June sees the return of International Test Rugby as the Northern Hemisphere sides travel South and Canada has a chance to really lay down some markers for the future in three eagerly anticipated fixtures

Posted: June 10, 2016 in June Internationals 2016
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It’s that time of the year again as International Test Rugby returns to the front and centre of everyone’s attention as the Northern Hemisphere sides journey South to test their mettle against the Southern Hemisphere’s Big Three.  After a relatively disappointing Six Nations, in which England were the clearly dominant side, we really get to see how big the gulf is between North and South.  As opposed to the rather tepid offerings so far this year in the Six Nations and the European Champions Cup, the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby Tournament has caught everyone’s attention in terms of excitement.  New Zealand sides are clearly in a league of their own, but there have been some impressive outings from some of the Australian and South African teams.  Canada meanwhile have three exciting home Tests to look forward to starting with Japan and ending with a new look Italy who themselves will be put through their paces by Argentina this Saturday.  June will provide us with a genuine smorgasbord of Test Rugby and a clear idea of who’s who in the zoo post last year’s World Cup.

Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs Wales
Saturday, June 11th
Auckland

Many people are predicting with good reason, a very painful afternoon in Auckland for Wales courtesy of their hosts and World Champions, the mighty All Blacks.  It is hard to disagree with this common sentiment.  Of all the Northern Hemisphere sides on tour this June Wales by far have the hardest task.  Welsh rugby has not been in the best of health since the World Cup.  A dismal showing in the Pro 12 by Welsh sides and even worse at the European Champions Cup level topped off by a Six Nations campaign that can really only be described as a massive disappointment, finds the Men in Red demoralised and without a clear game plan.  The All Blacks on the other hand while having lost some of the names that helped to play such a pivotal role in creating the All Black legend of the last four years, are still blessed with such depth in terms of emerging talent and seasoned veterans that it will be very hard for a jaded Welsh side to be competitive for one Test let alone three.

However, one writes off the Welsh at their peril.  While Welsh rugby may be in some degree of disarray at the moment, this is still a highly resilient side that boasts some impressive names.  Furthermore, some Welsh players such as Alun-Wyn Jones and Captain Sam Warburton have shown that their ability to soak up the most intense pressure is the stuff of legends.  A Welsh win on Saturday, would be a miracle in the making however I for one have no doubt that New Zealand will be made to work exceptionally hard at times for the privilege of a win and they will find the Welsh worthy opponents.

New Zealand may be fielding a new look team, but as this year’s Super Rugby has shown so far, the raft of emerging talent in New Zealand seems limitless.  There are enough seasoned veterans in the All Black line up to lend the experience needed to complement the youth and enthusiasm of the newcomers.  There may be some fresh faces in an All Black shirt on Saturday, but all these players have proved their worth time and again on Super Rugby pitches over the last few months.  The skill levels on display by New Zealand sides in this year’s Super Rugby competition have been quite surreal at times.

Either way you look at it, this is going to be a huge physical battle up front, and with their ability to absorb incredible amounts of pressure Wales will expect to be competitive here and most likely make their greatest impact on the match.  Having said that however they will be up against an impressive and incredibly mobile All Black forward pack.  In the front row for Wales, despite some impressive experience in the shape of Gethin Jenkins along with the dynamic Samson Lee and Ken Owens, New Zealand should still have the edge.  The Crusaders duo of Joe Moody and Owen Franks have been outstanding this year, and Hooker Dane Coles is his own phenomenon.  Coles is not only exceptionally competitive in the scrums, he also boasts a speed and eye for opportunity that would be the envy of most wingers.  Give Coles any kind of loose ball in the open and expect him to cover the length of the pitch at a pace that many 100 metre sprinters would have trouble matching.  In short, one of the All Blacks wonder weapons, the only chink in
his armor being an occasionally erratic performance in throwing in to the lineouts.  Wales has some real strength in the second row in the shape of the legendary Alun-Wyn Jones who will give his All Black counterpart the equally impressive Brodie Retallick an epic struggle all afternoon.  However, New Zealand should edge this battle as Retallick’s partner Luke Romano has more than enough power and ability to overwhelm Wales Bradley Davies.  In the back row the battle between New Zealand’s Sam Cane and Welsh Captain Sam Warburton is one of the most eagerly anticipated contests of the month.  Sam Cane has impressed for the Chiefs consistently over the last two years and is a worthy replacement for All Black legend Richie McCaw.  Sam Warburton’s motivation and sheer endurance is always a sight to behold and his ability to rally his troops when their backs are against the wall will be invaluable on Saturday.  Completing the forward pack New Zealand’s Kieran Read takes over the Captaincy at number eight up against the equally impressive Welsh number eight Taulupe Faleteau.  Expect plenty of fireworks between these two, but if Read finds his form expect him to cross the try line for New Zealand at least once.  Faletau is no slouch and at times was one of the standout performers of Wales’s faltering Six Nations campaign so expect some competition.  As much talent as there is in this Welsh forward unit the sheer mobility and skill set of their New Zealand counterparts should see that ultimately the All Blacks run this aspect of the game on Saturday at Wales’ expense.  With the likes of flanker Ardie Savea and prop Wyatt Crockett waiting on the bench for New Zealand, enough said.

