale of the Six Nations as well as our Arrows doing battle with Old Glory. Enjoy folks and hopefully by next week we can finally start to peek over the top of the winter wall towards spring!
We apologise that last week’s Calls of the Week which was a mid-term review of the Six Nations got lost in a myriad of technical problems with this site. Fortunately that seems to have been resolved as we look forward to possibly THE most intriguing Round 4 of the Six Nations in a VERY long time. We also have a quick look at Super Rugby and the start of the Toronto Arrows MLR season.
However, whichever way you cut it all eyes will be on Rome, Twickenham and Murrayfield this weekend. This Six Nations has provided us with some thrilling encounters so far with, for the most part, the form book being thrown out the window. On a weekend where “Le Crunch” match between traditional superpowers France and England takes place it usually tends to take centre stage. This weekend though for a lot of people we can’t help feeling that it takes a back seat to the events to be played out in Rome and Edinburgh. Italy have been fantastic so far this Six Nations even though they remain winless. However, their competitiveness at times has been inspirational and gave both France and Ireland a serious fright. Wales meanwhile appear to be in a freefall that makes England’s trials and tribulations last year in the tournament seem almost trivial. Both Italy and Wales simply have to win Saturday’s match plain and simple and as a result it is perhaps the biggest game of the weekend and if not then surely a close second to the Scotland/Ireland game.
Scotland’s tussle with Ireland on Sunday is not only a dress rehearsal for the World Cup in six months time, as both teams share the same pool, but for Scotland in particular it provides them an opportunity to make a massive statement ahead of the global showdown. For Ireland, it’s a Test of how well they can cope under pressure with a potential Grand Slam on the line and on the road to boot.If you’d asked most of us before the tournament we probably wouldn’t have thought that come Round 4 we’d being seeing Scotland clinging on to second spot on the log.If Scotland pull off a win on Sunday, then all of a sudden life in Pool B for Ireland and South Africa suddenly becomes distinctly more uncomfortable come September in France.
All this is not to say that England’s date with France at Twickenham on Saturday isn’t of the same magnitude, but in the above mentioned matches the stakes just seem that much higher. France will be hoping the Scots do them a favor on Sunday, and that they can get their campaign back on track with a solid win over England, with only a disintegrating Welsh side to face in Paris on Super Saturday. For England an opportunity to lay down a marker for the World Cup lies in wait. The chance to make a genuine statement that England’s trajectory under new Coach Steve Borthwick is clearly upwards is something England will want to seize with both hands. For now they can feel relatively pleased with their third spot on the Six Nations table, even if their sternest Tests lie ahead of them in these final two rounds.
Last but not least Super Rugby has got off to a highly entertaining start, with Australian sides looking genuinely competitive this year. The Toronto Arrows opening two games have not exactly been the start they would have liked to this year’s 2023 season. However, the squad has a very new look and feel to it and it’s likely to take some time for them to find their groove, although hopefully not too much time. As a result their third game of the year against MLR newcomers Chicago Hounds this weekend is a key fixture.
There was much to think about this week and keep our pints frothy so let’s get into it.
Can Italy silence the Welsh dragon twice in a row while Wales desperately need to stop the rot that is hijacking their game
We think that this year it’s a pretty safe bet that as a neutral you’ve been watching Italy’s games live rather than wait for extended highlights once you’ve got the rest of your Six Nations day out of the way. Italy have simply been enthralling this year, plain and simple. They may not have any wins yet this year in the Championship, but many feel that Saturday could well change all that, and in the process watching Italy is a bit like watching Fiji – it’s just great entertainment and 110% passion and commitment.
But let’s put it in perspective, Italy no longer seem a flash in the pan. They have given the number one and two sides in the world during the course of this tournament a serious fright. They beat England in the second half of the game at Twickenham in Round 2 even if they couldn’t win the game itself.
Italy are also boasting some impressive statistics this year and have the second highest run metres of the Championship just behind Ireland along with the number of carries also just behind the Men in Green. They’ve passed the ball more than any other team, and broken more tackles than any other team except France. They are the leading proponent of turnovers won in the tackle and have the best lineout in the competition spearheaded by the outstanding Federico Ruzza. In short there is a great deal to like about the 2023 Azzurri vintage. All this razzle dazzle comes at a price though as their ambition with ball in hand has tripped them up at times and Italy have more handling errors than any other team this year. Also their scrum while effective at times could definitely use a bit more discipline as the Azzurri have given away the most scrum penalties of all the teams in the competition. But it’s still just so much fun to watch and no one can accuse Italy of being boring.
For the game against Wales though they will miss the presence of last year’s sensation Ange Capuozzo, and who has been such a catalyst for the exciting brand of rugby Italy are trying to play. The all star fullback is out for the rest of the tournament with a shoulder injury and it is our sincere hope that he’ll be fit for the World Cup, as Italy have clearly built a lot of their attacking play around him. Nevertheless, Italy have proved that they can be defensively resolute and their forward pack can stand up to the world’s best. There are no slouchers in their backs and the return of their outstanding fly half Paolo Garbisi in the Ireland game added another quality arrow to their bow and he will be a welcome addition to their cause for the Welsh game. Italy know that if they can get back to back wins over Wales, and if Scotland trip up for a second time this Championship in their tussle with Ireland, another Six Nations upset could be within the Azzurri’s grasp when they travel to Murrayfield at the end of the tournament. It’s a tall order but a good result on Saturday against Wales will be a watershed moment for this young Italian team.
For Wales, it’s been a truly miserable Six Nations. With all the off field shenanigans surrounding the game in Wales, it’s a credit to the players that they’ve been able to focus on the business at hand. The results simply aren’t there and the 2023 edition of Wales looks a shadow of the side that has claimed five Triple Crowns, four Grand Slams and six Championships since 2000. Even the return of Warren Gatland as Coach who, let’s face it doesn’t look overly happy in his role these days, but led Wales to many of those milestones doesn’t seem to be helping. Wales like Italy have yet to win a game this Championship but unlike Italy they simply haven’t looked like they know how to. Defensively Wales look a shambles and their discipline is a mess with the highest number of penalties conceded in the tournament. On attack they simply fade away once they get into the opposition red zone despite some impressive graft at times and seem incapable of penetrating opposition defences. The one area they will take comfort from is that they have the second lowest handling error count behind France, but that is probably a function of the fact that they simply don’t get much ball to handle in the first place.
We’re not sure that despite the gravity of the situation facing Wales and the pedigree of some of their players, they can count on Rome being the place where they can attempt to start turning things around. The Stadio Olimpico will be in full voice on Saturday and Italy will rise to the passion of their fans. In short it’s not a place we think you’d want to go when your confidence is at an all time low and your opponents just ooze self belief and finally seem to have the skill sets and organisation necessary to backup that belief. What a contest awaits!
France need to click and England need to rise to the challenge of their biggest Test of the new Steve Borthwick era
As mentioned above, while it still holds all the excitement that “Le Crunch” matches traditionally have in this tournament, it does pale a bit in comparison to the high stakes matchups taking place in Rome and Edinburgh this weekend. Perhaps its usual gravity is being felt more by France this year, as a loss for them has deeper ramifications than it does for England. England appear to have come to terms with the fact that their primary goal this tournament is to demonstrate an upward trend in overall performance and settling on the squad needed to take them to the World Cup. Some Six Nations silverware would be a huge added bonus but it is perhaps not the same driver for them as it is for France.
After coming unstuck against Ireland, despite still being the number two side in the world, France find themselves behind England at this stage of the competition in fourth place. A loss at Twickenham would not only kill off their Championship hopes barring a few miracles, but also leave them with more questions than answers heading into the World Cup. In short, England will want to win but France know they simply HAVE to win given what is at stake in the grander scheme of things going forward.
Despite getting a bit of a schooling from the Irish at times in Round 2, and in general looking somewhat off their normally high pace so far this year, France are still very much in the hunt. Righting the ship by breaking Scotland’s Six Nations winning streak was key to both settling the side and getting their campaign back on its feet again. While Scotland pushed them hard for the win, France’s emphatic start to that match in the first half, left few of us in doubt that it would be anything other than a Gallic victory.
Nevertheless, France despite some moments of sheer brilliance have not always looked at the races this year. They clearly got off the bus at the wrong stop in Rome and had to rush to the Stadium and narrowly avoided the biggest upset of 2023. In Dublin a week later they got off at the right stop only to find that Ireland had taken a TGV to the Aviva ahead of them. At home and with two weeks to study bus and train timetables to the Stade de France , France looked like last year’s Grand Slam Champions once more and the Blue Juggernaut started to click especially in those opening twenty five minutes. They also then held their nerve and withstood a Scottish second half revival.
When you look at the tournament statistics, the only numbers where as a team France dominate is in tackles made, having made more than anyone else with second rower Thibaud Flament being the tournament’s top tackler. However, they also won’t be happy with having given away more penalties than anyone else other than Wales and like the Men in Red clearly grappling with the 2023 definition of offside.
For England, they’ve got steadily better since that opening wobble against Scotland. However, they have also only played the two lowest ranked teams in the competition since their duel with the Scots. France on Saturday will be a considerable step up. While France may not be gelling the way they did last year, they are still a force to be reckoned with and the next big Test for the Borthwick era. England unlike France still seem unsure of what their team should look like and what type of game they want to play. What we have seen from England so far is rather conservative and may not respond all that well to the speed at which France and Ireland play the game. Perhaps Borthwick’s biggest achievement in his three games in charge so far is tidying up England’s woeful disciplinary record under Eddie Jones. The fact that England have conceded the least amount of penalties of any team this tournament by a considerable margin will be music to Borthwick’s ears.
Where Borthwick and his coaching team will be concerned though is England’s woeful record at the kicking tee, which is one of the worst in the competition and has led to Captain Owen Farrell being relegated to the bench for “Le Crunch” in favor of Marcus Smith. However, in many ways that is minor compared to England’s continued bluntness in attack, the worst knock on and handling error record of any team and a defensive structure that is the worst in the competition. England has missed more tackles than any other team, even a Welsh side clearly lost at sea fares marginally better than England in that regard albeit only just.
Perhaps England’s best news this tournament has been the revelation of Ollie Lawrence at centre which if you ask us has clearly made the Manu Tuilagi debate a side issue in England’s World Cup planning. Ollie Chessum improves week in week out in the second row and Lewis Ludlam has been solid as a rock in England’s back row along with Jack Willis. A big performance from Marcus Smith and Jack van Poortvliet against France in the halfback berths will certainly give England a genuine shot in the arm ahead of a tricky finale to their Six Nations campaign in Dublin, and their subsequent preparation for the World Cup.
To get one past France this weekend is a genuinely tough ask for a new look England still finding their feet this Saturday. France have assembled an all star cast for this one and there are very few if any weaknesses in it. France may not be as flash as they were last year, but they still know how to win and in the game against Scotland started to look like a team warming to the task of a home World Cup. In terms of making a statement this game is probably the most important one France will play between now and the World Cup, and as a result expect them to take no prisoners even if in the past Twickenham has not always been the happiest hunting ground for them.
Number one and number two – Celtic not Gallic dominance
It’s been 33 years since Scotland last won a Triple Crown, but they must quietly be fancying their chances on Sunday in front of the Murrayfield faithful. Ireland as the number one side in the world are not exactly the team you’d want to have to face in order to pull it off, but there is no denying that there is some serious belief in this Scottish squad and if they can prevent Ireland screaming out of the blocks in the opening 25 minutes, then there are reasons to be optimistic. That opening quarter in Paris a fortnight ago, simply left Scotland with too much to do and as a result they were forced to chase the game for a full hour. Although they made a remarkable comeback, the toll that kind of catch up rugby takes on a team at this level was plain to see. Scotland looked rushed and panicked at times, and playmaker Finn Russell started to once more favor the kind of 50/50 plays that when you’re only five points down are worth the risk, but can appear reckless when you’re 22-0 down.
So the big question on everyone’s lips is was the loss to France in Round 3 merely a bump in the road for Scotland or the start of their traditional Six Nations fadeout? We’d argue the former, as much like Italy there is something definitely different about this year’s Scotland. Scotland have scored more tries this tournament than any other team except their Irish opponents this weekend. In terms of tackles made they are only second to France and have the lowest missed tackle rate in the competition. They have the second best lineout in the competition after Italy and like the Azzurri are pretty handy at winning turnovers from their tackling technique. Their backline is truly lethal with the top three of the top five try scorers in the competition hailing from North of Hadrian’s Wall.
As for Ireland, their exercise in depth development in Round 3 against Italy ultimately paid off, even if the Azzurri made the Irish distinctly uncomfortable at times. Still it’s that kind of pressure for the younger generation of players that will pay huge dividends for Ireland come the World Cup and Ireland’s inevitable injury list. In attack Ireland look extremely dangerous and play at a speed most teams are finding it hard to keep up with, which has ensured they’ve scored more tries than any other team. Ireland have made more metres courtesy of James Lowe and exceptional fullback Hugo Keenan, as well as having carried and kept the ball in hand more than anyone else. The Irish defensive lines are so suffocating that very few teams can penetrate them and they have won more turnovers at the breakdown than all the other teams while at the same time conceding the least amount of turnovers. However, when those lines are pierced all of a sudden Ireland looks slightly less awe inspiring. Coach Andy Farrell and his associates will be concerned with Ireland’s missed tackle count which stands third highest in the competition. We worked it out that over three matches Ireland were only managing a 79% tackle success rate which leading into the World Cup is simply unacceptable.
Sunday’s game has the added frisson of being a dress rehearsal for the Pool game which will feature these two teams in Paris the week before the World Cup quarter finals. Should Scotland beat Ireland this weekend, then all of a sudden Pool B becomes the most hotly contested group in the competition. To say that both sides have points to prove and statements to make on Sunday is putting it mildly to say the least. The weather looks fairly grim, so both sides will fret over the injuries that could arise from what could end up being a slugfest rather than the glorious display of full throttle rugby that both these teams like to showcase. Either way this is most likely the biggest game of Round 4 and you won’t want to miss a second of it!
Australia rising – or another false dawn?
After some years in the wilderness, Australia’s Super Rugby contingent is starting to look rather tasty again. In the past few years the Brumbies have been the only side to carry the mantle of Australian rugby with any degree of consistency, but so far this season things are starting to look tasty across the board in the Land Down Under. In the past Australian sides have always looked impressive on attack but utterly porous in defence. So far this year things appear to be looking up in that department. The Brumbies are already showing they are a force to be reckoned with but the Waratahs are also starting to look the business with their turbo charged winger Mark Nawaqanitawase rapidly becoming one of the most exciting Wallaby prospects in a long time.
While all of this may be premature, especially after only two rounds and limited exposure to their New Zealand rivals, there surely must be grounds for cautious optimism in Australia this season. This weekend won’t tell us much, but if the Western Force can handle Moana Pasifika’s exciting ball runners and the following weekend the Waratahs keep the Hurricanes in check, the Rebels get one over the Chiefs away from home and the Reds shut down Fijian Drua’s bruising speedsters then what a Super Rugby season we have in store, as all of a sudden it’s not just about New Zealand anymore.
TheArrows struggle to hit the target in the opening two rounds of MLR – but it’s early days for this new look squad
Don’t get us wrong there has definitely been spirit and heart at times in the Toronto Arrows opening two games, but we have to say we didn’t feel there was enough of it, and the precision was lacking as a new look team clearly struggled at times to find their shape. We appreciate the start of the season is always tougher for the Arrows than the other teams, as they spend the first two months of the season on the road and away from their fervent supporters now taking up residence at York Lions stadium here in Toronto. Furthemore while there are plenty of familiar faces on the team sheet for this year, there are also a lot of wholesale changes. The South American contingent that had served the Arrows so well in their opening seasons is no longer present and their absence has been clearly noted in the opening two rounds. Furthermore we were sorry to not see Irish import Ronan Foley in the lineup for this year in the back row, as he lent a genuine edge to the Arrows in the loose last year.
