It’s been an enthralling Six Nations so far, and after the first two rounds the Tournament still looks wide open, even though England and Ireland are the only remaining contenders for a Grand Slam. However, Wales are still definitely in the mix for the Championship. Scotland also look set to make life difficult for England and Ireland, while France are more than capable of causing an upset in Paris when they take on England.
The same optimistic picture cannot be painted for Canada after three rounds of the Americas Rugby Championship. A loss to Uruguay which ultimately saw them lose yet another opportunity to qualify for the World Cup, was made worse by the fact that they then lost to the United States who they now have not beaten since 2013. There was a bright light in Round 3 which saw Canada pull off a comprehensive win against Brazil. However, it is clearly going to be another rough year for Canadian rugby with the chance of missing the World Cup for the first time in the tournament’s history becoming a real possibility.
So here’s a snapshot of some of the things that stood out for us in the opening two rounds of the Six Nations and Canada’s performance in the Americas Rugby Championship so far.
While it would seem England are still the side to beat, Ireland find themselves at the top of the Six Nations table on a slender points difference. England and Ireland have both had their easiest match of the tournament so far against Italy. Ireland were more successful in the points grab that such matches are traditionally viewed as, even if a woeful lapse in concentration in the second half saw Italy rack up three tries.
Against France, Ireland had plenty of possession but failed to really turn it into points, other than from the boot of fly half Johnny Sexton. They seemed incapable of breaking an impressive French defence despite repeated assaults. In fairness to them, the final three minutes of the match and 41 phases of Irish possession was an incredible display of big match composure to snatch what seemed like an improbable win. Johnny Sexton really showed his pedigree with that remarkable drop goal and why he is rightly considered one of the best in the world.
Ireland look good make no mistake, but seem to suffer from serious lapses of concentration in the second half, something which their final three opponents will be keen to pounce on. Ireland have their three toughest matches of the tournament up next. Firstly at home to Wales and Scotland and then they head to Fortress Twickenham to take on England in what many are predicting to be the tournament decider. However, to get past an impressive looking Welsh side and a Scottish team that seems to have settled back into their groove, Ireland will need 160 minutes of the kind of composure and execution they showed in the final three minutes of the French match. If they are able to do this then the showdown with England will become the Tournament and Grand Slam decider it is being billed as, but it is going to be a big ask.
England looked good against Italy in their opening match, though they will be disappointed with not getting more points out of the proceedings. However, much like Ireland against France, they were lucky to get the win over a Welsh side that dominated the final 30 minutes of a tough match. England do not look invincible and the fact that their final match against their main rivals Ireland is at fortress Twickenham will be of little comfort. They have looked impressive at times but as we saw in the Welsh game, against stiff opposition they can be pressured into making mistakes.
England have a tough assignment in Murrayfield against a revitalized Scottish team, followed by a trip to Paris against a French side that is clearly building up to one really big performance in this tournament. Make no mistake, we still feel England are the team to beat. However, the aura of invincibility that has surrounded them up to now has lost some of its lustre. Add continued injuries into the mix and question marks will get raised about how far England can really go this year, in much the same way as the same questions are being asked of Ireland.
The Welsh game will have been a valuable wake up call for Coach Eddie Jones and his charges, and we expect to see England ramp up their performance for a grand finale on March 17th against Ireland, but there will certainly be no givens in the weeks leading up to it.
If Wales had abandoned the kicking game that gifted the game to England in the first 50 minutes of the match at Twickenham, we would be looking at a very different pecking order in the table. That Welsh performance in the final half hour was a phenomenal comeback, raising the question of what would that scoreline have been like if they had played that way for a full eighty minutes, as they clearly had England on the ropes. Furthermore, the Welsh demolition of a very highly rated Scottish side in the tournament’s opening fixture was a revelation in itself. Wales may be struggling with injuries but there is no shortage of world-class talent in the squad, with a back row depth in the forwards that is quite frightening and some pace and skill in the backs to take your breath away.
Their opening match against Scotland was ruthless and clinical. Their next match against England displayed a tactical naiveté that after watching the Scotland game we were rather puzzled by to say the least. We were convinced that after the first half some serious words would have been doled out in the changing room about the inefficiency of the Welsh kicking game. Consequently imagine our surprise to see Wales doing exactly the same thing for the first ten minutes of the second half, before having a Eureka moment on the fifty minute mark. Once that happened Wales became a different side and could have clearly won that match had they played like that in the first fifty minutes of the game.
Despite the loss to England, Wales are clearly in this to win it. A tough away fixture in Dublin awaits them next, but after that they have the luxury of Italy and France at home. If they upset Ireland in Dublin, then although a Grand Slam is out of the question they will clearly fancy their chances at lifting the trophy on March 17th. They have pace out wide and a fearsome forward pack, with a defence that for the most part looks solid. Cut out the reliance on a kicking game that is clearly not working for them and Wales are very much the dark horse in this year’s tournament.
Scotland were clearly devastated by their crushing loss to Wales in the opening round of the tournament. They were a shadow of the side that put 53 points on Australia in November. We like most people were shocked at how Scotland simply didn’t show up in Cardiff as they clearly are a better side than that with talent to burn. Consequently their comprehensive dismantling of France a week later was much more to the type of form we are coming to expect from them.
Like we say we can’t really find any excuses other than opening night nerves for the disaster in Cardiff. Some argue that Scotland are simply not that good on the road, but then let’s recall that historic defeat of the Wallabies in Sydney last June. This is an excellent Scottish side, even with the injury problems they are faced with, and as we saw in the French game, a serious threat to anyone who makes the mistake of taking them lightly.