As talented as they may be as a half back partnership Wales’ Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb are no match for the likes of New Zealand’s Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden.  While Cruden may be making a long awaited return to the number 10 jersey, and questions may remain about his form at Test level, there is no doubt of his talent and ability.  Aaron Smith at halfback is in a league of his own and is going to be an endless headache for his Welsh counterpart, Rhys Webb.  Although Dan Biggar has an exceptionally reliable boot and is developing his ability to run the Welsh game plan, he is no match for the sheer creativity of Cruden if he finds his form in an All Black jersey.  With TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett waiting on the bench for New Zealand the halfback battle is going to be all about the All Blacks with Wales simply trying to keep up.

In the backs, it should once again be New Zealand’s day.  Just look at the names.  On the wings, Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo, at centre Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa and backing it all up at number 15 is one of the best in the world – Ben Smith.  Naholo has been one of the revelations of this year’s Super Rugby season scoring tries at leisure while Savea has made an impressive return to form.  Fekitoa has been outstanding for the Highlanders while Crotty has been instrumental in getting the Crusaders back to their winning ways.  Wales have some impressive names in the shape of centre Jamie Roberts, winger George North and fullback Liam Williams.  However, these three have been very erratic in terms of form post the World Cup, with Roberts being far too predictable.  Quite frankly this aspect of the contest is most likely to be all about New Zealand for the full eighty minutes.

So in short a spirited Welsh side is likely to make New Zealand work hard for the first 50 minutes, but then are likely to tire quickly allowing the floodgates to open for New Zealand as the likes of Coles, Crotty, Savea, Naholo and Fekitoa start to run riot.  There is not enough on the Welsh bench to turn around the inevitable ascendancy of the All Blacks and as a result the last quarter should see New Zealand crossing the white line at least three times.  This new look New Zealand side may struggle to gel in the first quarter, giving the Welsh a false sense of security, but as we have seen so many times in the past, All Black sides very rarely take more than 40 minutes to figure out both the basics and the measure of their opponents.  Therefore, with little hesitation we are calling this one in favour of New Zealand by 25 points.

Australia vs England
Saturday, June 11th
Brisbane

Of all the games this weekend this is probably the biggest wild card and the one which is most likely to see a Northern Hemisphere side come out on top.  England arrive as triumphant Six Nations champions and under new Coach Eddie Jones have found a new confidence after the debacle of the World Cup.  Some exciting new players have really stood up and been counted so far this year and this is definitely an England side on the rise – to what heights they have risen will become clear over the coming weeks.  Australia are also in the process of rebuilding under the guidance of one of the wiliest coaches in International Rugby in the shape of Michael Cheika who knows how to get results.  Although Australian sides have had a slow start to this year’s Super Rugby, their two top sides the Brumbies and Waratahs have started to peak at just the right time and as a result are providing Australia with some excellent preparation for this series against England.  While I personally think that Australia are only going to get better this month, ultimately at England’s expense and thus take the series, I think that this opening Test in Brisbane could well go England’s way.  Of all the three big Test series this month this is likely to be the most closely contested.