On the plus side we like the look of Mason Flesch in the back row and Kobe Faust looks to provide some genuine spark out wide on the wing. Carrying on from last season, Ross Braude is an exciting prospect for the Arrows and Canada in the nine jersey. However, in the set pieces in their opening two games the Arrows looked creaky and their lineouts remain an area of concern carried over from last year. Handling errors and missed tackles also seemed to be an issue, though the frigid temperatures in New York in Round 2 clearly didn’t help the former issue. However, in their first game against Atlanta, Toronto really only showed up in the final ten minutes which as impressive as it was ended up being too little too late. A week later they were dominated by a team who, in fairness, are last year’s defending champions, so perhaps hardly the team you want to face while still trying to settle your structures and processes with a new team.
So like we say, it’s early days yet and not fair to judge these initial slightly lacklustre performances. The Arrows face MLR newcomers for 2023 the Chicago Hounds this weekend. Hopefully having had a break to review what worked and what didn’t from their opening two rounds, the Arrows will get their season underway in earnest and give their fans some genuine spring cheer, ahead of their Toronto homecoming on April 8th for a rematch with New York. Check out the link on the TV page for ticket links.
So till next week, make sure you’re near a TV somewhere this weekend for what should be some legendary Six Nations action, have a glance at the action going on in Super Rugby and get behind the Arrows. Take care everyone!
Probably the first question is have you all caught your breath yet? What a weekend that was as Round 2’s Six Nations action gave us an extraordinary game between the number 1 and 2 sides in the world, France and Ireland, and completely lived up to the hype surrounding it in the process. Meanwhile in Murrayfield Scotland put in a performance that oozed class and most important of all consistency as they completely dismantled a truly hapless Welsh side. Finally, England found their mojo against a very spirited Italian outfit that despite coming out on the losing side, still looks ominous. In short, a Six Nations tournament that already looks set to be one for the ages simply didn’t take its foot off the accelerator!
There were so many talking points that came out of last weekend, it’s unlikely that we’ve even scratched the surface in our musings below, but what follows is what got us talking the most over some rather feisty and frothy pints.
Ireland stun France and in the process old and new heroes are found!
There is no question that the dustup between France and Ireland last Saturday at the Aviva in Dublin will take some beating in terms of spectacle this year. As a dress rehearsal for a potential World Cup quarter final between these two we couldn’t of asked for better. Both teams went at each other hammer and tongs and the first forty minutes alone left most of us reaching for the nearest oxygen tank – we can only imagine what the players must have been feeling like. It was a classic Six Nations match and one that will live on our highlights reels for a long time.
The handling and skill on display from both of these sides was of exceptional quality. In the end Ireland looked the fitter and better organized side, with many of their clearly rehearsed moves going to script. France on the other hand were equally ambitious but they are perhaps not as comfortable yet with the groundwork and tactics being developed to keep opposition sides guessing come the World Cup. However, the intent was there and had the Men in Blue not made as many uncharacteristic errors as they did last Saturday, then we would probably be writing a very different postscript. Nevertheless the danger signs are all there and France are unlikely to be as much of a rough diamond in the months to come as they are now.
For Ireland, it was a great day at the office with some sublime handling skills, well rehearsed moves and perhaps most important of all a control of proceedings that made it exceptionally difficult for France to develop any kind of rhythm. Ireland’s line speed and defence was extraordinary and as a result France were having to live off scraps and create opportunities from whatever they could scavenge. The fact that they were able to do so outlines just how dangerous France are even when things aren’t quite going their way.
The Irish will be happy that veteran scrum half Conor Murray was able to put in his best shift in a green jersey since the heady days of 2018. This was made all the more remarkable given the back story to it. His father was involved in a horrific bicycle accident with a truck and sustained serious injuries on the Tuesday before the match. That Murray was able to play and in such a composed, calm and effective manner is true testimony to the remarkable player he is and we’re all delighted to see him back at the height of his powers in the Irish setup. There were some touching moments as French Coach Fabien Galthie was seen to give the Irish scrum half a warm embrace after the match, and Murray himself showed genuine compassion for fellow teammate second rower Tadgh Beirne who was pitch side on crutches after the final whistle.
New heroes are also stepping up to the plate in the Irish camp. Fullback Hugo Keenan was truly imperious under the high ball all afternoon and his spectacular opening try demonstrated just what a world class player he really is. Caelan Doris is rapidly becoming one of the best number eights in the world, giving France’s Gregory Alldritt and New Zealand’s Ardie Savea serious food for thought. Meanwhile Ross Byrne stepped majestically into Johnny Sexton’s boots for the bulk of the second half. Ireland still have some serious work to do ahead of their trips to Rome and Murrayfield and that potential Championship decider against England back in Dublin, most notably sorting out their missed tackle count which was one of the few blemishes on an otherwise immaculate performance. A 73% tackle success rate is simply unacceptable at this level no matter how well you are able to control proceedings and their lineout success also at 73% needs some serious work.
For France, Dublin was a setback and their hopes of back to back Grand Slams are now dead and buried – but it is definitely not all gloom and doom. There was enough inventiveness on display that once it starts to fire, probably by the time of that opening World Cup match against the All Blacks, France will once again be back to their most dangerous and unpredictable best. The next three games will be critical in getting some traction towards that goal, but we hardly think it’s time to start ringing alarm bells. France had to play a largely reactive game on Saturday, but they will have learnt much in the process. Although they were on the wrong side of the score line there was much to be pleased about. If, as it should have been, James Lowe’s try been disallowed then there would only have been one score in it. Make no mistake this was a close game and when France were able to create something they did it in typically spectacular fashion – just watch that Damian Penaud try if you doubt it for a second.
Antoine Dupont didn’t perhaps have his best day for France, but was still able to mesmerise us and do the unthinkable when required, just watch that try saving tackle on Mack Hansen if you’re not convinced. Back rower Anthony Jelonch was one of the heroes of the day in a blue jersey and for us he remains perhaps France’s most underrated weapon. Meanwhile new kid on the block winger Anthony Dumortier continued to embrace Test Rugby at the highest level and between himself and Penaud France look to be a genuine threat out wide.
In short a classic, and for now these two sides can comfortably still claim to be the most dangerous outfits heading into the World Cup. For New Zealand and South Africa, along with everyone else the benchmark has been set!
Scotland at long last find that missing ingredient – consistency – and in the process honor a fallen warrior
We said before the start of the Championship that consistency was Scotland’s biggest goal this Six Nations and building towards the World Cup. Scotland have started the tournament guns blazing in recent years only to end with a whimper. Saturday’s festivities in Murrayfield would seem to indicate that Scotland have at long last turned a corner. Their cohesion as a team with a clear sense of what kind of game they wanted to play and how to execute it was clear for all to see. Finn Russell’s goalkicking may leave a lot to be desired, but everything else about his game and how Scotland feeds off it, is so much better. Gone is the mindless recklessness replaced with daring but measured audacity. Russell has been labelled as a magician on the pitch and Saturday’s display was a masterclass in that regard.
However, it would be unfair to single out Russell alone. Scotland’s back row particularly Captain Jamie Ritchie and the outstanding Matt Fagerson were exceptional. Ben White had another stellar game in the nine jersey, while the Centre partnership of Huw Jones and Sione Tuipolutu looks world class and, in addition to its attacking prowess, also looks remarkably robust defensively allowing Chris Harris to spend some time relaxing on the bench. Duhan van der Merwe was once again unstoppable especially in the second half, but in many ways his colleague Kyle Steyn stole the show out wide last Saturday. In short there were so many positives in perhaps one of the most clinical Scotland performances we’ve seen in a long time.
To top it all off, this fixture is now known as the Doddie Weir Cup in honor of the legendary Scottish second rower who lost his inspirational fight with motor neurone disease at the end of last year. It was a moving and fitting tribute to a figure whose courage and humility was exemplary, and someone who was taken from us far too soon.
However, now it’s time to put it all in perspective. Wales were poor last Saturday whichever way you cut it, allowing the Scottish diamond to shine at full intensity. However, a dangerous opponent in the shape of a wounded French side lie in wait next Sunday in Paris followed by a seemingly unstoppable Ireland, albeit at Murrayfield. As we said before the competition, the game in Paris will be the most important litmus test of where Scotland really are this year and whether or not they have genuinely managed to turn a corner in terms of their old bugbear known as consistency. We can’t wait to find out!
Not exactly Wayne Barnes and the officiating team’s best day at the officeand no this is not a Rassie Erasmus rant
We’ll keep this one short. We are big fans of referee Wayne Barnes, and although he may be seeking some of the limelight of one of his illustrious predecessors the legendary Nigel Owens, a couple of mistakes were made last Saturday in Dublin which need to get tidied up.
As aggrieved as French supporters may feel about the James Lowe try, they should also be grateful that prop Uini Atonio only saw yellow for his blatant shoulder to the head on Irish Hooker Rob Herring who left the field for an HIA and was unable to return. Had as he should of done seen red and not yellow, then France would have been down to 14 men for a full hour. There likely would have been a few more Irish points on the board, and as a result whether or not James Lowe’s try was legitimate would have been irrelevant. Atonio makes no attempt to dip in the tackle and Herring is upright when it is made. It’s poor technique all day long and not the first time Atonio has been called out. He has since received a three match ban, which ultimately means his Six Nations is over but that was a red card plain and simple and needed to be adjudicated as such.
However, on the flip side we can empathize with French supporters over the Lowe try. Despite the Irish winger’s truly dazzling attempt to defy the laws of physics, he doesn’t quite pull it off. As the one camera angle they needed all day long shows, but was somehow only available after the match, his foot clearly strikes the ground in touch. Given the priority given to getting all the angles to adjudicate such potentially game changing decisions, we were literally gob smacked that this was only provided after the match. While ultimately it wouldn’t have changed the game’s final outcome, with a World Cup just around the corner the officials really have to get this right.
England start to show us what the future might look like
After coming unstuck against Scotland for the third consecutive year, new Coach Steve Borthwick and his charges desperately needed the shot in the arm that the match against Italy gave them. Make no mistake Italy were no pushover and actually won the second half, but a fired up England put in a first half performance that finally gave English supporters reasons to be cheerful. It wasn’t perfect by a long stretch, but England did enough in the first half to allow them to paper over the cracks that Italy managed to expose in the second half.
Borthwick is known as a set piece specialist and in that regard he can feel exceptionally pleased with England’s performance last Sunday at Twickenham. The scrum could use a little work but at the rucks and at lineout time England were outstanding and their rolling maul looked a weapon that will cause Ireland and France some heartache. Even in attack they started to finally show some shape particularly in the form of centre Ollie Lawrence who put in a massive shift, gaining 58 metres and beating 8 defenders and surely the whole obsession with Manu Tuilagi is now irrelevant. Add to that the fact that when Marcus Smith came on, along with Alex Mitchell at scrum half and Henry Arundell on the wing England literally sparkled on attack.
England won’t be happy with the fact that they missed 41 tackles and defensively they still need a lot of work, but given this was only Borthwick’s second match in charge there was plenty to start to get excited about for England and their supporters. The future made an appearance on Sunday at Twickenham and it does look rather promising at long last.
As for Italy, we always thought that beating a new look England at Twickenham was rather a tall order, but they can still head back to Rome and await the Irish and Welsh with some degree of confidence. It was a strong second half performance from Italy, with some massive performances most notably from back rower Sebastian Negri and rugby’s hottest property in the back three fullback Ange Capuozzo. We have a hunch that it won’t be Italy holding the Wooden Spoon this year.
The train wreck known as Welsh Rugby
Whichever way you cut it, Wales is not a fun place to be right now if you’re a professional rugby player. A governing body that regards its players with contempt and seems incapable of managing the game at national and provincial levels with any degree of competency, is wreaking havoc with Wales’ Six Nations aspirations. With the players threatening to go on strike and put next weekend’s fixture against England in jeopardy while the men in suits fiddle as Cardiff burns, you have to wonder just how the rot entrenched in the management of Welsh rugby has been allowed to go on for the past ten years the way it has.
The end result of this is evident on the pitch and in the Coaching box. Warren Gatland looks as if he genuinely hates his job, with his players looking frustrated, demoralised and confused. Wales have been shambolic in both their performances in the Six Nations so far. Ireland was bad enough but perhaps the Principality crowd were enough to ensure that Wales weren’t completely humiliated. However as the machinations in Cardiff boardrooms reached fever pitch last week, it clearly meant that players had too much time to think about it on the trip to Murrayfield. Wales just weren’t at the races, and simply failed to fire as a unit. Their much vaunted new look back row just didn’t gel and for much of the match was irrelevant despite an impressive solo effort from Christ Tshiunza. Defensively they looked at sixes and sevens while failing to get any kind of attacking momentum despite some promising opportunities that they seemed incapable of finishing.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of Wales state of disarray was fly half Dan Biggar’s temper tantrum with Welsh new boy winger Rio Dyer after the former Captain was on the receiving end of a very poor pass from Dyer. Biggar is part of the leadership group and to be seen visibly remonstrating one of his colleagues on the pitch and TV screens around the world was not a good look. The senior group of Welsh players need to be seen to be supporting and encouraging the new crop of talent that Wales is trying to develop. Biggar has since apologized but whichever way you cut it it left a bad taste in the mouth. Unless the frustrations seeping into the national cause are addressed with both empathy and a view to a sustainable future, then we have a hunch that such outbursts are likely to be commonplace over the coming weeks.
This is not an attempt to denigrate Welsh rugby and its players, many of whom are venerated here at the Lineout. However, we share their frustration and are disheartened that such a proud rugby nation and a group of talented and committed players are being treated as poorly as they are. May the rot be brought to a halt forthwith and Wales and its players be allowed to get on with the game they so treasure and which we love watching them play.
It’s that most WONDERFUL time of the year again – as the song goes. Yes it’s the Rugby version of Christmas with, as our good friend Squidge Rugby likes to say, Friday being Sixmas Eve. Sure we love the Rugby Championship and the World Cup is something we all eagerly build up to over four years, but somehow the next two months of Test Rugby strike a special chord in our hearts. For all its faults the Six Nations is without a doubt the highlight of our annual Rugby calendar. The drama, the pomp and ceremony, the age old rivalries, the personalities and the exuberant, passionate and colorful crowds make this tournament unique. It’s dubbed as “rugby’s greatest championship” and although we think that’s pushing it a bit, it’s not far off the mark. What it does do though year in year out is give us memories shared with our rugby mates that live on for decades – and measured against that criteria it takes some beating.
So sure there have been other things going on in the rugby world this week, but we haven’t been able to think about anything else other than the Six Nations. So here’s what kept our debates raging as we looked ahead to what should be a tournament that has the potential to be one for the ages. With a World Cup just around the corner, this is the last big hurrah before the global showdown in September for all six participants. Consequently there is so much at stake in terms of final preparations, lessons to be learned, game plans to be honed and Coaches hoping to settle on the groups that they will be handing out tickets to for that trip to France come September. So we broke it down into where we think the teams will finish and what they need to get out of this Six Nations apart from winning it. We pick the most critical game for each of the six sides and the player most likely to influence it.
Naturally all this may be completely academic by Super Saturday, March 18th, as the inevitable injuries take their toll and upsets that we just didn’t see coming turn the table upside down. But for now after much agonising over numerous frothy pints here’s our look ahead to the Six Nations in the order in which we think the teams will finish,though just like last year even though we got it wrong we don’t think there will be anyone pulling off a Grand Slam this year.
