After coming short against Tonga, Canada has to come up with the goods this Wednesday to avoid the wooden spoon in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup. In an exciting Triple Header at BMO field in Toronto which yours truly will be fortunate enough to attend, we also get to see the USA take on Tonga and probably the competition’s most exciting match-up in terms of running rugby will see Fiji do battle with Japan. Buoyed by their success against Canada, Tonga will be a hard nut for the Americans to crack particularly in the sweltering heat that Toronto is currently experiencing but which will no doubt make the Pacific Islanders feel right at home. Fiji and Japan have shown plenty of exciting running in this tournament and expect more of the same. Canada meanwhile has to win their tussle with Samoa after a string of defeats in the last year and as a vital confidence booster going into the World Cup. It is my hope that the home crowd really gets behind Canada and gives them the bonus of the sixteenth man. On paper Canada has a team that should have been competitive but which in reality has not lived up to its potential. The Canadians have now left it to this encounter with Samoa, who gave New Zealand’s All Blacks a serious scare at the beginning of the month, to prove themselves as a team – in short it doesn’t get any more challenging than this. If Canada can turn it around and use the massive underdog tag that they now seem to be wearing to their advantage in front of a home crowd, then it will do wonders for their confidence heading into a World Cup. If they can’t then it will be hard for them to build the confidence they need to compete in a very tough and unforgiving pool at the World Cup.
Canada vs Tonga
Final Score – Canada 18/Tonga 28
Another puzzling performance from Canada, as they showed what they could do, but only for 20 minutes. Nevertheless after the weak performance against Japan, there were many aspects of Canada’s game that did improve dramatically, namely the breakdown work and the passing. However, even here there was still plenty of room for improvement, especially if Canada wants to face up to a Samoan side that is hitting all the right targets so far this year. Tonga on the other hand despite some of their trademark lapses in discipline at the end of the match showed an ability to regroup after Canada’s initial onslaught and effectively use their strength and speed to take the game away from Canada.
Canada started this match full of intensity, and played a brilliant first fifteen minutes of rugby which clearly caught the Tongans by surprise. After only 5 minutes Canada was holding a strong 10-0 lead thanks to some excellent work at the breakdown on the Tongan line by Canadian scrum half Aaron Carpenter. After the fairly dismal performance against Japan a week earlier you almost had the feeling that Canada had addressed all the areas where they had been shown up. Their discipline was better, the passing work and intensity and support at the breakdown were all showing dramatic improvements. It was hard not to think that this Canadian team which has so much promise on paper had finally shown up and was about to make a statement. Carpenter went on to score a second try after a superb passage of open running play by the Canadians and in just under twenty minutes Canada was ahead 15-3.
It was there however, that the music quite literally stopped for Canada. The Tongans regrouped and began to physically push the Canadians around the park. In such a physical encounter it was always going to be a test of nerves in terms of discipline and the Tongans contrary to form seemed to have the edge here. The Tongans were starting to out muscle the Canadians in the set pieces and particularly at scrum time. You could see the frustration growing amongst the Canadians and their discipline start to slide. While I think that the yellow card awarded to Canadian fly half Liam Underwood was a bit of overreaction from Argentine referee Federico Anselmi it led to a further chink in an already weakened Canadian armor as they ended the first half and began the second with just fourteen men. Before the half time whistle Tonga got themselves right back into the match with a successful penalty kick and then the Tongan scrum half Sonatane Takulua produced his own magic off the base of a Tongan scrum and some weak Canadian defence. At the break it was 15-10 for Canada.
In the second half, the Tongans proceeded to dominate the Canadians across the park and the Tongans would produce another two fine tries through some porous Canadian defence to effectively put the game out of reach of Canada as the penalty count continued to mount and Tonga led 23-18. As they always seem to do, Canada suddenly found a last-minute injection of intensity and pace as the last five minutes saw a spirited fight back from Canada, but even against a Tongan side reduced by ill discipline to thirteen men, Canada couldn’t find a way through. There is no question Tonga were the deserved winners, but Canadian supporters walked away scratching their heads as yet again a team that promised so much delivered so little.
Canada vs Samoa
Wednesday, July 29th
With Canada out of contention for any of the silverware in this year’s Pacific Nation’s Cup, Wednesday’s fixture against Samoa is all about pride and a desperate need to end the losing streak the team has been on since their match against Namibia in France in November last year. The week after that victory Canada lost to Samoa in France after dominating the Pacific Islanders for much of the match. The question on everyone’s lips is what has happened since then?
We all hope the answers will have been found by Wednesday night, but let’s face it – Samoa is on fire right now and a very different team to the one Canada faced on a rainy afternoon in France nine months ago. After giving New Zealand’s All Blacks the fright of their lives three weeks ago, Samoa are so far undefeated in this year’s Pacific Nations, although only managing a draw with the other tournament favourites Fiji last weekend. Samoa are big, fast, powerful and very motivated. Canada are no less motivated but have so much to prove still as a complete unit unlike the Samoans who seem very settled as a side. Add to that a hot humid evening in store, conditions which should suit the Pacific Islanders down to a tee, and Canada has an exceptionally challenging task ahead of them.
Canada despite the loss last weekend against Tonga did show some definite improvements in their performance from the game against Japan. As I mentioned above their intensity, breakdown work, passing skills and overall support play were much better. However at times their defence was still disorganised and they were missing far too many first phase tackles, an area which Samoa will cut them to pieces on if not fixed. Furthermore their scrum buckled too many times under pressure and Samoa is putting a very big and powerful pack onto the field. If Canada can tighten their discipline, keep the intensity up for a full eighty minutes and put wingers DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler into space and allow them to use their exceptional speed and agility then it could be a good day out for Canada. Hassler and Van der Merwe are world-class players and will get any crowd on their feet given the opportunity. If they are able to do this and the Toronto crowd gets behind the team then Canada could end their current run of poor form.
I sincerely hope this will be the case and will certainly be doing my part to cheer them on. However, I can’t help feeling that unless Canada have managed to really turn things around in the space of four days, which is a ridiculously short time in international rugby, they are facing an almost impossible task against Samoa. Samoa is building nicely for the World Cup and are relishing the tag of being possible giant slayers in their pool against Scotland and South Africa. On Wednesday it will have to be Canada trying to emulate the Samoan’s reputation as the Canadian David takes on the Samoan Goliath. Here’s hoping for a great contest!