Up front the battle of the front rows should be epic.  However, I am going to hand it to England.  The contest between the two Hookers and Captains, England’s Dylan Hartley and Australia’s Stephen Moore will be fascinating and very evenly matched.  Both renowned as hotheads, they will have to really lead by example in maintaining their own discipline and that of their charges.  To be fair a task which both have excelled at.  However, in terms of the props England should have the edge here.  I feel that the combination of Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole simply offer more power and versatility than that of their Australian counterparts, Scott Sio and Greg Holmes.  In the second rows, England should win this battle hands down.  If Hartley can maintain his form at the throw in to the lineouts, English revelations George Kruis and Maro Itoje at lock should run rings around their Australian rivals Rob Simmons and Rory Arnold.  Kruis has had a spectacular year in the thick of everything for England and Maro Itoje is the most exciting player England has seen in many a year.  Itoje’s strength, speed and seemingly inexhaustible stamina are rapidly becoming the stuff of legends.  He is one of the few England players to consistently see out a full eighty minutes this year.  Expect fireworks aplenty from this English duo at Australia’s expense and with Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury waiting on the bench as their replacements, it is going to be a long afternoon in this department for Australia.  It’s in the back row where Australia are really going to make their presence felt and here they should start to gain some clear ascendancy over their English rivals.  English flankers Chris Robshaw and James Haskell are solid but lack the creativity and sheer pace of Australia’s Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy.  Fardy’s tireless work rate and Hooper’s sheer ability in the loose means that England are likely to be on the back foot here all afternoon.  Although England’s Billy Vunipola was often a one-man panzer division in the Six Nations he is going to be put to the test by the sheer creativity and vision of Australia’s number eight the incomparable David Pocock who is making a blistering return to form from injury.  England will be competitive here but this is Australia’s contest to win and really create a dominant platform for their backline.

In the halfbacks, there is an equal contest as England’s Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs square up against Australia’s Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps.  Each side boasts a loose canon, England in the shape of fly half Owen Farrell, whose discipline lets him down at times, while Australia’s Nick Phipps at scrum half is renowned for taking his eye off the ball under pressure and trying to attract the attention of the referee far too often at the expense of the run of play.  However, England’s Ben Youngs at scrum half and Australia’s fly half Bernard “Iceman” Foley will lend the composure to these two respective units that will be needed.  The replacements throw in another conundrum as Australia’s Nick Frisby gets his first call up in a Wallaby jersey at scrum half, while England’s George Ford who has had a dismal run of form this season will have to face up to a pressure appearance in the last quarter of a game that is likely to go down to the wire.  However, England should just get the edge as Danny Care comes off the bench for Ben Youngs.  Care has provided some much needed moments of magic for England at just the right time this year and expect to see him do the same in Brisbane on Saturday.

In the backs, I am once more putting my bet on England getting the slight edge.  Jonathan Joseph at centre and Anthony Watson on the wing have been outstanding for England and at club level this year and will be more than a match for Australia’s Rob Horne and new cap Dane Haylett-Petty.  I was surprised to see England’s Marland Yarde getting the starting berth on the wing over the exceptional Jack Nowell, but with the latter waiting on the bench to make an impact as required in the last quarter England should still be in safe hands here for much of the match.  I would argue that Australia has the more powerful centre combination in Tevita Kuridrani and Samu Kerevi, however, Joseph’s form for England speaks for itself and if Luther Burrell fires then the sheer pace and mobility of the England pair should give the Men in White the edge.  For Australia Kerevi is a wild card, when on form he raises eyebrows but at times he has been very easily shut down for the Reds in this year’s Super Rugby competition.  Lastly at fullback Australia have the mighty Israel Folau up against England’s impetuous Mike Brown.  In terms of all round ability and composure I give the nod to Folau, however, I can’t help feeling after having watched him play at centre this season for the Waratahs in Super Rugby that this is really where he should be playing if Australia really want to use his exceptional skills as it is clearly a position he relishes.  However, Australia are struggling with the fullback position and Folau is obviously their safest bet even if we may not see his full range of abilities at 15.

It is going to be an incredibly close contest, and will swing back and forth in terms of ascendancy for both sides.  However, I can’t help feeling that a confident England will just get the edge over an Australian team trying to find its feet and without some of the big names it has relied on in the past such as Adam Ashley-Cooper.  It will really be decided in the last quarter and with England packing the stronger bench for the most part it should be their day.  England are the more settled of the two sides and as such should just edge this opening encounter by two!