Ireland – 1st but no Grand Slam
Ireland enter this Six Nations feeling full of confidence but for most Irish supporters there’s that ominous sense of deja vu once more. Just like in 2019 Ireland looked on top of the world only to crash out spectacularly in the World Cup later that year in Japan. Furthermore while Ireland had a successful Autumn Nations campaign last year dispatching South Africa, Fiji and Australia there were times when they looked far from convincing. Adding to the concern was the fact that none of those wins were overly emphatic. Even in the Fiji match which had the most positive scoreline Ireland looked shaky at times. Against South Africa and Australia, Ireland ensured through some stellar defence that they were low scoring affairs but struggled to make their own attacks stick. In short, despite holding up well in a massive physical contest with South Africa Ireland’s Autumn Nations campaign failed to light the imagination after the euphoria of the first ever series win in New Zealand earlier that summer.
Nevertheless Leinster, from which a large chunk of this year’s Ireland Six Nations squad originate, are sweeping all before them in Europe and look on target to be one of the favourites to lift the Champions Cup in May. Munster are starting to click as well, while Ulster and Connacht have plenty of talent but lack consistency. However, Irish depth is ridiculously strong with only the halfback positions leaving us with some unanswered questions. In Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park they have one of the best 9/10 combinations on the planet but should either of them succumb to injury then it remains to be seen if Ireland’s rank as the number one team in the world is truly justified.
What they need from this Six Nations: While winning the Championship, especially with a Grand Slam would be an enormous confidence booster in a World Cup year, we’d argue it is not Ireland’s most important priority over the next two months. It is common knowledge that without a firing Johnny Sexton on the pitch Ireland are a very different beast. It’s that nagging uncertainty that has caused them to come unstuck too often. Furthermore despite the fact that Sexton is considered perhaps the greatest Irish player of his time, when he has a bad day his whole team suffers.
As a result Ireland need to find his understudy and someone who can stay the course under pressure. It would appear that Leinster’s Ross Byrne is the chosen successor, but his appearances in the green jersey have not been convincing unlike his masterful performances in the blue of Leinster. Munster’s Jack Crawley is rapidly being touted as the next best thing in a 10 jersey but Ross Byrne’s brother Harry is also a potential candidate.
Meanwhile at scrum half the debate rages with Munster’s Conor Murray seemingly past his prime and fellow teammate Craig Casey considered too small and inconsistent despite a blistering speed of delivery and ability to seize opportunities that are presented to him. Even Leinster stalwart Jamison Gibson-Park is still not back to his best after injury.
In short, Ireland need this tournament to provide them with a convincing Plan B for both these positions. That means that in addition to Gibson-Park and Sexton Ireland need to get as much game time as possible for their respective understudies without jeopardizing their chances at Six Nations silverware. These players need pressure game time in some of the big games, if Ireland are truly serious about getting past the Quarter Final stage of the World Cup in eight months for the first time in their history.
Most important game: Ireland vs France – There is no denying that this along with possibly the England game at the end of the tournament will be this year’s Championship defining match for Ireland. If Ireland put in a convincing performance against Wales in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium in the opening weekend, then a confidence boosting win at home in front of the Aviva faithful against World Cup favourites and potential quarter-final opponents France will be critical to not only their Six Nations chances, but also their preparations for the World Cup. With two relatively straightforward trips to Italy and Scotland to follow this match, only a rejuvenated England back in Dublin on the final weekend could spoil Ireland’s Six Nations party. As number one in the world meets number two the pressure will be intense for both sides, and as a result this is probably the most eagerly anticipated game of the tournament for both supporters and neutrals alike.
Most important player : Johnny Sexton – We simply cannot understate the importance of the 37 year old veteran fly half to Ireland’s aspirations in 2023 both in the Six Nations and the World Cup six months later. Despite his age he appears to defy the ravages of time and is probably playing his best rugby of an exceptionally distinguished career. The desire and ambition to end on a high note for both himself and his country is clearly there for all to see and his teammates feed off his motivation. Without him on the pitch, Ireland need its other leaders to step up, and should Sexton succumb to injury which is always a concern Ireland has to find a way to maintain the shape and direction he provides them. While Ireland will need to find their Sexton Plan B this tournament, his importance to Ireland’s aspirations over the next eight months is paramount. How he is managed as a result will be fascinating to see.
France – 2nd as some very classy runners up
As last year’s Grand Slam Champions, World Cup hosts and number two ranked side in the world France have EVERYTHING to prove this Six Nations. Undefeated in 2022 and blessed with a depth of talent across the pitch that is the envy of every International Coach, France look the business in this World Cup year. However, a raft of mounting injuries and a disturbing lack of form in European club competition this season have raised some uncomfortable questions for the Men in Blue, most pressing being have they peaked too soon ahead of the World Cup? This question has tended to be reserved for Ireland in recent times, but there is no denying that France perhaps more than their rivals in green need to lay down a marker this Six Nations.
Their saving grace is an almost abundant depth of talent across every position. France can at any time choose between three world class players no matter what the number on their jersey. Perhaps their only concern this tournament is finding a bit more proven depth in the centre channels, but everywhere else their stocks are plentiful, despite the mounting casualty list. They may not necessarily be this year’s Six Nations favourites but they are not far off it, and whatever work is done over the next two months will be excellent preparation to iron out whatever wrinkles and doubts they may have ahead of the World Cup.
What they need from this Six Nations: French clubs’ lack of form in Europe at the moment can in part be put down to the injury crisis sweeping French rugby and causing Coach Fabien Galthie and his selectors such headaches. However, what France seem able to do better than any other team at the moment is take a third choice player and elevate him to world class in the space of a few matches. Expect to see a lot of that this Six Nations, and while winning it will be as important as ever to Galthie and his charges, consolidating their depth when it comes to selection choices will be equally important. France will want to head into the World Cup with a Plan A,B and C for every position, and we’d argue that this Six Nations will be the proving ground for a lot of players aiming to stamp their ownership on a World Cup jersey. France along with Ireland are clear favourites to win this year’s Championship but a Grand Slam won’t be the driver it was last year. Consistency of performance and lessons to be learnt in terms of depth ahead of the World Cup are likely to be more important concerns.
Most important game: England vs France – This will be the big one for Les Bleus. While the game in Dublin will be of huge significance, if France come short at the Aviva this game will be critical to righting their Six Nations ship. Lose this one if things have gone badly against Ireland, and France’s Six Nations aspirations are over and their preparations for the World Cup will take a serious knock. Twickenham although a difficult place to travel to can be a happy hunting ground for the French and a win here will set them up nicely for a home Championship decider on the last weekend of the tournament against Wales.
Most important player: Antoine Dupont – The Toulouse scrum half is regarded by many as the best player of his generation and is already being venerated as one of the greatest to grace the international game in its long and colorful history. Much like Ireland’s Sexton, when Dupont fires France take their game to an almost existential level. France are good without him, but with him they look unstoppable. His ability to read a game almost three plays in advance is uncanny and means that he is constantly able to put his team one step ahead of the opposition defences. Ally this to a turn of pace and an eye for opportunity, and it’s easy to see why his teammates dub him the “little magician”.
England – Third but potential finally unleashed
England start a new chapter in their troubled recent history as Coach Steve Borthwick takes charge of his first Six Nations campaign as the man in the hot seat. Hopefully, the inconsistent and at times baffling selection decisions regardless of form made by his predecessor Eddie Jones are a thing of the past. In the process what English supporters hope will emerge is a settled side that has a clear idea of the game they want to play and which suits their colllective abilities, particularly in attack. England need a game plan and the discipline to execute it properly. Their at times laughable disciplinary record under Jones has to be a thing of the past. Borthwick, although sticking with some of England’s golden oldies has already shown a refreshing penchant to really unearth and fast track the younger generation of talent seen at club level in English rugby.
Consequently, England and their supporters should feel more than a little optimistic about their chances this Six Nations. While asking Borthwick to turn around the fortunes of the Men in White in the space of a mere five weekends and win the Six Nations is probably too much of a tall order, expect England to put in a much more consistent and disciplined Six Nations challenge than in recent years.
What they need from this Six Nations: England need to get three things out of this Championship plain and simple. First get some consistency in selection decisions and really embed an exciting younger generation of players into England’s plans for not only the World Cup but the future beyond it. Second develop an attacking game plan that all the players can buy into, understand and which suits their individual and collective skill sets. Three improve England’s overall discipline and put a halt to giving away silly and mindless penalties.
That’s it Steve – pretty simple really so have at it! If you do we fancy England will once again be a side on the rise and one which can pose a genuine threat come September in France.
Most important game: Ireland vs England – If England have done well by the time they get to Dublin by dispatching France at Twickenham and overturning the Welsh in Cardiff, then this their final game of the Championship will be a watershed moment for Steve Borthwick in his first tournament as the new England boss. If the two aforementioned games have gone in England’s favor then all of a sudden there is everything to play for on the final day of the Championship. England would then find themselves in a realistic hunt for the silverware with only eighty minutes left on the tournament clock, especially if Ireland have had a Championship that is a flashback to their 2019 Six Nations effort. Dublin on the last day of the Six Nations is a place few people would want to end their campaign, but what a potential feather in the cap for Steve Borthwick and his charges if they could knock Ireland off their perch. If things have gone well for England this Six Nations expect their motivation to be off the charts when referee Jaco Peyper blows the whistle for kick off at the Aviva.
Most important player: Jack van Poortfliet: Surely it’s Marcus Smith we hear you say. We’d argue that although Smith is critically important to England’s plans for this Six Nations and beyond, it’s the Leicester scrum half who really needs to shine in a white jersey. His talents are there for all too see, but his lack of game time at this level has been evident, most notably during the Autumn Nations series which clearly rattled his confidence. Veteran scrum half Ben Youngs is not the player to take England to the World Cup and beyond. England need van Poortfliet’s pace and speed of delivery as well as his ability to surprise opposition defences. Ben Youngs game is both ponderous and predictable allowing opponents to read England like a book. Van Poortfliet just needs to develop confidence in his role and alongside Marcus Smith England could well end up with a genuine world class halfback axis.
Scotland – Fourth but everybody’s banana skin
Scotland are the Six Nations greatest conundrum – they can be brilliant and on any given weekend beat any of the Six Nations competitors. The problem is they just can’t do it with any degree of consistency – spectacular one weekend and then a disaster the next. Until Scotland fix this they’ll always be seen as the team that will upset other teams’ title aspirations but never be a genuine contender themselves. Add to that some obvious friction between key players and Coach Gregor Townsend which causes Scotland to trip up when they and the rest of us least expect it. They seem to have adopted the trait of French teams of old, as we find ourselves asking each weekend of the tournament which Scottish side will show up?
Scotland are a frustrating side to watch. For a country with a relatively small player pool, they still manage to turn out some extraordinarily gifted players and as a team they are often a joy to behold in action. At times their running game is akin to the Northern Hemisphere’s version of Fijian rugby. The problem is they just can’t seem to replicate it week in week out. Scottish rugby is a great product make no mistake, you just never know which version you’ve just bought.
What they need from this Six Nations: Consistency – That’s it nothing more to be said. Sure some injuries have got in the way for this Six Nations, most notably superstar winger Darcy Graham, but there’s enough talent in this Scottish squad to deliver it and still leave us wanting for more. Scotland often seem to want to try and play a different style of rugby every week, and what they need to do this Six Nations is just be Scotland – plain and simple. Don’t try and be New Zealand one week and South Africa the next. The players and Coaches need to be reading from the same script for the five weekends of the Championship. Do that and all of a sudden Scotland are no longer that banana skin that might catch you unawares, but instead a side that poses a genuine threat week in week out and has a real chance of finally getting their hands on some Six Nations silverware.
Most important game: France vs Scotland – In our humble opinion Scotland’s Six Nations campaign will be decided in this fixture. Paris is never an easy place to visit at the best of times. However, if France have come unstuck prior to this match against Ireland then they will be wounded and perhaps lacking in confidence. If Scotland manage to once more turn over England at Twickenham in the opening weekend, followed up by teaching Wales a lesson at Murrayfield then all of a sudden it’s game on for their Championship hopes. If they can do the unthinkable and defeat a French side harboring some doubts in the Stade de France in Round 3, they then can await Ireland’s visit to Murrayfield with a fair degree of optimism prior to hosting Wooden Spoon specialists Italy. Lose badly in Paris and Scotland’s trend of imploding in the latter stages of the tournament will be reinforced, leaving them vulnerable to not only a rampaging Ireland but an Italian side who knows how to win away from home against all the odds on Super Saturday.
Most important player: Finn Russell – Scotland’s maverick fly half along with his relationship to Coach Gregor Townsend is the key to whether or not they go deep into this tournament or lose the plot from the outset. What we have noticed of late is that Russell’s play is more measured – though never predictable. His ability to keep defences guessing is still world class, but the reckless risk taking appears to have been toned down. If his teammates can keep up with him and click with his remarkable vision then Scotland could finally become the team we’ve all been waiting for in the Six Nations.
Wales – Fifth as “Warrenball” takes its toll on a side with plenty of talent
Wales head into this Six Nations once more reeling from an injury list and a governing body that much like England’s seems woefully out of touch with the game it is supposed to be managing. Wales may be low on confidence but are not short on talent. Even though Welsh club rugby is a mess, Ospreys’ recent resurgence in the URC and the European Champions Cup will give Welsh supporters some confidence heading into a tricky Six Nations.
The Coaching reshuffle that has brought in Warren Gatland after Wayne Pivac’s summary dismissal at the end of 2022 has raised some eyebrows. Gatland may know more about Welsh rugby than any other Coach out there, and may be more familiar with its nuances than how to renew his New Zealand passport, but there’s no denying that the aura surrounding his Coaching talents has dimmed somewhat since the last World Cup. If anything his sides have looked ponderous and predictable.
However, despite the problems racking Welsh rugby, the Six Nations is a tournament in which, despite whatever is happening at club level, the Men in Red seem to rise to the occasion for. We expect no less this year and as a result opponents will write them off at their peril. Their fixture list may not be ideal, but if they can start well then Wales’ problems of last year may suddenly seem like a distant memory at least for the Six Nations.
What they need from this Six Nations: Stay injury free as much as possible – plain and simple. Wales have assembled a talented Six Nations squad, but if the stretcher bearers start depleting the ranks too early there is simply not enough depth to carry Wales through to the end of the tournament. Given that the injury lists are are already relatively full and even some of the current squad have injury concerns, Wales have a tricky two months ahead of them. Add to this some genuine problems with the set pieces and disciplinary lapses and Warren Gatland has a long to do list coupled with some sleepless nights fretting over the fitness of some of his key players. “Warrenball” Welsh style needs to evolve from what worked in the past and rotation of his player base will be key in ensuring that Wales survive this Six Nations intact and in a position to prepare for the World Cup in six months time.
Most important game: Italy vs Wales – If Wales’ campaign has gone badly by the time they arrive in Rome by having lost to Ireland, Scotland or England you can be sure that Italy will smell blood looking to repeat their Six Nations redemption heroics of last year. As a result this game could see Wales staring at the handle of the Wooden Spoon should they lose to Italy as well. If that proves to be the case then they only have a difficult trip left to Paris a week later in which to attempt to rescue some Six Nations pride. The games against Ireland and England will be challenging enough even if they are being played in the cauldron of the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, and a road trip to Murrayfield to face the Scots is always a difficult proposition. Consequently this, their last but one match of the tournament, will be critical as a second consecutive loss to the Azzurri would be anathema to their supporters and leave them heading into their World Cup preparations in a crisis of confidence.
