Canada opened their Pacific Nations Cup campaign in San Jose, California this weekend against an impressive looking Japanese outfit. This was also Canada’s first step on the road to the World Cup in England in two months time and although outplayed by the Japanese for much of the match there was a glimmer of hope for Canada in the final ten minutes, and it is this last gasp performance that the squad must really build on and take into the next game against a very physical Tonga. Let’s be honest it wasn’t a great day out on the park for Canada, but you could see that their recent success in winning the gold for Sevens Rugby at the Pan Am games in Toronto, was causing some players to have difficulty in switching gears to the fifteen a side game, as well as lasting a full eighty minutes. Hopefully by the time we play Tonga on Friday at home in Burnaby, BC the coaching staff will have done some solid work with the squad and many of the glaring errors we saw on Saturday against the Japanese will have been rectified – if not this could be a painful and potentially demoralising period of preparation for the World Cup!
Canada vs Japan
Final Score – Canada 6/Japan 20
San Jose, CA
I have to confess at being a puzzled spectator as I watched this game. Although Canada were effectively outplayed by Japan, I was still surprised by the scoreline. Canada exhibited many strengths in the Californian sun on Saturday, but somehow you never really felt that they were in the match as a coherent unit, as opposed to the Japanese who seemed to be highly organised and working very effectively as a team. As I mentioned above, I think that it is inevitable that with so many of Canada’s first choice players having just won gold the weekend before in the Sevens game at the Pan Am games, it is a definite challenge to suddenly switch your playing style to the fifteen a side game. However, one area which I was concerned about on Canada’s end of year European tour in 2014, seemed still to be an area of serious concern and that is passing skills. There is no doubt that some of the passing techniques demonstrated by Canada on Saturday would have worked splendidly on a Sevens field, but against a well organised Japanese 15 man defence it just looked wayward and nervous. Canada has enormous talent on the wings in the shape of DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler, but there seemed to be little idea as a team as to how best to use these two fine players. You could even sense the frustration in both the wingers as they were on the end of yet another wayward pass and were somehow expected to perform miracles with it.
Japan on the other hand for much of the match barring a few minor lapses in discipline which resulted in unnecessary yellow cards, looked the model of composure and a team that had thought out exactly how they were going to dismantle Canada. In fairness, with the coaching know how of former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones in charge of the playbook, the Japanese are coming into this tournament and their preparations for the World Cup in very capable hands. Furthermore, with the investment in the game in Japan, especially now they are hosting the 2019 World Cup, and the fact that many foreign-born players are now eligible to play for Japan, the country is increasingly able to put together a solid squad. Japan has always been known for its courageous and pacy backs, but their age-old problems at scrum time if this Saturday’s performance is anything to go by seem to be a thing of the past. They were able to compete effectively with Canada at the scrum and were far more dangerous and well organised at the breakdown than the Canadians.
Canada looked like they might ultimately be the team to run in the tries at the outset of the game as DTH van der Merwe quickly showed off his impressive skills right from the get go at the eighth minute as Canada looked to strike back after an initial successful penalty kick from Japan. In a superb piece of passing, one of the few we got to see by Canada, Canadian number 8 Tyler Ardron offloaded to DTH van der Merwe who was forced off by a Japanese defender just as he made a solid offload to Canada’s other winger Jeff Hassler. The pedigree that these two players have gained after several seasons in Europe was there for all to see but too often the rest of their team would blindly try to give them the ball and expect them to perform miracles with it.
Four minutes later, the Japanese showed the Canadians how to play a passing game. Straight from a Japanese lineout, and through a brilliantly worked set of passes, Japanese centre Kotaro Matsushima who was impressive all afternoon was able to put winger Yoshikazu Fujita into space and onto a superb try. You had to be impressed by the Japanese seamless passing and their speed and support at the breakdown. All areas which until the last ten minutes of the game Canada seemed to be struggling with. The Japanese passage of play also showed up how many first phase tackles the Canadians were missing and this is an area they will really have to work on against the fast and physical Pacific Islander sides in the remainder of the competition. As I say it got better in the last ten minutes of the game for Canada in terms of addressing these problems but was too little too late and let’s hope that we play like we did in the last ten minutes for the full eighty minutes against Tonga on Friday. In the meantime, Canada’s coaching staff would do well to study this video clip of Fujita’s try as in a nutshell it showed everything the Japanese did well on Saturday and everything Canada did poorly.
Despite the loss it is not all gloom and doom for Canada. As I said above I can’t help feeling that many of Canada’s problems last Saturday were due to the sudden transition for some of the players from the Sevens game to the full 15 a side game. In particular, the lack of pressure and support at the breakdown. On a positive note, Jeff Hassler and DTH van der Merwe on the wings and Captain Tyler Ardron at number eight all put in a massive game for Canada and are very exciting prospects for the World Cup. The instant impact that replacement scrum half, Phil Mack made from the moment he came on needs to be capitalised on in the game against Tonga and he should get the starting 9 berth. Cut down on the handling errors, fix the penalty count, dramatically improve the passing skills and be more effective at the breakdown are the items that should be on Canada’s to do list as they prepare this week for the match against Tonga in Burnaby on Friday. Despite the disappointment and the obvious frustration of the players at not being able to capitalise on opportunities that Canada did create, I am confident that this Friday’s match will be a much different prospect for Canada and hopefully a much more positive experience!
Fixtures this weekend
Canada vs Tonga
Friday, July 24th
Canada’s campaign in the Pacific Nations Cup only gets harder with each outing, making the need to quickly get the problems sorted out that we saw against Japan all the more pressing. Canada’s next opponent, Tonga will be a serious challenge after Tonga managed to run Fiji close in a thrilling encounter last week. Fiji came out on top, but had to work exceptionally hard and Tonga’s three tries were well worth the price of admission. Tonga is a very physical side but as seen against Fiji they like all the Pacific Island sides are blessed with some very fast but exceptionally strong backs. Canada will have to improve their speed and composure at the breakdown and keep the ball in hand much more than they did against Japan. Some of the wild passing that we saw against Japan will be seen as gifts by the Tongans and must be kept to a minimum.
I am confident that we will see a much more settled Canadian side on Friday, and backed by a fervent home crowd, hopefully Canada will start to click into a rhythm that they can keep up for the rest of the tournament and going forward into the World Cup. I personally, would prefer to see Phil Mack start at scrum half as I feel his intensity, speed and accuracy particularly at the breakdowns will be key in a very physical encounter against Tonga. Canada should be under no illusion that Friday’s game will be a significant challenge, but if they can keep their composure and get the basics right I feel that home advantage could just end up being the factor to give them that first win of the tournament and some positives to build on as they prepare ultimately for the World Cup. On that note, let’s not forget that when Canada faced Tonga at the last World Cup they ultimately came out on top in a memorable match. Canada’s “beardos” from that match will not be on the field on Friday, but surely any Canadian team member watching a video of that superb Canadian performance can not help but feel inspired. Here’s to more of the same on Friday!