South Africa vs Ireland
Saturday, June 11th
Cape Town

This is probably the most intriguing encounter of the weekend.  South Africa field an essentially new team with a raft of new caps and a new Coach.  Ireland for the most part blend an interesting mix of experience and youth as they seek to rebuild from an exceptionally disappointing Six Nations and the horror of their quarter-final against Argentina in last year’s World Cup.  Looking at the form of some of the South African players that have been selected for this opening Test, there is no doubt that this is a very promising Springbok side which it is going to be exceptionally hard for Ireland to contain.  However, Irish Coach Joe Schmidt is one of the best prepared Coaches in Test rugby and he and his charges are unlikely to be daunted by the significant challenges they will face in Cape Town on Saturday.  Like most I do not see Ireland winning the series especially once this new look Springbok side starts gathering some momentum, but do feel they have a chance of sneaking one test, and this opener is their best shot at doing so.

South Africa as usual look to dominate Ireland up front and there is no question that they are likely to do so, and comfortably at that.  Ireland will have to work exceptionally hard to remain competitive here, as they will in the halfback contest, however if they can just hold their own up front then ultimately there could be an even battle in the backs.  Nevertheless, first and foremost the battle is going to have to be won up front and here Ireland are going to have their work cut out for them.  In the front row, it should be South Africa’s day.  As the two Captain’s face off in the Hooker position, South Africa should have the edge in Adriaan Strauss over Ireland’s Rory Best.  Although Best is an inspirational player to his charges, his form at the lineout can be erratic, while Strauss seems to be more consistent especially when throwing to the two giant figures of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger.  With Strauss backed up by props Tendai Mtawarira and Frans Malherbe, it is likely that Ireland are going to get pushed around in the scrums despite the best efforts of Ireland’s Jack McGrath and Mike Ross.  Add to this the fact that the Springbok scrum is shored up in the second row by the massive physical and uncompromising forms of locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger and it really is no contest with these two likely to completely dominate the lineouts.  Ireland’s Ian Henderson is a rising star for the Men in Green and is likely to give as good as he gets but with his partner Devin Toner having erratic form at times, the lineout battle is likely to go the Springboks way.  Add South African revelation of 2016 Pieter-Steph du Toit waiting on the bench to replace either Etzebeth or de Jaeger and the battle is won for the Springboks.  In the back row the competition will be much more even.  Ireland’s CJ Stander will be keen to make a point in an Irish shirt as he returns to his homeland and was one of the standout players of a hit and miss Six Nations campaign for Ireland.  Jordi Murphy when he plays well is a feisty threat for Ireland and is likely to give South Africa’s Siya Kolisi a run for his money especially if he can pressure the Springbok flanker into making mistakes.  South Africa’s Francois Louw is an exceptional player but he too can suffer from inconsistency in form.  As a result, by the very narrowest of margins, I think that Ireland just might have the edge in the loose in Cape Town.  At number eight it is almost impossible to call.  South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen is without a doubt one of the best in the world in his position, but has not quite set the world alight at Toulon this season.  Jamie Heaslip is a vastly experienced player for Ireland and while he has not really stood out at Leinster this year he seems to produce something special whenever he pulls on an Irish jersey.

In the halfbacks, Paddy Jackson gets the nod at fly half as regular Irish maestro and game winner, Johnny Sexton misses the tour due to injury, while Conor Murray at scrum half lends some much needed experience and pace to the partnership.  However, South Africa are finally giving Lions sensation Faf de Klerk his first Springbok call-up at scrum half.  By far one of the most exciting players in this year’s Super Rugby, de Klerk is going to pose massive problems for Ireland.  If allowed any kind of space or opportunity he has the potential to ensure the Irish defences get ripped to shreds.  Meanwhile the calm head and vast experience of Pat Lambie at fly half even though he is a mere 25 years old, will make South Africa’s halfback platform a force to be reckoned with.  It’s going to be a fascinating contest but I can’t help feeling the experience of Lambie and the exceptional skill set of de Klerk will ultimately overwhelm their Irish counterparts.