Most important player: Justin Tipuric – Any regular reader of this blog over the last few years will know that we regard Justin Tipuric as one of the greatest Welsh players to don the red jersey this century, a fact that until recently seems to have gone unnoticed by his fellow countrymen. Back from injury with a vengeance, the back rower with one of the highest workrates in the International game is once more lighting up the pitch for his Ospreys club in the URC and the Heineken Cup. The seemingly tireless loose forward has reversed the fortunes of the Ospreys in both the URC and Europe. His presence is an enormous source of inspiration to his teammates and he is rapidly becoming the talisman that up until recently has been the sole preserve of the legendary Alun Wyn-Jones. He simply pops up everywhere on the pitch and is at the heart of everything that Wales and the Ospreys do well. A player who just never gives up will bring enormous confidence to a team in desperate need of some good old fashioned never say die attitude.
Italy – Sixth with the Wooden Spoon once more but one that has the potential to stir the odd upset along the way
Yes we know we’re falling into the annual trap that catches so many observers of the International game. You’ve all heard it before that this is the year that Italy’s dismal Six Nations record finally becomes a thing of the past. Italy looked exceptionally competitive at times last year, and no-one will forget their heroics in Cardiff at the end of the Six Nations. Although still a long way from the finished product, Italy under Kieran Crowley are no longer a pushover, and their opponents will need to take them seriously. We have a hunch that the days of Italy being an easy points haul for the teams trying to secure a points difference advantage on the table are a thing of the past. Italy actually look like they are enjoying their rugby at long last, and Benetton are becoming a tricky side in the URC especially at home. Kieran Crowley who hardly ever cracked a smile while he was coaching Canada, is now prone to sudden outbursts of genuine merriment. In short, something positive is happening in Italian rugby at long last.
What it means in the long run and whether or not it will change the fact that Italy are still likely to be clutching the Wooden Spoon on March 18th remains to be seen. The difference this year, especially with a favourable fixture list which sees them with three home games, is that Italy looks organized with a young and talented squad who know what it’s like to win big games under pressure. There’s still a long way to go, but nobody will be taking Italy for granted this year.
What they need from this Six Nations: Some big wins plain and simple. They got one last year and this year they need to up it to two. That may be a tall order but they simply have to win one of their home games at the very least most likely against Wales. They find themselves in a Pool of Death at the World Cup, which makes it almost impossible for them to get to the Quarter Finals as to do so they would have to beat either New Zealand or France. However, a strong third place Pool finish will be vital to ensure that this young squad can build with confidence for Australia 2027, having guaranteed automatic qualification. Consequently this Six Nations will be seen as the platform to achieve that goal as a bare minimum and ensure that Italy is seen as a genuinely competitive and tricky side to deal with.
Most important game: Scotland vs Italy – Some might think that getting back to back victories over Wales, especially given that they play the Men in Red at home, would be Italy’s target for this year. There is no doubt that this will be at the forefront of their planning. However, we’d argue that if Italy are to really make a statement that they are now a force to be reckoned with, another Six Nations win on the road at the end of the tournament is of paramount importance and will stand them in excellent stead for their preparations for the World Cup. If Scotland have imploded in the latter stages of the tournament as they have had a tendency to do in recent years, then Italy will once again see an opportunity that bears an enormous similarity to the situation they found themselves in last year in Cardiff, but now benefitting from having the experience needed to win such games. Italy have beaten Scotland at Murrayfield twice since joining the Six Nations so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
Most important player: Paolo Garbisi – When we learned that the star Italian fly half and playmaker was set to miss at least the first three matches of the tournament, we couldn’t help but consign Italy to the fringes of the tournament despite a squad boasting some genuine talent. However, it’s Garbisi that brings it all together and makes it sing. Possessing a wisdom and understanding of the game well beyond his 22 years and 21 caps, Garbisi is vital to Italy’s plans to finally turn a corner in their rugby fortunes. If he can keep fit, and furthermore catch France by surprise in their tournament opener in Rome, especially given the fact that France have a tendency of forgetting to get out of bed for their first Six Nations fixture, we all may well find ourselves having to rewrite these predictions. We can’t wait to find out!
Well that’s it folks, only three more sleeps till referee Karl Dickson blows the whistle in Cardiff to open this year’s festivities. We can’t wait and as always you can catch it here in Canada on DAZN and Premier Sports Asia. A tournament that always surprises and never fails to entertain awaits – let the games begin!!!!!
Well, what a week or more accurately 10 days it has been!!!!First there was the bombshell that Wallabies Coach Dave Rennie had been sacked and replaced by former England Coach Eddie Jones after his own summary execution by the RFU last month.Then there were the announcements of the Six Nations squads as the tournament gets set to kick off in less than two weeks. Finally we were treated to a thrilling weekend of European rugby as the last round of European Champions Cup pool games took place which decided who will make it to the first round of the knockout stages at the end of March.
Consequently there has been rather a lot to digest and more than a few issues to keep our pints frothy over the last fortnight.So without any further ado here’s what kept the commentary lively over the last few days in our rugby corner.
Is Eddie really the saviour that Australia think he is and hasn’t Dave been rather harshly judged?
OK let’s get the cat out of the bag here – we’re not happy about this one. Unlike the people running Rugby Australia, we liked Dave Rennie and despite his poor results in 2022 felt he was getting the Wallabies on the right track to make them a genuine smoking gun come the World Cup in September. He managed to unearth and embed in the Wallaby squad a raft of exciting new talent that seemed to have a coherent idea of the type of rugby they wanted to play. Australia narrowly lost a series to England, came within a whisker of beating New Zealand, and managed to beat Argentina and South Africa. Despite a truly grueling end of year tour to Europe they beat Scotland, lost by a mere point to the number 2 ranked side in the world France and two weeks later put world number one Ireland under enormous pressure, and kept the green machine to a low scoring game which the Wallabies only lost by three points. They finished the year with one of Test Rugby’s greatest comebacks to put Wales to the sword in the second half.
Compare that to Eddie Jones’ record last year, who according to his new employers is “the best Coach in the world”. First off there was England’s dismal Six Nations and which is still a wound that stings for many an English supporter. Sure there was that series win in Australia, that in reality was an intensely hard fought contest over three matches that all had to go to the wire. Then there was England’s wretched Autumn campaign which saw them lose to Argentina and South Africa, while settling for a draw against New Zealand in a match that they should of and could of won had they decided to play with purpose for more than the final ten minutes.
If you look at Australia last year their Achilles Heel was some appalling discipline, but the rest of it was looking extremely promising. Given that England themselves under Eddie Jones in the last two years have become a disciplinary laughing stock, we really struggle to see what he can fix that Rennie couldn’t. Rennie seemed to have the buy in and support of his players, while avoiding for the most part the annoying media baiting that Jones is famous for. In short, he generally kept his mouth shut and got on with the job at hand without the media sideshows that Jones seems to revel in and regard as so crucial to game management, and which generally have backfired spectacularly on him and his team in the last two years.
In conclusion we’ll sound like a broken record, and although Jones does have a track record of having a remarkable effect on teams in the short term, we can’t help feeling that in the long term it’s a decision Australia will regret. He’s a divisive persona, and we’re not sure that a Wallaby side big on ambition but low on confidence will respond positively under pressure to his management style.
Time will be the judge but from all of us here, our genuine commiserations to Dave Rennie who we definitely feel has been given a raw deal on this one, and best of luck to him for the future.
While everyone appears to be looking at Ireland as a team that has peaked too soon– is France perhaps a more pressing case in point?
Are Ireland finally being given some room to breathe and step out of the limelight of being the number one side in the world by France? Every pundit and Irish supporter across the globe are watching and waiting to see if Ireland have once again peaked a year too early ahead of the World Cup. After watching the last two rounds of the Heineken Cup however, we feel that the microscope when it comes to this question is now being focused on tournament hosts France – at least until this year’s Six Nations comes to a conclusion on March 18th.
Last year France were unbeatable, sweeping all before them in the Six Nations, in their tour to Japan and in the November Internationals. In the space of 12 months they managed to beat the three sides that are looking most likely to upset their ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in the Stade de France on October 28th. New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa all fell to the Men in Blue. While Ireland may be the number one side in the world at the moment, few could argue against the fact that playing at home France would appear to be the side to beat when the Webb Ellis festivities get underway this September. French clubs also dominated European Competition last season with La Rochelle and Lyon lifting the silverware in both tiers of the European Club competition.
So why the alarm you say? Despite the fact that last year’s Heineken Cup Champions La Rochelle look truly ominous and comfortably dominated their pool, the last two rounds of the pool stages saw the other 7 French sides struggle. In Pool A all four French teams occupied the bottom rungs of the Pool standings and failed to qualify for the knockout stages. In Pool B, Toulouse managed to finish second but despite the presence of their all star International halfback pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they struggled to put away an impressive Munster outfit at home in one of the heartlands of French rugby. Last year’s Challenge Cup champions Lyon only showed up in their final game against the Bulls by which time it was too late. Montpellier looked far from convincing throughout the tournament and must surely feel lucky to have squeaked into the knockout stages where they have the unenviable task of a road trip to Exeter. As for the rest including traditional giants like Racing 92, Clermont Auvergne and Bordeaux they just weren’t at the races. In the Challenge Cup apart from Toulon French teams fared no better.
While there have been injuries aplenty many of which have affected French Coach Fabien Galthie’s selections for the Six Nations, we have to confess to starting 2023 being far less in awe of French rugby than we were at the end of 2022. This will be a World Cup defining Six Nations for all the participants, but of all the teams expect France to be the one most under the microscope. Right now the image looks a little blurry! The age old question is back folks – “which French team is going to turn up next month and beyond?”
New England Coach Steve Borthwick chooses familiarity over radical change despite some surprising inclusions and omissions
We have to be honest and say that we don’t exactly envy the task that new England Coach Steve Borthwick has been handed. Nine months out from the World Cup he has been given a rather daunting to do list. Somehow he has to turn England from being a side only able to win two of their Six Nations games last year, into a force to challenge for this year’s silverware and build on that to make England a title contender for the World Cup only five months after that. It may be too much of a tall order to get the Men in White beyond the Quarter Finals in France come the fall, but a strong showing in the upcoming Six Nations is certainly a realistic ambition. Apart from difficult trips to Cardiff and Dublin, England has a relatively favorable draw with the bonus of having to face France at Twickenham. Furthermore England will have the opportunity to settle under Borthwick in their first two games by being at home. However, their opener against Scotland is a potential banana skin and has provided for some genuine thrills and spills in the last few years.
In the forwards the big surprise for us was the inclusion of veteran prop Dan Cole, but then Borthwick is familiar with him from his time at Leicester and there has been a trend to pack his squad with some trusted club faces. Cole has value added no doubt but whether or not he is fit enough to withstand the rigors of five weeks of Six Nations competition remains to be seen. We’re not overly thrilled with the second row selections and surely David Ribbans deserved a spot. The back row does look solid and possibly for the first time in many a year actually balanced. The half back offerings look tested and exciting, especially with the addition of debutant Fin Smith.
It’s in the centres and the back three where we’ve been scratching our heads. We would have thought Guy Porter would have deserved a shot, and despite Borthwick seemingly persisting with the belief that Manu Tuilagi is England’s “Messiah”, we’ve seen absolutely nothing this season from the Sale Shark to convince us that such convictions have any merit. Lastly in the back three surely with a view to the World Cup there is a place for Harry Arundell – although Elliot Daly’s injury may make room for the young speedster.
It’s a competitive side that is likely to see some major tweaking with an eye to the future as the tournament progresses. It will be fascinating to see how Borthwick adapts to his new role given all the hype surrounding him as well as how his charges accept what he brings to the table and his vision for the future. Either way we have a hunch that the misery of the last two years for England can start to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Coach Fabien Galthie’s French selection leaves us with more questions than answersas he takes a gamble on depth
There is no question that injury has forced Coach Fabien Galthie’s hand to a certain degree for this Six Nations. In our view the biggest omission is Cameron Woki, who along with Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne is perhaps the best second rower in the Northern Hemisphere right now. However, in our view the more pressing concern for Galthie and his team is the rather poor showing by French clubs in European competition this season, with only La Rochelle turning in consistent performances week in week out.
The front five selections with the exception of the outstanding Cyril Baille and Julien Marchand haven’t exactly had us sitting up and taking notice but as a depth development exercise it’s likely a good set of calls. It’s a capable if not flash set of second row selections, but certainly there is redemption in the shape of the back row choices. We have a hunch that Sekou Macalou will really cement his spot in the French squad with a view to the World Cup, especially given the fact that he can actually put in a genuinely handy shift on the wing if needed. The fact that Gregory Alldritt could be rated as the best number 8 in the world and Charles Ollivon is back to his bruising best will also bring comfort to Galthie and French supporters.
In the halfbacks the injury count is telling and even superstar Antoine Dupont has not looked all that flash so far this season – brilliant at times but opposition sides are clearly starting to figure him out and how to contain him. One to watch could be the Racing 92 input from Nolan le Garrec who looked so sharp against Leinster last weekend in the nine jersey, despite being part of a losing cause. In the fly halves it’s steady as she goes with some genuine proven depth, though all of them need to up their game after some less than stellar club performances. In the centres we’d rate their threat on par with England, but in the back three there is excitement aplenty. One to watch for us will be Ethan Dumortier of Lyon who definitely looks like a potential find of the year for Les Bleus.
France are still clearly one of the favorites, and if they do end up lifting the silverware as defending Grand Slam Champions this year, then the rest of the world needs to live in fear come September. If France performs with this squad then they know they head into the World Cup with some genuine world class depth at their disposal.
While it looks an exceptionally strong Irish side heading into this Six Nations, a few of Andy Farrell’s selection choices have raised eyebrows
It’s an impressive list of names that Andy Farrell has assembled for Ireland’s Six Nations challenge, but no good list would ever be without its surprises. Clearly the two big talking points are Joey Carberry’s loss and Jacob Stockdale’s gain. The Munster fly half has been a conundrum for the Irish selectors – a development player racked by injury problems and generally not living up to the expectations his Coaches have had for him. He’s not a bad player by any stretch of the imagination and has put in some useful efforts in a green jersey. However, consistency is not his strong suit.
Despite a good run of form of late with Munster under their new Coach Graham Rowntree, it’s clear that there are other upstarts challenging Carberry for his place who are making more of an impression. Carberry’s erratic form off the tee as evidenced last weekend against Toulouse and which could have swung the game clearly in Munster’s favor, also hasn’t helped his cause. While we feel it’s a bit harsh that he has been dropped, we’ve been saying all along that Farrell simply has to learn as much about his fly half options ahead of the World Cup as possible. As a result Carberry’s Munster teammate Jack Crawley gets given the nod which we have to say we are delighted by, provided he gets some genuine game time against some of Ireland’s easier opponents such as Italy. Ross Byrne’s form at Leinster has also ensured that he simply had to be on the bus to Cardiff next weekend.
The other surprise in Farrell’s selection was the return of Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale to the Irish fold. After turning heads in 2018 the winger has dropped off Ireland’s radar, not helped by distinctly average performances at club level and ongoing defensive frailties. However, the talent that turned heads five years ago must still surely be in there somewhere. Nevertheless we’d have thought that there would have been a place for his Ulster teammate Robert Balacoune rather than Stockdale. Either way it’s our hope that this Six Nations is the chance Stockdale needs to finally get back to his barnstorming best. You’d have to argue that if he doesn’t then it’s unlikely he’ll feature in Farrell’s World Cup plans, so there is more than just a little pressure on the 26 year old’s shoulders.
As for the rest of the squad it looks more than capable of giving France a run for their money at Six Nations glory as well as any other pretenders to the crown. Ireland should be dominant in the front row, but we can’t help feeling that despite the presence of Dan Sheehan, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, Ireland’s scrum is the one area that doesn’t look as sharp as it could be despite the world class talent in its ranks. Nevertheless, their work in the loose is always something to behold and expect to see Hooker Dan Sheehan in particular causing absolute mayhem over the next two months. Their second row looks mean and hungry with Tadhg Beirne rapidly becoming the Lineout’s favorite player no matter who we support – expect him along with Sheehan to be one of Ireland’s primary agents of chaos. It’s a back row the envy of the world and a set of half backs who on their day can make a game of rugby look like a finely tuned orchestra.