It’s in the backs where Ireland perhaps has the best chance of making an impact if they get decent ball, but also manage to contain the electric centerfield pairing of South Africa’s Lionel Mapoe and Damian de Allende.  Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is best prepared to do this as he brings some solid physicality and a blistering turn of speed to counter that of Mapoe and De Allende.  Ireland’s Luke Marshall is a gifted player and if given space could pose a lot of problems for the South African defence but his lack of experience at this level may ultimately prove a hindrance.  On the wings Irish Coach Joe Schmidt has gone with experience in the shape of Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls, and while the latter can certainly carve his own magic on a rugby pitch the Irish pair are more likely to be seen in defence as they attempt to shut down South Africa’s Lwazi Mvovo and JP Pietersen.  However, as talented as Mvovo is I have seen him drop the ball under pressure more than he’s held on to it and the Irish defence will be seeking to target this perceived weakness.  JP Pietersen may not be the fastest man out of the blocks for South Africa on the wing but his physical presence once he has built up a head of steam is very difficult to stop.  Lastly in the fullbacks, I am giving Ireland the advantage probably to the surprise of most readers.  There is no doubt that South Africa’s Willie le Roux is a fantastic player but I just haven’t seen the kind of form in the last eighteen months that made him the talking point of the 2014 season.  Jared Payne may not be the world’s most exciting player but he is growing in ability as a talented centre but more importantly as Ireland struggles with the fullback position, a very reliable and capable 15.  On the few occasions he has worn the 15 jersey for Ireland he has impressed particularly in defence.  As a result, I can’t help feeling that Ireland may have the edge over South Africa in this last line of defence and as a platform for initiating counter attacks.

It is going to be an interesting contest, which will either see Ireland implode by 40 minutes or hang in there and cause South Africa all kinds of problems as they seek to settle new combinations and develop their game plan.  Both sides are packing some potential threats on their benches. South Africa boast significant talent in the shape of lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, Number 8 and Lions sensation Warren Whiteley, fly half Elton Jantjies and centre Jesse Kriel.  Ireland meanwhile boast the likes of lock Ultan Dillane, centre Craig Gilroy and fly half Ian Madigan.  In terms of strengths the benches are relatively level, so it will come down to whether or not Ireland can simply contain a very physical and quick thinking Springbok side.  It should be a great contest and probably not the whitewash some are predicting.  However, in the end it should still be South Africa’s day by a comfortable margin.  We may be wrong but South Africa to win by 15 points!

Argentina vs Italy
Saturday, June 11th
Comodoro Rivadavia

Let’s face it life has not been kind to Italy since the World Cup, their two representative teams in the PRO 12 have struggled and Italy had a truly woeful Six Nations campaign under departing Coach Jacques Brunel.  Now there’s a new Coach in the form of Harlequins Coach Irishman Conor O’Shea and Italy is not without some promising young talent – they just need the right direction.  This match will be of particular interest to Canadian rugby fans as Italy will face Canada at the end of the month.  Argentina meanwhile have their first Test outing since the World Cup as they reunite under inspirational Coach Daniel Hourcade.  Argentina have fielded a team in this year’s Super Rugby tournament, and while the Jaguares have provided plenty of excitement they have been frustratingly short of results.  This will be of some concern to Coach Hourcade considering that Jaguares players form the bulk of the current Pumas squad.  Nevertheless, Hourcade proved himself to be one of the most successful coaches of last year’s World Cup and under his tutelage the Pumas are likely to have that special X factor that we saw so much of last year.  Consequently, this is going to be a very difficult outing for Italy, but hopefully it will provide them with the experience and confidence to take on their other slightly easier match ups with the USA and Canada this month.

Argentina will use their renowned strengths up front to make life difficult for the Italians and build the platform of possession needed to unleash their devastating back line.  Italy is capable of putting up a feisty scrum but its lack of experience will likely cause it to battle against Argentina’s established unit of Captain Agustin Creevy at Hooker and Prop Francisco Chaparro.  Meanwhile Argentina should dominate the lineouts through locks Guido Petti who has impressed all year in a Puma and Jaguares jersey alongside Matias Alemanno who has also stood out.  Italy boasts a powerful force in Marco Fuser but it is unlikely to match up against the Pumas strengths in this department.  Meanwhile the back row for Argentina boasts the superb Pablo Matera and has Javier Ortega Desio and Juan Manuel Leguizamon waiting on the bench.  In short, Italy will have to play out of their skins to overcome this Argentinian powerhouse back row.  Simone Favaro had a good outing in the Six Nations for Italy in the flanker department but he and his colleagues are likely to be overwhelmed by Argentina on Saturday.  Argentina will be shored up in the forwards by Facundo Isa at number eight and once again he is a rising talent for the Pumas.  Overall, Argentina has such a strong forward platform that it is going to be an uphill battle all afternoon for Italy to gain any kind of ascendancy.