In the backs we like the look of the centre offerings and are particularly excited to see how newcomer Jamie Osborne’s club form at Leinster translates to Test level, even if the lack of Robbie Henshaw due to injury is a bitter blow. We also would have liked to see Ulster’s James Hume in the mix. Lastly in the back three we’ve already mentioned our surprise over Stockdale. While some are also raising their eyebrows over veteran Keith Earls, in a green jersey he is always something else and turns up when Ireland need him most. Reliability is the term that comes to mind when we think of Earls and although he may not be Ireland’s most dynamic player we always feel a little uncomfortable if we don’t see his name on the planning sheets. We also expect this to be a massive tournament for Leinster sensation Jimmy O’Brien. The only omissions that caught us by surprise here were that of Robert Balacoune and Michael Lowry from Ulster despite their side’s recent struggles in both the URC and the Heineken Cup.
Ireland look good on paper, with the inevitable question swirling around their preparations being did they peak too soon heading into this Six Nations as the number one ranked side in the world? We’d argue it’s different this time around, and despite some lingering concerns particularly around the fly half berth and what kind of team Ireland really is without Johnny Sexton on the pitch, we have a hunch that they find themselves in as good a place as they could hope to be in a World Cup year. So bring on the Six Nations and let’s see where the Northern Hemisphere really stands!
This week we primarily focus on events taking place in the United Rugby Championship. There was some thrilling action this past weekend but a couple of things stood out for us and caused some rather heated debate. Some poor tackling by Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton gave rise to yet another debate as to how the game is being officiated, as well as ongoing concerns around Sexton’s health ahead of the Six Nations given his critical importance to Ireland’s ultimate World Cup aspirations later this year.
We were shocked to see URC favorites Ulster suffer yet another defeat this time to Benetton as well as their two losses in the Champions Cup. Ulster have played thirteen games so far this season across the two competitions but so far have only managed a 50% win rate and the problems seem to be getting worse. Meanwhile Glasgow seem to have suddenly found their mojo, after a disappointing start to the season. Of their thirteen games they’ve won 9 including both their Challenge Cup games. They currently sit right behind Ulster in 5th on the URC table and it would appear to be onwards and upwards for the Men in Blue.
Lastly we can’t help noticing the impact of Argentinian players in Europe this year, but particularly in the English Premiership. While Argentina as a team may not be getting much time together as a unit ahead of the World Cup, a core contingent of their players are getting to know their fellow Pool D partners England very well indeed as well as others lighting up pitches in France and Scotland.
So without any further ado, here’s what kept our pints frothy this week.
No-one wants to see Ireland’s most important player injured, but does it present a short term opportunity that Ireland simply has to seize with both hands as they seek to find some depth in the ten jersey?
Sexton, a bit like Owen Farrell has occasionally had issues with his tackle technique – often tending to be a touch too upright for our liking. In the holiday derby with Connacht, he had to retire from the field after yet another ugly tackle which saw him, rather than his opponent Jarrad Butler, come off worse for wear. Sexton later required facial surgery to his cheekbone, and question marks hung over his participation in Ireland’s rapidly approaching Six Nations campaign.
Fortunately for himself and Ireland, it would appear that the Leinster maestro will be fit for duty when Ireland meet Wales on February 4th in Cardiff. However, given his ongoing issues with injury and the absolute necessity that he is fit for the World Cup if Ireland are ever to hold a hope of getting beyond the quarter finals stage for the first time ever – then surely perhaps now is the time to rest the old warhorse and let his understudies really show their stripes this Six Nations? Although Sexton is Ireland’s Plan A, there is a worrying lack of an effective Plan B should he falter.
So we got out our pencils this weekend and had a look at what we think Ireland Coach Andy Farrell has to do this Six Nations in order of his starting fly half and the bench replacement for all five games. A lack of proven depth at fly half is Ireland’s only genuine depth deficiency and the Six Nations is not only a golden opportunity to address it ahead of a World Cup – it’s also a necessity.
Wales vs Ireland – Joey Carberry to start with Ross Byrne on the bench. Ireland vs France – Ross Byrne to start with Johnny Sexton on the bench. Italy vs Ireland – Harry Byrne to start with Joey Carberry on the bench. Scotland vs Ireland – Ross Byrne to start with Jack Crowley on the bench. Ireland vs England – Johnny Sexton to start with Ross Byrne on the bench.
Bold we think or perhaps even foolhardy we hear you say, but fortune favors the brave and in the buildup to the World Cup Ireland needs answers and needs them fast. Winning the Six Nations in our view should be second to learning some valuable lessons that can be used to fill in the missing gaps ahead of the big show in France later in the year!
Once again England’s Owen Farrell is in the spotlight for yet another dangerous tackle, while still being allowed to help his team to victory – begging the question where is the consistency in what constitutes a dangerous tackle and the issuing of a card?
While it’s hard to deny Owen Farrell’s value to England’s cause, it’s fairly easy to once more shake your head over the liability he poses to the Red Roses’ efforts as a result of his ongoing issues with tackling technique. It’s sadly becoming a bit of a broken record, but Farrell’s deficiencies in the tackling department once more highlight the much larger issues with an ongoing lack of consistency in how the tackle laws are applied on the pitch – especially if the ultimate goal of World Rugby is to safeguard player welfare.
Referee Karl Dickson appeared to be basing his decisions on the fact that play had moved on since the offence and could not be taken back for it. Quite frankly this is ridiculous, as literally every pundit we have read this week felt that it was a red card all day long. The fact that Farrell has since been cited for it post match in our view is irrelevant, despite its negative consequences for England’s Six Nations campaign. The player should have been booked on the field plain and simple. The fact that Farrell was then able to continue play and kick the winning penalty goal just adds insult to injury, and we can only imagine the ranting that must have gone on in Gloucester pubs after the game.
As we approach a critical Six Nations campaign for all six competitors in the build up to the World Cup later this year, we can only hope that somehow the nonsense we witnessed in Gloucester on Friday night is stamped out once and for all. Foul play is foul play and must receive the necessary punishment on the field and not after the fact!
Can Ulster stop their dizzying fall from grace in time to rescue their season?
What on earth is going on at Ulster? They were semi finalists in the URC and gave a strong showing in the pool stages of last year’s Heineken Cup. This year however, Ulster are starting to look a million miles from the form that got them to such lofty heights in 2022. Despite a strong start to this year’s URC campaign they have fallen off the boil dramatically in recent weeks and as for their Heineken Cup challenge, it is essentially over before it’s even started. 13 games into the season and they can only manage a paltry 50% win rate even if they still somehow manage to be clinging on to 4th spot on the URC table. However, with a tough Champions Cup game on the road against La Rochelle this weekend, followed by England’s Sale Sharks at home in Belfast things aren’t going to get any easier for a side clearly struggling to find its groove. And if that’s not enough their last game of the URC before the Six Nations sees them hosting last year’s defending Champions the Stormers.
Looking at Ulster’s stats and general trends emerging from games, what’s wrong is fairly obvious. Their scrum is genuinely starting to creak and their goal kicking is leaving far too many valuable points out on the pitch. The lack of a genuine top flight European fly half is also hampering their playmaking and restricting the talents of some seriously talented backs. Their discipline is starting to slide badly and they are falling off tackles at key moments, making them start to look defensively frail. They often look disjointed in attack and much of that can be put down to the lack of a top notch playmaker calling the shots in the ten jersey. Injuries are also wreaking havoc amongst their ranks which further hampers the cause.
It should be fixable as there is still talent aplenty in this Ulster side, but it is clearly not gelling the way it needs to or in the manner it did with such success last year. Ulster’s backs are unable to express themselves and players like James Hume and Michael Lowry who made such an impression last year are often nowhere to be seen. Time is running out, and perhaps with their European campaign in tatters it is now time to focus all their energies on getting their URC campaign back on track and giving the Kingspan faithful something to cheer about once more.
All Hail the Warriors once more!
Glasgow fizzled out of both the Heineken Cup and the URC last year. Their start to this year’s URC competition appeared to indicate they were headed for more of the same as they received a genuine schooling from Italian side Benetton in their opening game. They then entered a stop start phase of being brilliant one game and then an utter shambles the next. In December though all the lights appear to have come on at maximum intensity. Glasgow now find themselves on a six game winning streak heading into this weekend’s Challenge Cup fixtures.
Last month they thumped Zebre Parma, then travelled to Bath for their first Challenge Cup fixture against Bath and emerged the victors. They followed that up with an impressive at home win against French side Perpignan. However, perhaps most important of all, was their two back to back wins over Edinburgh in the URC over the holidays and with it the 1872 Cup which means they will once again be Scotland’s representative in the Champions Cup next year.
Although they face a tough trip to Perpignan this weekend, they have the luxury of Bath at home before their final URC fixture and the start of the Six Nations. That sees them with an easy home fixture against URC bottom feeders the Dragons. With the likes of Huw Jones, Sebastian Cancelliere, Rory Darge, Sam Johnson, Rufus McLean, Kyle Steyn and Sione Tuipolotu in their ranks it’s no wonder they lead the league in defenders beaten, as well as looking rather flash in the metres made and clean breaks numbers as well. They also sit second in the number of turnovers won.
In short, Glasgow could be one of the big surprises of the second half of the URC season and its resulting business end. Either way they have become one of our favorite teams to watch in the last six weeks and it’s a fitting return to form for a side that has been such a force in the tournament in the last few years.
Pumas adjusting well to the greener pastures of England and Scotland
By the time the English Premiership wraps up this season, World Cup Pool D opponents England and Argentina will have a very good idea of their individual strengths. The Pumas may not actually get together much before the summer if at all, but there is no question that the majority of their squad are at the forefront of top flight European club rugby in England, Scotland and France and the European Champions Cup.
Gloucester’s all star Argentinian trio of Matias Alemmano, Santiago Carreras and Santiago Socino are making their presence felt in Gloucester’s Premiership campaign. So valuable are they to the team that it was elected to rest them for their European Champions Cup clash with Leinster, which Gloucester limped away from in a 57-0 thrashing. You have to wonder how they might have fared if these three had, along with some other key players who were absent, been able to lend their hand in that match.
An electric trio of Argentinian backs are lighting up Newcastle’s efforts in the Premiership, and the names Moroni, Orlando and Carreras are becoming part of Tyneside rugby folklore. Meanwhile London Irish are also packing some serious Pumas heat, especially in the form of the exceptional back rower Juan Martin Gonzalez. Julian Montoya continues to be a powerhouse for Leicester Tigers and north of Hadrian’s Wall Emiliano Boffelli continues to slot the ball between the posts for Edinburgh with effortless ease while Glasgow’s Sebastian Cancelliere is carving up pitches across the URC.
Don’t get us wrong we are not saying that these Argentinian players are single handedly shaping the fortunes of their club sides, far from it and all these teams boast some outstanding English and overseas talent in their ranks as well. However, it is noticeable the impact the Pumas are making in their respective squads. Given the highpoints of Argentina’s International season last year, Pumas Coach Michael Cheika must surely have a lot of reasons to feel cheerful this New Year as he no doubt looks on with a rather large grin on his face, even if he and his charges will not see much of each other until the summer.
Well that’s it for this week folks – some great Champions Cup action to look forward to this weekend and even more exciting a World Cup defining Six Nations is only three weekends away. Happy New Year from all of us!
The big talking points of the week took place off the field, as the heads rolled in the Coaching boxes in Wales and England. While Wayne Pivac’s exit stage left seemed inevitable in Wales, there were still many, ourselves included, who felt that in England Eddie Jones, despite feeling the heat, would somehow manage yet another stay of execution. It was not to be and the executioner’s blade has swung and both Eddie Jones and Wayne Pivac now find themselves updating their resumes. 10 months out from the World Cup as difficult as the results have been in the last two years for both sides, we can’t help feeling that sacking your coaches at this stage is a mistake. Another Coach who has been under the most intense scrutiny in the last twelve months has been Australia’s Dave Rennie, however despite a mixed bag of results and in many ways the same winning record as Wayne Pivac, Rennie keeps his job and in our opinion rightly so. In the case of Wales and England, although Pivac and Jones have had their issues, we can’t help feeling that there is a slight case of a knee jerk reaction by the management of both Unions to find a scapegoat to mask deeper problems crippling the game in both countries.
However, on a more positive note, we look forward to what should be two cracking weekends of European Champions Cup action. If you’re like us you’ll be fascinated to see how the three South African sides get on in this their first year of European competition.
So without any further ado, here’s what kept our pints frothy this week.
Pivac catches the first flight out of Cardiff as Gatland gets parachuted in
Even though we question the logic of replacing your national coach only nine months out from a World Cup, in the case of Wales, logic aside it seemed that the decision had already been made prior to the recently concluded Autumn Nations series. Despite that historic first ever win on South African soil for Wayne Pivac and his men this summer, it wasn’t a pretty victory and still didn’t leave you with the feeling that Wales were turning a corner. In reality Wales have always looked like they are just managing to keep their head above water during Pivac’s time in charge. One inspiring performance is then let down by a series of mediocre follow ups and Wales never really look like they are developing into a side with any kind of cohesion or identity in terms of exactly what kind of game they want to play and perfect. Sadly for Pivac the numbers don’t lie and in his time in charge since 2019 Wales have only managed to win 13 of 34 Tests. The losses this year to Italy and Georgia in the citadel of Welsh rugby at the Principality Stadium were the swords that Pivac would ultimately fall on.
In Pivac’s defence his tenure has been plagued by injury lists that would be the stuff of most Coaches’ worst nightmares, and as a result he has often had to cobble together matchday squads from the outpatient wards of Welsh hospitals. In our view, here lies one of the deep seated problems with Welsh rugby. While it may upset Welsh supporters to hear this we can’t help feeling that much like Scotland, Wales can in reality only support two provincial franchises as opposed to the four it currently has. The present structure is a mess with Wales’ limited player resources spread too thinly across four clubs. As a result it means more players exposed to injury, less player rotation and overall weak sides – all of which feeds negatively upwards into the efforts of the national side.
Consequently whatever Pivac’s failings were as a Coach he was often forced to fight with one hand tied behind his back. In our opinion Wales, like Scotland should be fielding two strong sides in the URC consolidated from the four existing clubs of Scarlets, Cardiff, Ospreys and the Dragons. We appreciate that all four clubs have long and proud traditions, but in the professional era sadly resources need to be consolidated if Wales as a national side are to return to their glory days of old.
As for Gatland himself, with only nine months to go before the World Cup, while his knowledge of Welsh rugby is probably better than anyone else having led the Men in Red for 12 years from 2007 to 2019 is he really the fix Wales need? In that time he led them to four Six Nations Titles three of which were Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals. Whichever way you cut it from a Welsh point of view that’s an impressive resume. However, since leaving Wales his track record has not been as illustrious. Super Rugby side the Chiefs had a woeful record of losses under his tenure and as for the Lions Tour he led to South Africa in 2021, well we think most of us have consigned that to the dustbin of history as one of the most uninspiring Lions Tours ever to leave the shores of the British Isles. Things may improve slightly with Gatland steering the ship for Wales, but the deep rooted problems facing Welsh rugby as a whole are still likely to cause it to founder on the rocks at crucial moments.
Love him or hate him the RFU have made a dreadful short term mistake
Whether or not you’re a fan of former England Coach Eddie Jones, his sacking this week smacks of a knee jerk reaction from an RFU so out of touch with the game it is charged to manage that it is laughable. With only nine months to go before the start of the World Cup, sacking your Coach defies all logic, and while Jones’ recent results have set alarm bells ringing across the land, there is still no denying that up until the last two years he has been England’s most successful Coach to date. Much like Wales, the game lurches from one crisis to another in England. Famous clubs going bankrupt, a lack of a structured development plan for up and coming English players to be fed into the national side and in general haphazard oversight of the integration between club and country.
In short, the RFU come across as the stuffed suits they are caricatured as. Out of touch with the modern game and how it is evolving and essentially incompetent – that’s the modern day snapshot of the people running the RFU. To cover up for their inadequacies Eddie Jones has conveniently lined himself up in their crosshairs, and made himself the scapegoat for everything that is wrong with English rugby. The social media frenzy around Jones has not helped his cause and the English rugby public has to take some responsibility for Jones’ dizzying fall from grace.
While Eddie Jones may not have helped his situation by some of his own behavior and comments there is still no denying that until recently he knew how to make England win, even if a lot of the time it wasn’t particularly pretty. He led England to a World Cup final, three Six Nations titles and an unprecedented 18 game winning streak when he first took over in 2016. His overall win rate despite the recent issues stands at 73% which no-one else can touch. His loyalty to players is well documented and perhaps lies at the heart of his undoing, but to a certain degree you have to respect it even if it has cost England dearly at times. However, his seeming inability to develop and blood new talent until it is almost too late in England’s World Cup cycle no doubt played a part in finding the sword that he ultimately has fallen on.
As for his potential replacement in Leicester Tigers Coach Steve Borthwick, while boasting an impressive resume, there is no denying that in essence the RFU are throwing him from the frying pan into the fire. Having recently rescued Leicester from the abyss of English club rugby, to then ask Borthwick to do the same with the much more complicated beast that is the national side in a mere nine months ahead of a do or die World Cup seems beyond reasonable. The pressure could well break and ruin one of England’s most promising national Coaches in the making. While Jones had openly admitted that he would be moving on after this World Cup, surely it would have made more sense to bring in Borthwick as an understudy for the next nine months to support and help Jones and learn the ropes of coaching at Test level with the Australian’s unrivalled experience at his disposal?
In short, we feel that in sacking Jones England have made a mistake that they will come to regret come the World Cup in France in September, and possibly even sooner with the Six Nations in February. Coaching at Test level is not a popularity contest and Jones never set out to win it but at this stage in England’s World Cup cycle we can’t help feeling that better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Time will tell!
Dave Rennie manages to put a stop to the speculation about his future
As Wayne Pivac and Eddie Jones find themselves trawling the help wanted columns of International Rugby, Australian Coach Dave Rennie has weathered the storm of a challenging year and secured the backing of Australian Rugby to lead the Wallabies through to next year’s World Cup. In our humble opinion, unlike in England and Wales, at least in Australia common sense has prevailed.
Like Pivac, Rennie’s win rate with Australia since taking charge after the last World Cup has been less than stellar and is the same at 38%. However, the difference is that his attempt to forge a Wallaby identity in how they want to play the game and the players they feel they need to do so is clearly evident during his tenure. Rennie has developed young talent and provided them with experienced and capable veterans to support them. The results haven’t always been there, but the intent clearly is on show. He has the backing of his players old and new, and let’s be honest Australia even in defeat have shown some remarkable resolve and played some thrilling rugby.
Yes there are still problems, most notably the Wallabies crippling issue with discipline and at times difficulties with the set pieces, but there is more to like than dislike about this emerging Wallaby outfit in terms of where it is headed in the future. With a favorable side of the draw for their initial path through the World Cup, Australia and Rennie have the right to feel optimistic about their chances of at least a semi final berth in next year’s global showdown in France. The squad boasts some serious talent, both young and old and as we’ve seen this year even with the odds stacked against them this Wallaby team plays for each other and just refuses to lie down and quit. Their final game of the year against Wales and that extraordinary comeback is proof enough for us that this is a side that will need to be reckoned with come September in France. Also look at this end of year tour and, despite the one point loss to Italy, put it in perspective. They played the two best sides in the world, France and Ireland, and lost to both by only one point to the former and three to the latter while remaining exceptionally competitive in both for the full eighty minutes.
Australia have shown common sense and we’re delighted to see Rennie being given the benefit of the doubt, and feel that England and Wales could ultimately wish they’d seen the wisdom of Australia’s ways in the months to come.
The European Champions Cup gets some added muscle and spice!
Put your hand up if you’re excited about the start of this weekend’s European Champions Cup and the introduction of South African sides, the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks. We’d imagine that we’d be seeing a big show of hands in any pub or bar where we asked that question. The Heineken Cup has always been one of the highlights of our rugby viewing calendar, but this year it’s gone to another level. The clash of French, English, Irish and now South African styles of rugby is a truly mouth watering prospect and we for one can’t wait. Even better for the first time ever it’s fully accessible here in Canada in terms of being able to watch the games live and on demand without breaking the bank.
The introduction of the three South African sides is a huge boost to an already high quality tournament. Last year’s URC champions the Stormers face off against traditional French giants Clermont in their opening fixture, followed up by hosting underdogs London Irish in Cape Town. The Bulls who narrowly lost to the Stormers in last season’s URC final open their Champions account by hosting dangerous French outfit Lyon and then travel to England’s West country to wrestle with Exeter. Meanwhile the Sharks tackle English Premiership legends Harlequins in the Shark Tank in Durban before travelling to France and meeting a tricky Bordeaux side.
It could be said that, despite their success in their first year of European competition in the URC, the South African sides may face a much steeper mountain to climb in European Club competition. However, we can’t help feeling that they will once again surprise their critics and make an already outstanding tournament even more captivating. So wherever you are this weekend, and whatever the weather fire up those braais and let the games begin!!!!
Could this be the best European competition we’ve seen since it all began back in 1995
As mentioned above, we’re pretty excited about this year’s edition of our beloved Heineken Cup and it’s not just because of the addition of three South African sides to the main tournament and one to the Challenge Cup. The quality of competition across the board is so high and looks set to make for some thrilling match ups that are likely to be at an intensity akin to Test level rugby.
There are underdogs aplenty most notably in the shape of England’s London Irish and Gloucester, French outfits Bordeaux and Lyon, Ireland’s Ulster and South Africa’s Sharks. There are the traditional giants of the competition such as Ireland’s Munster and France’s Clermont even though both sides have until recently this season in their own domestic competitions struggled for form. And then there are the six pedigree racehorses all of whom are reckoned to be in with a chance of lifting the silverware in the following order and based on our good friend Two Cents Rugby’s (see video on the TV Page) odds:
Ireland: Leinster – 23.5%
France: Toulouse – 10.5% and La Rochelle – 9.5%
England: Saracens – 8.7%
France: Racing 92 – 8%
England: Leicester Tigers – 4.5%
We’re going to resist the temptation to make our own predictions, even if it’s pretty hard to deny that Leinster on paper would appear to be the favorites, but then look what happened to them last year given that they were also tipped to lift the trophy. Either way you’re in for a treat over the next two weekends. So make excuses to your family, take your wives and husbands to a five star meal on Friday night as appeasement and lock yourselves in front of the TV for two days of unadulterated rugby pleasure starting Saturday morning!!! In short, you won’t want to miss a second!
Despite all the action going on in the Men’s game last week, there is little doubt that the highlight of the weekend was the Women’s World Cup Final. Quite frankly it was a game for the ages and New Zealand emerged worthy Champions over a brave and resolute English team who remained an exceptionally hard side to beat right to the end. History was made as we witnessed the biggest crowd ever seen for a Women’s game with the legendary Eden Park in Auckland being completely sold out. It was a thrilling final that showcased just how far the Women’s game has come in the last ten years and the promise it holds for the future.
In the Men’s Game, it was a weekend of thrills, spills and a few surprises. Italy made a statement in Florence by snatching a historic victory over Australia. Wales finally got back to winning ways against Argentina and England fixed their wobble against the Pumas by cruising past Japan. The dustup in Marseille between France and South Africa lived up to its billing and was an edge of your seat affair. It was a big physical encounter, complete with some seemingly inevitable controversy and a red card being seen by both sides, with France just squeaking past their bruising visitors. Lastly on Sunday, Scotland looked set at one point to finally break their All Black Hoodoo, but Murrayfield hearts got broken once more as the visitors righted their ship in the final quarter.
So here’s what kept our pints frothy in an action packed weekend!
A glorious tournament ends with a rousing finale leaving the world hungry for more!
Wow – what a thriller is all we can say!!!! The Women’s World Cup Final surpassed our expectations and then some. World Cup Finals often tend to be slightly dour and anticlimactic affairs at least in the Men’s Game. Well not so in the Women’s game – the silverware showdown at Auckland’s Eden Park in front of a sellout crowd between hosts New Zealand and England was a genuine spectacle from start to finish. That was some of the most exciting rugby between two teams that we’ve seen in quite some time. In short we were riveted to our televisions screens as a game unfolded that was a fitting finale to six glorious weeks of rugby. The only negative being we have to wait another three years for the next one.
England came into the match on the back of an unprecedented 30 game winning streak, while New Zealand simply shifted it up another gear every game they played. By the time the Black Ferns arrived at Eden Park last Saturday, a season of testing was over and they were in race day form and then some. As predicted England’s rolling maul wreaked havoc and accounted for three of their five tries. Twenty minutes into the first half and English winger Lydia Thompson unfortunately saw red in an awkward tackle on New Zealand’s Portia Woodman. The first half was played at an unbelievable pace with seven tries being scored by the two sides and left us exhausted just watching. The fitness levels of both teams was nothing short of extraordinary.
The second half started with a roar as New Zealand went for a sprint start and scored in the first 30 seconds. The game continued at much the same pace with New Zealand mounting a continuous assault on the English lines ultimately resulting in another try giving them the lead, but England would strike back through their seemingly unstoppable rolling maul and regain control of the scoreboard once more. With fifteen minutes left on the clock, New Zealand would see a yellow card and the teams were even in terms of bodies on the field. However, on the 71st minute a try through an audacious kick squirted through the English defenses showcased New Zealand’s ridiculous skills sets at speed and pace. Winger Ayesha Let-l’iga dotted down the winning try and gave the Black Ferns a slim three point lead. England launched their own final assault on the Black Ferns line for the remainder of the game but their wonder weapon rolling maul was finally undone in the eightieth minute and the rest is history.
But what a history it’s been! Like we say our only regret is that it’s over for another 3 years, until many of these remarkable women meet again in England. However, the good news is that the interest levels in the Women’s game that this tournament has given rise to, look set to continue and grow. Women’s Rugby is now very much on the World Stage and can hold it’s own against the Men’s game in terms of skill and excitement. Many of the players are likely to be snapped up by professional clubs in England and France, meaning that the exposure to professional rugby is likely to grow even more for many of the teams who participated in this year’s tournament. While there were many pitfalls to the the Men’s game turning professional, and the Women’s game is likely to stumble over many of the same speed bumps – the future for Women’s Rugby looks exceptionally bright and rather exciting to say the least!
Not quite the ending Canada wanted, but the challenge is now to seize the momentum that has been created and build on it!
The image above perhaps sums up what an extraordinary tournament the Women’s World Cup has been, and how rugby’s core values of humility and camaraderie were championed at every twist and turn of a competition that left us all with plenty of feel good factor. As we feared, the sheer enormity both physically and emotionally of Canada having to lift themselves for one more match after giving England such a valiant fight in the semi-finals was going to be a bridge too far. Especially when you consider that it was up against a French side who only lost to the eventual Champions New Zealand by one point.
The semi-final had clearly left Canada’s tank slightly empty, whereas France seemed almost energized by their narrow semi-final loss to New Zealand. Although Canada won the hearts and minds of many at the tournament, France’s fully professional squad looked just that – a side that just doesn’t quit and is surely already striking fear into their Six Nations opponents next year. France clearly had a point to prove that come the next global showdown in three years time, they want to be seen as the side that everyone has to beat. It was a clinical and at times almost effortless performance that left the Canadians without answers.
Once again Canada’s problem with getting their tackle success rate above 80% hurt them, as France constantly put them under pressure physically and out wide on the fringes. A tired but valiant Canadian squad missed 31 tackles compared to France missing only 12, and at this level that can be the kiss of death as France ran in five tries. Add to that France’s rather efficient and effective use of the boot especially when kicking between the posts, and Canada were always going to be playing with one hand tied behind their backs.
While Canada will want and need to put this match behind them, they can reflect on an extraordinary tournament that showcased just what Canada can do if the momentum gained is built on. While Women’s Rugby in this country is unlikely to go professional during the next World Cup cycle, it will be imperative for Rugby Canada to build on the achievements made. Canada will need more regular International games both at home, in order to grow the support for the game, as well as overseas to increase the experience of this exciting group of young players. Support with getting our players professional contracts in Europe also needs to happen, while increasing facilities for training and resources to enable the squad to be together more often need to be made available. Given the success of Major League Rugby, there is a chance that there may be room for expanding it to the Women’s game, but we have a hunch that may be a longer term proposition and in the meantime should not detract from the previously mentioned priorities in the run up to the next World Cup.
In short, from all of us here in Canada, a huge shout out to our Canadian Women and what they have achieved in the last six weeks at the World Cup and to what they can do going forward. Be proud Ladies – you’ve earned it and then some!!!!
Italy’s Child Assassin breaks Australian hearts and in doing so gives the Azurri the faint glimmer of a new dawn
Yes we know, it’s customary to talk Italy up ahead of the Six Nations to only see it vaporize by the end of the tournament. However, as jaded as you may be by such statements, there is no denying that, under Coach Kieran Crowley, Italy are humming along rather nicely (imagine what he could have done with Canada had he been given the resources). In short, they are a genuinely exciting team to watch that finally seems to have composure and organization allied to some rather extraordinary individual skill sets. This year has been pretty special for the most part for Crowley and his blue clad charges. Their Six Nations culminated in that famous win over the Welsh in Cardiff, and now there’s an Australian scalp to add to the honors list along with an absolute field day against Samoa.
However, before we all get too carried away, there is one elephant in the room that needs to be mentioned. Many of the players who lit up the Florence pitch last Saturday, unfortunately didn’t have what could be called a pleasant summer vacation. Italy’s summer tour took in the three European contenders for their often disputed place in the Six Nations and it didn’t quite turn out the way they wanted. They struggled against Portugal and only won by a converted try. They then redeemed themselves against Romania but proceeded to implode against the biggest threat to their Six Nations status Georgia.
Italy can take heart in the fact that their remarkable exploits last Saturday were achieved without star kicker and playmaker Paolo Garbisi. A lot of their set piece work was excellent, especially at lineout time and in the scrums and their tackle success rate and overall defense was superior to that of Australia. However, Australia let themselves down and handed Italy endless opportunities with the Wallabies’ ongoing crises with discipline and slightly porous defenses out wide which the Italians exploited to the full. Had Italy had a decent goalkicker last Saturday, given Australia’s disciplinary indiscretions then the score line could have been much more emphatic. As it was Italy missed half of their shots at goal. Australia didn’t fare much better but had the unfortunate Ben Donaldson not been handed the biggest pressure kick possible for the Wallabies on debut at the death, then we would be having a very different conversation.
It was a great result for Italy last weekend even if fortune favored them at the final whistle, but a much sterner Test awaits in Genoa in the shape of a wounded Springbok side reeling from two narrow defeats, and needing a confidence booster ahead of their final Autumn Test against England. It will be hard for Italy to continue to throw the form book out the window this weekend against South Africa, but if they can keep it close and acquit themselves well then there could be reasons to be cheerful this Christmas ahead of the Six Nations for the Azurri and their supporters.
Another one goes awry for South Africa while France continue to surprise but not amaze
Remember how last year we were being constantly amazed by France and their exploits on the pitch. We would marvel at some seemingly impossible play executed with almost childlike ease as Les Bleus jostled with Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa for the number one spot in the rankings. Next year’s World Cup hosts are still an awesome unit, make no mistake but somehow they’re just getting the job done as opposed to leaving us speechless. Perhaps in many ways that is exactly what you want a year out from the World Cup.