Italy has a promising halfback partnership in scrum half Eduardo Gori and fly half Carlo Canna, both of whom will be cornerstones of Italy’s future in the build up to the World Cup in Japan in 2019.  However, their relative lack of Test experience will mean they will be up against it in their duel with one of Test rugby’s most exciting halfback partnerships in the shape of fly half Nicolas Sanchez and scrum half Martin Landajo.  In short, there is likely to be little contest here and Argentina should comfortably be able to dictate play all afternoon.

Italy has some outstanding backs in the shape of centre Michele Campagnaro and wingers Leonardo Sarto and David Odiete, however they are simply not of the calibre of the Argentine offering.  Wingers Manuel Montero and Santiago Cordero in particular are very exciting players that can light up a pitch given the right opportunities.  Meanwhile the centre pairing of Juan Martin Hernandez and Matias Moroni are quality through and through.  They don’t call Hernandez the magician for nothing.  Italy will be competitive all afternoon but ultimately be outclassed by Argentina’s superior pedigree.  Lastly at fullback Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet is in a league of his own compared to Italy’s Luke McLean.  Expect once again Italy to compete but Tuculet is superb in defense and explosive on attack which means that once again Italy are going to have dig very deep to contain him.

An interesting contest and hopefully one in which Italy can learn some valuable lessons and acquit themselves with some degree of pride, but one which Argentina should walk away with comfortably.  A spirited Italy should put up a good fight under the demanding tutelage of new Coach Conor O’Shea but the Pumas to ultimately walk away with the spoils by 20 points!

Canada vs Japan
Saturday, June 11th
Vancouver

Canada take to the field with a new Coach, Mark Anscombe after acquitting themselves well in the recent inaugural Americas Rugby Championship in March under interim Coach Francois Ratier.  Many of the players who fared so well in March return to face Japan in Vancouver this Saturday.  This should be a highly competitive match as Canada face up against a Japanese team that draws almost exclusively from the Japanese Super Rugby franchise the Sunwolves.  As Canada’s first outing under Anscombe it may be a tall order for them to defeat a Japanese side whose players are coming straight from three month’s experience of the World’s toughest and most demanding club rugby competition.  Although some of the names who made such an impact for Japan in the World Cup are missing from the squad it is still a strong Japanese team who will have a benefit from the cohesion of their Super Rugby exploits.

One to watch in a match which Canada has the potential to win, especially at home, will be prop Djustice Sears-Duru who is making a name for himself with Glasgow Warriors.  Meanwhile warhorse Ray Barkwill should ensure that Canada is competitive in the scrums and the lineouts as the Canadian Hooker was one of Canada’s most reliable players last year in both the Pacific Nations and World Cups.  Canada will miss the inspirational figure of Hubert Buydens in the front row, but probably one of Canada’s most notable players, lock Jamie Cudmore will be instrumental in motivating Canada’s younger charges in this match.  At 37 years of age there still seems to be plenty of life left in this Canadian tiger and he remains committed to leaving a lasting impact on Canadian rugby.  One player who really stood out in the recent Americas Rugby Championship was flanker Lucas Rumball and I was very happy to see him included in Canada’s starting line up for this match.  Flanker Aaron Carpenter needs no introduction along with scrum half Gordon McRorie.

In the backs there is plenty to be excited about for Canada with a welcome return to the fray for Taylor Paris on the wing.  Nick Blevins should provide a superb example to his young cohort Brock Staller in centre field, while Matt Evans has put in some notable shifts at fullback.  Canada may struggle at fly half as they have yet to find a clear answer for this position and it is likely that much of the tactical and goal kicking duties may fall to veteran scrum half Gordon McRorie.  On the bench I am really looking forward to seeing lock Paul Ciulini make an appearance as he was another of Canada’s players who really stood out during the Americas Rugby Championship.

This should be a close and highly entertaining match, which should be an excellent preparation for Canada’s ultimate test against Italy at the end of the month.  Canada should be highly competitive for the full eighty minutes, but ultimately I can’t help feeling that the match will go in favour of the Japanese simply on the grounds of their recent experiences as a squad in the cauldron of Super Rugby.  The Japanese have for the most part been playing as a unit for the last three months in one of the toughest competitions in the world.  As a result, their understanding of each other and how to get the best out of any given situation should give them a clear edge over the Canadians who are only getting together for the first time competitively after a two-month break.  Furthermore, the Canadian squad that had such success in the Americas Rugby Championship is not quite the same as that which runs out in Vancouver this Saturday.  Therefore, expect no quarters given but Japan to just walk away the winners by five points!

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