However, we can’t help feeling that to a certain degree there is a very slight element of luck favoring the French these days. We are not for a minute wanting to get into the post match officiating debates that seem to be plaguing this game. We really do wish South Africa’s Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus would give his Twitter account a break, even if referee Wayne Barnes who is undoubtedly one of the world’s best, perhaps didn’t have his most stellar performance in Marseille last Saturday. On the plus side in terms of refereeing player welfare, both teams saw red for offences over which there was absolutely no debate whatsoever, as gutted as we were for Springbok back rower Pieter-Steph du Toit who is not by any stretch of the imagination a “dirty’ player. France were in our opinion the marginally better team on the day in a contest between two excellent sides.
France are winning when it matters, but we just don’t feel it’s as emphatic as some of their victories were last year. If anything they seem to prefer leaving it to the death to right the ship this Autumn Nations Series. France were behind against Australia 24-26 until the 74th minute and the exact same scenario unfolded against South Africa, with les Bleus also trailing the Springboks 24-26 until the 74th minute. Whether or not this is some remarkable coincidence or a Coaching ploy by Fabien Galthie and his team to teach France how to dig deep at the death, a skill which has traditionally abandoned them in the past, is debatable. We think not, and somehow France have evolved into efficient tradesmen this year rather than the spectacularly well organized magicians of last year. While many would say that’s the quality you want in the runup to a World Cup, we’d argue that last year’s French wizards were just as adept at their individual trades along with their spell casting skills, making them a lethal and much more fearsome outfit.
Either way it’s all academic now until the Six Nations, as after Japan’s implosion against England last weekend, we doubt we’ll learn much more about France this year when they play their last Test of 2022 against the Brave Blossoms on Sunday in Toulouse. Remember the old adage of “which French team will turn up”? We have a hunch we’ll be revisiting that question a lot more next year than we have recently.
A match that most of the world probably has no idea is happening, but for us here in North America is of crucial importance
To say that, from a North American perspective, Friday’s final World Cup qualifying game between Portugal and the USA in Dubai is probably THE most important game of this World Cup cycle is the understatement of the year. For the first time since the tournament’s inception in 1987 there is the very real threat that there will be no North American representation at the global showdown next year in France.
Both sides have beaten the other teams vying for that final World Cup berth, Hong Kong and Kenya, and now it’s a clear foot race between the USA and Portugal. They both sit equal on the points table at 10 points each, however Portugal sits atop the table on points difference. Consequently it’s winner takes all tomorrow, with the Portuguese outscoring the Americans in the try department. In short, this game could really go either way, and there is no doubt that Portugal are highly motivated and feeling rather confident. The Americans by contrast don’t seem to be enjoying their day jobs quite as much. On paper you’d think this is a contest the Eagles should be able to edge, but there really are no guarantees.
If the USA fails to qualify then it has enormous implications for rugby as a whole in this hemisphere. Despite the development of the MLR it appears to be operating in a vacuum and has added nothing to the efforts of the Canadian and American national sides, and if anything they have taken a step backwards as a result on the International stage. Some of that may be in part due to the fact that it is still hard to attract domestic based players, with many MLR matchday squads having very high foreign based player contingents. This does wonders for their own national sides but little for Canada or the USA – Chile and Uruguay being a case in point with both having already qualified for the World Cup and many of their players in the MLR. Consequently, Friday’s match has huge bearing on where the game is headed in this part of the world. Although the USA has hosting rights to the 2031 tournament, the next four years could see the game lost in the wilderness in this part of the world if both Canada and the USA have to start from scratch in terms of qualifying for the 2027 tournament in Australia.
We think you may want to glance nervously over your shoulder at events unfolding in Dubai tomorrow. You’ll be able to do so on the Rugby Network for free, see TV page for details. The game kicks off at 1030 AM Eastern, and we think that most of you may have a device surreptitiously streaming somewhere on your desk tomorrow – just don’t tell the boss.
Much like last weekend we were spoilt for choice regarding what to spill our pints over this past weekend. It got off to a rip roaring start on Friday with the two Women’s World Cup semi-finals, the quality of which in many cases was superior to many of the men’s offerings. Canada gave everything they had against one of the tournament favorites England in a thrilling contest which saw both sides in it till the final whistle. New Zealand and France then duked it out in an equally high octane match which saw the hosts pip their Gallic opponents by a mere point. It’s the final many predicted, but those two semi-finals will stay with us for a long time as their quality was outstanding and showcased just how far the Women’s game has come. France and Canada still have to put their disappointment behind them and rally themselves for the bronze medal game, which we always regard as perhaps the hardest game in the tournament to play psychologically.
Meanwhile in the Men’s game it was full throttle throughout Europe and more than just a few surprises. Scotland got the fright of their lives from a continually improving Fiji and Italy looked rather sharp against Samoa. In many ways there were few surprises as Wales were handed yet another hiding from the All Blacks. The dustup in Dublin lived up to its billing in a huge and closely fought physical encounter, which left the Springboks ruing the lack of a goalkicker as Ireland edged it by the narrowest of margins.
But there were surprises aplenty at the Stade de France and Twickenham. The contest between Australia and France in Paris was a messy affair at times in terms of execution and discipline from both sides, but what a contest we were treated to from both teams. France got a wake up call of note as a result of their one point win over the Wallabies, with the Australians running it to the wire in a thrilling match that had us all on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes as the lead changed hands almost continuously. Lastly on Sunday, Argentina in a similarly messy match at times with England, showed that they have the potential to ruin England’s World Cup party next year as the two share the same pool. Their one point victory was completely unexpected, especially when you consider that their Coach Michael Cheika had been doing double duty on Friday night with Lebanon in the Rugby League World Cup.
Heartbreak Hotel for Canada – but the future looks so bright we really do have to wear shades
Canada gave it their all and then some in their semi-final match against England and came agonizingly close to upsetting the odds. It was a pulsating game from both sides, and Canada made a relentless assault on England’s defenses in the second half. However, much as they have all tournament England held firm and sealed the win.
Canada’s exemplary Captain and one of the undisputed stars of the tournament, Sophie de Goede, clearly found the emotions in the post match interview tough going. We have to admit that we shared her heartbreak and were also having to reach for the tissues. Given that only half of Canada’s World Cup squad play professionally and have a mere fraction of the resources both financial and technical that are available to England, their achievements in this tournament are nothing short of extraordinary. To acquit themselves as well as they did against arguably the best Women’s team in the world is something we can all be exceptionally proud of. It was one of the best games of rugby we’re likely to see all year, and Canada’s Women need make no apologies whatsoever.
The future does look exceptionally bright for Canada’s Women, and we imagine that French and English club talent agents were rushing round post match with their cheque books looking to sign Canadian players. As it is the tight five that played in the semi-final are all signed to English Premiership Clubs. We fully expect to see flanker Fabiola Forteza signed up with a European club within in the year. De Goede is already a star for Saracens, but if they want it we’re sure that it won’t be long before the halfback partnership of Alex Tessier and Justine Pelletier head across the Pond based on their performance this tournament. In the backs Maddy Grant caught the eye and a contract with a big club is surely in her future, and we’re amazed that Sarah Kaljuvee hasn’t been snapped up already. Alysha Corrigan was one of the revelations of the tournament and Saracens will be delighted to have her back. We could go on as these are just a few of the outstanding performers in the red jersey over the past five weeks, but all of the squad stood up and were counted.
What is certain is that Canadian Women’s Rugby is on a fast track to success and the likely increased exposure to full time professional rugby for Canadian Women that this tournament will generate bodes well for the future. Canadian Women’s Rugby unlike the Men’s team has been quietly cementing its place on the world stage and after this tournament, our status in the top echelons of the game must be reinforced. We sincerely hope based on this World Cup that Canada’s future home games can generate big turnouts – imagine a full house at BMO Field in Toronto or BC Place in Vancouver and what that could do for the game in this country!
However, big dreams aside there is still some unfinished business left to deal with in this World Cup. Canada and France have to shrug off the bitter disappointment of not making the final and raise themselves mentally for arguably the most difficult game psychologically in a World Cup – the bronze or third place final. We’re not sure how you summon up the motivation to play in a game that is seen by many as a sideshow to the main event taking place the following day. Still rankings are at stake and statements need to be made by two excellent teams. Both will want to claim the honor of at least being among the top three teams in the world. However, we have a hunch that given where Women’s rugby is in Canada, that status may mean so much more to the Canadians this Friday night. France will have the Six Nations in a few months time to prove their worth but for Canada this is the last chance, for several months at least, to show how far they’ve come.
We’re hoping for a memorable bronze final match, with both teams proving that it is still a game worth playing. We have a hunch that Canada may want the result just that little bit more, but to dismiss this impressive French team would be beyond foolish. May the best side win and let’s give credit to both for giving us some awesome rugby over the last five weeks!
Meanwhile the biggest game this weekend awaits!
Sure there’s a bunch of Men’s Internationals going on this weekend, but we have a hunch a lot of you will be warming up those PVRs in the wee hours of Saturday morning, or even keeping the espresso machines going to stay up for this one. New Zealand have been electric and England absolutely resolute. The Red Roses head into this match on the back of a truly extraordinary unbeaten 30 game winning streak. In short that’s unheard of in either the Men’s or Women’s game. Surely they must be tournament favorites?
However, New Zealand have got better and better with every game. There is no denying that France ran them down to the barest of wires, and had French fly half Caroline Drouin been luckier with that final kick then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Nevertheless there seems to be an almost inevitable momentum growing in this Black Ferns side. Eden Park which is a Fortress for their male counterparts could well become the same for the Ferns on Saturday. Apparently it’s set to be the biggest crowd ever recorded for a Women’s International, and expect the locals to be rather loud to say the least. It all makes for a great spectacle as two teams with very different, but equally effective styles of play go head to head in what should be a thrilling Final. Finals in the Men’s World Cup are often a bit of an anticlimax, with the best games usually reserved for the quarters and semis. However, we have a hunch that in the Women’s game it’s likely to be slightly different.
As we’ve said over on the Podcast we find the Women’s game to resemble a fascinating hybrid of the sevens and fifteen a side game. It’s going to be an arm wrestle of note with England trying to physically suffocate New Zealand and the Black Ferns running the ball from every inch of the park in an effort to exhaust the Red Roses into submission and costly mistakes. In short we can’t wait. As gutted as we were for Canada and France missing out on the final, it is hard to argue against this being the Final that many expected and wanted. Either way we simply can’t look away!
A worthy experiment but one that somehow didn’t work
Much has already been said about South Africa’s lack of a goalkicker last Saturday against Ireland so we don’t want to belabor the point. South Africa switched Cheslin Kolbe off the wing to fullback to help out with the kicking duties and reduce the pressure on Damian Willemse at fly half. In fairness to both, fullback is not Kolbe’s natural position and a Test level goal and place kicker he is not. Willemse on the other hand we feel does have a natural talent for the 10 jersey, but sadly goal kicking is simply not his forte and is unlikely to be so. Sadly, we felt he was under so much pressure regarding his goal kicking that his playmaking abilities suffered at times against Ireland.
In short, South Africa need a goal kicker that can relieve Willemse of some unwanted pressure and allow him to focus on the other core duties of the fly half position, and for which he has shown some impressive aptitude at Test level. Many pundits are expressing growing frustration with the fact that Stormers fly half Manie Libbok is not getting a look in at the 10 jersey. The Springbok Coaching staff have elected to keep Willemse in the starting jersey for their clash with France but, to many South African supporters relief, Libbok is finally granted a place on the bench. Kolbe moves back to his natural berth on the wing and Willie le Roux comes in to save the day for South Africa in the 15 jersey – a role he increasingly seems be given in the run up to the World Cup. Let’s face it while consistency is not always Le Roux’s strong suit when he’s on song he is one of the best counterattacking fullbacks in Test Rugby, and his playmaking skills can genuinely take some of the pressure off Willemse.
It’s an exceptionally strong looking South African side that travel to Marseille to take on a French outfit that looked distinctly vulnerable and rusty at times against Australia last weekend. The tweaks being made to the side may finally strike a balance that South Africa has been looking for all year in terms of both physicality and attack. In short, along with the Women’s World Cup Final this is the game of the weekend and you won’t want to miss it.
France get lucky against a Wallaby side that couldn’t care less about World Rankings
Whichever why you cut it that was an exceptionally impressive Wallaby performance last weekend in Paris, that clearly rattled the French and required them to dig very deep into their vault of skill sets. The Wallabies were clearly not fazed by facing off against the number 2 side in the World in their own backyard in front of 70,000 delirious French supporters. Continuing with the above theme of the dustup in Marseille being THE game of the weekend along with the Women’s World Cup Final – France know they need to step up a few gears on Saturday if they are to get past a genuinely awkward and physically dangerous Springbok side. Winger Damian Penaud, as he so often does for France, got them out of jail with one of his trademark “how does he do that” tries. It was remarkable in that it not only sucked in Tom Wright out wide but also Jock Campbell and ultimately Jake Gordon inside of him, as Penaud simply changed direction and burned up a path between the three of them fending off defenders seemingly at ease.
France traditionally start their campaigns slowly and warm to the task as they progress, whether it’s the November Internationals, Six Nations, Summer Tours or ultimately the World Cup. We doubt they’ll look as rusty this weekend, especially as this is a dress rehearsal for a possible quarter final at next year’s World Cup. They will take positives from the fact that they edged the possession and territory stats last weekend and were able to exploit Australia’s ongoing issues around defense. Although they leaked two tries to the Wallabies their ability to win the collisions and dominate the rucks and breakdowns as well as get decent returns from their lineouts still remains exceptional, and they’ll need them to be against South Africa. However, they will be seriously concerned at how their scrum creaked against an opponent not necessarily known for their abilities in that department. If they can’t compete at scrum time then they will be in for a world of hurt when the “Bomb Squad” and company arrive in Marseille.
However, France do seem, unlike in days of old, able to fix their issues fairly quickly mainly due to consistency in selection by Fabien Galthie and their Coaching staff. If they do that and tidy up some silly disciplinary errors, then the arm wrestle in Marseille against the Springboks should be just as enthralling and intense as that in Dublin a week ago. Like we say if you only watch two games this weekend then you’ll want to make sure this is one of them!
“So where do we go from here Eddie – now that all of the children are growing up?”
Now that so many of England’s impressive crop of youngsters have grown up, you can’t blame them for wondering why they simply can’t make it into Eddie Jones selection policies, as the English Coach still favors his OAP gang of that ill fated World Cup final. Some people seem to think that he’s been suffering PTSD ever since England’s loss to South Africa in the World Cup Final three years ago, and never really recovered. Others say he’s hiding a bunch of cards up his sleeve to flash out at the World Cup leaving us marveling at England’s charge to the Final – however, that plan didn’t quite work out last time did it when it mattered most.
Given the resources and talent at Jones’ disposal his selection policies defy logic. Whether he and his charges blatantly underestimated the threat Argentina brought to Twickenham last Sunday is probably a debate that will rage on long after this November series, but trip up they did and some of the blame for that lies at Jones’ ongoing issues with selection. While he may be experimenting with combinations ahead of the World Cup, you could argue that if he doesn’t know what they should look like at this stage a year out from the global showdown then England could well find themselves adrift next October.
England simply lacked pace, direction and energy for the most part against Argentina. Apart from the scrum England dominated every single statistic last Sunday, and in most cases by quite some margin, yet at the final whistle still found themselves a point adrift of the Pumas. Argentina simply were far more efficient, enterprising and clinical with what little ball they had, allied to the unshakeable reliability of Emiliano Boffelli’s boot.
Jones decided to stick with a lumpy and misshapen back row that just wasn’t balanced. Maro Itoje is a phenomenal second rower but he simply doesn’t slot seamlessly into the back row like Courtney Lawes. Billy Vunipola is not the bundle of energy he once was, with a raft of talented number 8s in the Premiership snapping at his heels. Ben Youngs pedestrian delivery at scrum half was highlighted in the blink of an eye as his replacement Jack van Poortvliet came on and scored a try in less than a minute. Marcus Smith is clearly growing tired of having Uncle Owen as his babysitter and the 10/12 axis simply isn’t firing, especially as Farrell still clearly plays as if he was wearing the pivot jersey. Eddie Jones’ great savior Manu Tuilagi was kept out of the fray lest he picks up an injury ahead of the encounter with New Zealand making his presence essentially pointless.
There were some highlights with Joe Cokanasiga looking like a genuine gas man out wide – but hang on let’s drop him completely for a game against a side like Japan who also love to run the ball. At least Freddie Steward was his usual outstanding self at fullback. We also thought Alex Coles made an impressive start in the second row and are glad to see he gets rewarded with a spot on the bench against Japan, with Jones also blooding some impressive new young talent in the shape of David Ribbans this weekend.
On the plus side Eddie and England do seem to be taking some notes from last weekend’s upset. Van Poortfliet gets a start at scrum half, Jonny May makes his return on the wing while the impressive Guy Porter gets to partner Owen Farrell in the midfield. However, Jones just can’t let go of his beloved golden oldies as Ben Youngs gets the bench in a match England should win and consequently deny the likes of in form Northampton youngster Alex Mitchell some much needed game time. Billy Vunipola continues keeping the bench warm along with brother Mako and Tuilagi also gets some apparently valuable time on the sidelines.
Eddie Jones and England proved themselves wily operators in the runup to the last World Cup, but it is getting increasingly hard to see a repeat performance come next October. It just looks muddled, confused and smacks of opportunities wasted and lost with England’s impressive raft of youngsters. While there may still be time, it’s increasingly looking like too little too late. England will be under huge pressure to improve on this year’s dismal Six Nations performance come February so don’t expect too much in the way of new talent there and then there is very little game time left prior to France. England have a real chance to showcase where they want to go against a challenging and exciting side like Japan this weekend, and while they are likely to emerge on the right side of the score line at the final whistle, we can’t help feeling that apart from a win a golden opportunity for the future will have been wasted.
Enjoy the rugby everyone this weekend and for those of you in Toronto – Hemingways is the place to be if you’ve been lucky enough to reserve a seat!
So continuing on from last week’s change in tack with the Lineout’s way forward in terms of how we get our musings out, here is our second go at a weekly whip round of what got us talking. In many ways we were literally spoilt for choice with the start of the Autumn Internationals this weekend and Canada’s Women heading into the semi finals of the World Cup. However, we decided to focus on a big international as well as one that nobody seems to want to talk about, Canada’s shot at World Cup glory, the continuing frustrations around officiating and player welfare. So hopefully there’s something in here that sparks your interest and keeps your pints as frothy as oursthis week.
The one that EVERYBODY is talking about this weekend
As the Autumn Internationals return with a vengeance this weekend a year out from the World Cup, there is plenty at stake and lots to talk about. However, without a doubt the most keenly anticipated fixture this weekend is the Dublin dustup between Ireland and South Africa. Ireland currently ranked number one in the world take on World Champions South Africa, who themselves are ranked third. It is indeed a clash of titans in green, though Ireland for reasons best known to themselves have decided to choose a jersey that is likely going to make it extremely difficult at times to know who’s doing what on the pitch. It’s also likely to lead to some confused officiating at times from the otherwise excellent Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli and his team. Oh and if you plan on watching it in black and white don’t bother.
However, apart from the poor choices in jersey fashion made by the IRFU, it is a mouth watering contest that we can’t wait to watch unfold. Irish supporters have been here before a year out from the World Cup ,with their team riding high only to then crash into oblivion in the early stages of the global showpiece twelve months later. No matter how well Ireland do this Autumn and the Six Nations next year there is still an ominous sense of deja vu. Concerns linger around Ireland’s complete lack of tried and trusted depth in the playmaker position of fly half even though Johnny Sexton is, in the twilight of his career, probably playing the best rugby of his life. However, one critical injury to Sexton and all of a sudden Ireland looks dramatically out of shape despite the enormous depth it can field in every other position on the pitch. If Sexton stays fit until 28th of October 2023 and Ireland doesn’t suddenly implode on the big stage as in tournaments gone by, then these are truly heady days for Ireland and their supporters who have the right to dream big dreams.
It’s an exceptionally solid looking Irish outfit trotting out at the Aviva with most of the big names there including Sexton leading the troops. Interestingly, Ireland have decided to give the wise head of veteran scrum half Conor Murray the start for this one, with superstar of the last twelve months Jamison Gibson-Park warming the bench. Also with a view to development, Ulster’s rock star winger Robert Baloucoune gets a start on one of the biggest possible stages prior to the World Cup.
South Africa have had an inconsistent run since the World Cup and lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. Question marks linger around selection and tactics, as well as leaving it rather late to develop some of the extraordinary new talent that has emerged from the United Rugby Championship. However, on their day the Springboks are still capable of producing absolutely massive performances that revolve around their rather awe inspiring physicality and a degree of organization that looks exceptionally reliable, even if it may not be as enterprising as that of some of their opponents.
South Africa bring their all star forward pack to the Aviva on Saturday in an attempt to completely suffocate any sense of Irish enterprise. Jaden Hendrikse’s excellent form in the Rugby Championship, where we felt he outperformed stalwart Faf de Klerk, is rewarded with a starting berth at scrum half, while the Damian Willemse experiment continues at fly half. Unlike Ireland, South Africa appear committed to being able to field some depth in the 10 jersey come the World Cup. We can only see one real weakness in this Springbok outfit and that’s the center pairing of De Allende and Kriel which we feel can’t hold a candle to Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose who are two of the slickest and most imaginative operators in the business.
In short, this is set to be an epic tussle of two impressive forward packs, wily halfbacks and electric backs. It’s the game of the weekend by a country mile and will tell us a great deal about what to expect in a year’s time at the World Cup, especially given that these two Test powerhouses will also have to face off against each other in the Pool stages. In terms of preparation for the “big one”, Coaches Andy Farrell of Ireland and Jacques Nienaber of South Africa couldn’t ask for better preparation, all aided and abetted by the fact that all these players will get continued exposure to each other over the course of this year’s United Rugby Championship. By the time the World Cup rolls around these two teams will know each other inside out, making Saturday’s dress rehearsal for their Pool clash a year later one of the most fascinating fixtures of 2022.
And the one that strangely nobody wants to talk about given its implications
The qualifying tournament for that last coveted berth at next year’s World Cup which will be taking place in Dubai over the next three weekends has huge ramifications for the global game and North American Rugby in particular. Consequently we are rather perplexed that we can hardly find any news of it – and trust us we have gone digging. It features four teams in a competition spread over three weekends. Of the four teams participating, USA, Portugal, Kenya and Hong Kong – the Americans and Portuguese are the clear favorites ranked 19th and 20th respectively.
Portugal are one of the best emerging European nations and in the recent Rugby Europe annual tournament, which is like a Tier 2 Six Nations, Portugal finished fourth. However in the last twelve months they have put in some big performances. They have beaten Canada, given Japan a scare, drawn with Georgia and also gave Italy the fright of their lives. Portugal have participated in one World Cup in 2007.
The Americans meanwhile lurch from one crisis to another. Although they beat Canada in their initial attempt to qualify for the World Cup, they then lost to Uruguay. In their second attempt to qualify they were beaten out by Chile. They were then humiliated by New Zealand 104-14 and then in the warmup for this tournament lost both their games to South African provincial sides the Cheetahs and Pumas. In short they are low on confidence, something Portugal seems to have in spades. If the USA fail to qualify for the World Cup it will be the first time since the tournament’s inception that a North American side will not be represented, and only the second time the Americans have missed the party. It’s hardly a good advertisement for growing the men’s game in this part of the World. We can thank Canadian and American Women’s rugby for righting the ship in that regard, but given that the US is scheduled to host the Men’s global showpiece in 2031 it’s rather a poor advertisement for the sport in this part of the globe if we have to wait another four years to be represented.
So whether you’re a Canadian or American supporter we have a hunch that for the love of the game in this part of the world you may well be humming the “Star Spangled Banner” into your pints over the next three Sundays.
A legend is born as Canada’s Women face the toughest challenge of all this weekend in their semi-final against tournament favorites England
We can hardly wait for tomorrow night and seeing our outstanding Canadian women take to the pitch at Auckland’s legendary Eden Park to face off against World Cup favorites England. As Canada’s exemplary Captain Sophie de Goede has pointed out, despite the David and Goliath nature of the contest the Canadians are not daunted by the Red Roses, and to a woman have all made huge personal sacrifices to make it to this point. While many of the Canadian team may still be amateurs their motivation and dedication to purpose is 110% professional. Although an increasingly large number of the Canadian team are now playing in England’s professional league, with Sophie de Goede herself being a regular match day starter for Saracens, many of the players running out tomorrow have had to make some incredibly hard choices to play the game between careers, families and friends.
England may seem invincible and head into tomorrow’s match on an unprecedented 29 game winning streak, but there are aspects of Canada’s game that could cause them problems. Canada will have to be giant slayers tomorrow if they are to progress to a final date with either New Zealand or France, but they seem rather comfortable with the underdog tag. In terms of physicality they can give as good as they get and they are just as competitive as England in the set pieces. England have tended to favor a very physical game so far that relies heavily on rolling mauls, an area where Canada have tended to be defensively strong. If England do decide to vary it up and employ a running game which they are no slouch at either, only being outdone in meters made so far in the tournament by New Zealand, then they could target Canada’s one big weakness so far.
Canada have one Achilles Heel that got exposed in their two matches against the Americans and that is their tackle success rate. It only averaged 77% over the two games and if they are to take on a side like England, especially if the Red Roses open the game up, that has to be in the mid to high 80s at a bare minimum if they are to stand a chance. If they can’t fix it then they simply have to physically pressure England into mistakes and lapses of discipline where they can punish them with the boot. Sophie de Goede was exemplary at the kicking tee in Canada’s quarter final against the USA and she’ll need to bring that accuracy to this match, as any points left begging could well make or break the outcome of this match if Canada are able to remain in the hunt. Canada will have to control the restarts, and really test England under the high ball and gain some traction in the aerial contests if they are to stand a chance tomorrow night allied to their strengths in the set pieces and at the breakdown.
Some are saying that this could be a bridge too far for De Goede and her charges, but whatever happens she and her teammates will all have carved out their own bit of history and will still have a shot at a third place finish should they stumble against England. Sophie de Goede has been an outstanding Captain and has already ensured that she can walk with the best in the modern game as well as claim her place amongst the greats of Canadian rugby.
Once again blatant inconsistency in officiating and interpretation of the rules makes a mockery of our game!
We are not ones to nitpick over official’s decisions, or to say that they cause games to be won or lost. However, we can no longer stand by and watch some of the outrageous recklessness that could cause players to suffer injuries that may have serious implications in later life. Watching the first two Autumn Internationals we were literally gob smacked at the inconsistency in decision making by the officials at the expense of player welfare.
In the first instance in an attempt to clear out a Japanese player from a ruck, New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick charged directly into the back of Japan’s Kazuki Himeno’s head and neck with his shoulder. Admittedly Himeno was low, which made it difficult but it was still irresponsible and could have had serious consequences. Georgian Referee Nika Amashukeli after consultation with his team and the TMO adjudicated it a red card and Retallick is now unable to participate in New Zealand’s Autumn tour till possibly their final match against England. It was the right call – plain and simple and Amashukeli and his team are to be applauded for “interpreting” it correctly.
Now fast forward twelve hours later to Murrayfield and Scotland’s game against Australia. In a mirror image of what happened in Tokyo, Scotland’s Glen Young commits exactly the same offence attempting to clear out Australia’s Tate McDermott. The incident is made worse by the fact that Young makes contact at almost twice the speed that Retallick was at. You can see McDermott’s head visibly snap back from the impact. English Referee Luke Pearce, who in general we find very consistent and solid in his duties, after discussion with his team and the TMO decides to lower the danger to yellow as Young led with his bicep even though his shoulder ultimately connects with force to McDermott’s head. We’re sorry but in no universe can we find this decision sensible and in the interests of player welfare, especially given the fact that the force of impact was almost twice that of Retallick’s.
This “interpretation” by the referees aspect of officiating really needs to be made consistent, especially where any contact with force to the head is made. In a world where Mums and Dads are increasingly worried about the long term impacts of such collisions on their little Jimmys and Susans, we’ve simply got to stamp it out. The kind of inconsistency in arbitration witnessed on Saturday has to be arrested and quickly if we genuinely want our game to grow in popularity and get more youngsters involved at an early age. We’re pretty sure that most parents watching those games Saturday, who were on the fence about whether their kids should play rugby or not, were probably not shopping for rugby boots on Sunday. While physicality is a cherished aspect of our game, safety has to be paramount. Perhaps we can learn something from the Women’s game and some of their tackle techniques. Have you noticed how fewer HIAs there have been in the Women’s World Cup so far?
Two of rugby’s most recently maligned characters admit they’re far from perfect and need to change but also highlight the damaging effects of their faults being hauled in front of the firing squad of social media
If you’ve followed the media in the last few months there has been outrage over the antics of Australia’s Nic White milking a penalty by diving to ground feigning injury in a match against South Africa in the Rugby Championship. He became public enemy number one in an instant, and social media was replete with images of him in a tutu and a tiara. While we didn’t agree with his actions and certainly don’t want to see the type of antics and play acting that plague football become part of our game, the resultant persecution of him in both the press and social media was out of bounds, as it started to take aim at his personality and carried over to his family. That is unacceptable whichever way you cut it, and we have to profess that perhaps even we got caught up in the initial negative reaction to the act that put Nic White in that position in the first place, and for that we feel we have to apologize.
In the same vein, Ireland’s Johnny Sexton has also been in the crosshairs of social media and the rugby public, and recently found himself being labeled “a petulant child” by some rugby critics and media pundits. Much like with Nic White, while we have grown slightly weary of Sexton’s constant outbursts against the officials, the media then generated a backlash against a player who for all his faults has been a stellar servant to his country and is held in high regard by his teammates. The vitriol is both damaging and hurtful to not only the players but also their families. Test Rugby is a pressure cauldron of note and in Sexton’s case the added responsibilities of the Captaincy can make it almost impossible at times to be perceived as a reasonable individual.
These are gifted players plain and simple who are integral and important parts of their respective teams. We recently came across these two interviews on YouTube, that helped give us some perspective on these players as individuals and the fact that at the end of the day they are normal human beings who just like us make mistakes. In both, Sexton and White admit to their failings and the fact that they need to address them but without the spiteful artillery barrage of social media goading them into it. Sexton openly admits that he needs to change the way he deals with referees heading into the Autumn Series and beyond, while White admits he wishes he hadn’t made such a meal of a seemingly harmless incident in the grand scheme of things. His colleague Tate McDermott could have made a much bigger deal of a genuine act of thuggery this weekend but to his credit let the officials do their job and got on with the game, even if they got their decision wrong.
In both these interviews, White and Sexton come across as decent blokes just trying to do the right thing by their teams. So let’s give them credit for that and move on, and celebrate them for the extraordinary players that they are. We strongly recommend you watch both interviews and as we have done judge for yourselves. The Nic White interview is on Rugby Pod on YouTube with Jim Hamilton and the Sexton interview is on the IRFU YouTube channel.
So that’s it for this week. Take care everyone and here’s to an absolute feast of Men and Women’s Test Rugby this weekend!