Their only real stumbling blocks to a strong finish in this tournament is the trip to Dublin at the beginning of March and their date with England next Saturday. However, they will fancy their chances against England in front of a very vocal Murrayfield crowd. If that goes well there is no question they will be up for the challenge of their away fixture against the Irish, and a relatively soft final encounter against Italy in Rome. While we have trouble seeing Scotland finishing top of the table, a strong second or third place finish is definitely on the cards. If they do beat England next Saturday though they could essentially turn this tournament on its head, so keep a close eye to next week’s Calcutta Cup fixture.
While France may be winless after two rounds, considering that many had written them off before the tournament, there is a lot to cheer about if you’re a French supporter. The heartbreaking loss to Ireland at the final whistle was a tough pill to swallow, but France could take a great deal of heart from a superb performance both on attack and in some truly heroic defence. Ireland could simply not find a way through the blue wall and it required 41 phases of possession before a remarkable drop goal attempt from Ireland would rob France of an historic win at the final whistle.
France went to give Scotland a stern test at Murrayfield, and the first half showed some brilliant attacking flair from les Bleus. The game then resorted to a tactical battle via the boot in the second half, and here Scotland played the smarter game, as well as putting France under pressure to the point where their discipline started to crack badly.
However, despite languishing at fifth on the table, France are clearly once more on the rise. They have a solid forward pack and some exceptional flair and pace in their backs all allied to a water tight defence. They do seem to be struggling to find the right half back mix, but this is much more like a French side of old. In our opinion there is one really big game in this French side still to come in this tournament, that could well upset the tournament pecking order. We feel it might just be in Paris when they take on England, especially if England get a serious fright from the Scots next Saturday. France are definitely the wild card this year make no mistake, and it is great to see them brandishing it once more.
Italy like France may be struggling to get some traction so far in this tournament, but they have certainly showed some promise at times. Furthermore, they have arguably had their two toughest games at the start of the tournament against the two favorites England and Ireland, and as a result it may be unfair to judge them too harshly at this stage in the competition. They can take heart from the fact that they can score tries, and did so against the two best teams in the tournament. If they can work on their defence which is clearly a real Achilles heel for them along with continued problems in terms of discipline, then they could come to the end of the tournament with a sense of real progress.
Italy’s opening encounter with England in Rome, showed a much improved Italian performance after a poor November Test window. It was still a respectable scoreline at halftime with Italy only trailing 17-10 against the second best team in the world. Italy’s defence fell apart in the second half, but they had shown some real attacking flair with some outstanding new talent in the backs, and an aggressive and effective back row.
In their second match against Ireland, some of the shine came off that opening performance but they still managed to score three superb tries, despite being clearly overwhelmed by Ireland at times. If Scotland fail to rise to the challenge of England and Ireland, then Italy will surely fancy their chances against them in Rome at the end of the tournament. Italy’s immediate concern though will be trying to test the depth of the French renaissance in Marseille next Friday. This has traditionally always been a scrappy encounter between the two sides, and if France have run out of steam after a bright start and Italy have fixed their defensive issues then the scope for a possible upset is clearly there. It’s still hard to see Italy being anything other than the traditional holders of the wooden spoon this year, but there is clearly some real improvement going on and Coach Conor O’Shea should feel pleased with the progress being made.
Canada and the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC)
Put your hands up if like us you breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the third round and Canada’s emphatic win over Brazil. It was a result that Canada simply had to get. While it may not have much impact on Canada’s overall fortunes in the tournament, the fact that a torrid run of form has finally been broken is at least a point from which Canada can attempt to start the long and painful process of rebuilding a credible 15 a side game once more.
Canada got off to a shaky start at home to Uruguay which also served as a World Cup qualifier. While they played with plenty of intensity, the execution simply wasn’t there and as a result much of their play looked frantic and poorly structured despite them dominating the possession. Uruguay on the other hand, made much better use of the possession they had. In fairness to Canada as a result of having to fit two World Cup qualifying matches with Uruguay into the ARC schedule this year, the travel plans of the Canadian squad have been ridiculous to say the least over a six-week period. They went from their opening match straight to Uruguay, then back to the US and then up to Canada for this weekend’s match against Brazil. No sooner had they untied their boot laces from this weekend’s match, then they find themselves preparing to head off to Argentina for their match this coming Saturday, followed by their final match in Chile a week later. How you fit training into all of this and cope with the effects of long distance travel is slightly beyond us.
As a result of a hectic travel schedule it was no surprise that Canada came unstuck in their second match against the USA in Sacramento, California, especially after not managing to qualify for the World Cup after losing both their matches with the Uruguayans. Add to this a constant turnover in terms of squad personnel as new Coach Kingsley Jones seeks to get an understanding of his player base, and it is no wonder that there is little in terms of consistency regarding Canada’s performances at the moment. While we understand the constraints Jones is up against we also are concerned that with two matches to go, there is still alarmingly little consistency in selection outside of Hooker and the half back positions. In the second match against Uruguay which Canada narrowly lost by one point, we were really impressed with centre Ben LeSage and have been frustrated to not see him playing a greater role in the squad.
Furthermore, while we understand the fact that Canada doesn’t have a huge player base, we are not sure that this contant flux of sevens players in and out of the 15 a side structure at the moment is constructive in terms of fixing Canada’s long term problems. In many ways this smacks of desperation for results as opposed to a well thought out strategy for long term growth and development of the larger game in Canada.
Canada need to find the core of a 23 man squad they can really start to develop between now and November, if they are to stand any chance of getting through a tough repechage tournament for their final shot at qualifying for next year’s World Cup. With only two matches left in the ARC and three June internationals we fear that time is running out to build a settled squad before the crucial November round of qualifying matches. On their present form and without a consistent selection policy, while the win over Brazil will do much to restore some confidence and pride to a battered jersey, realistically Canada is unlikely to finish better than a strong fourth in this year’s Americas Rugby Championship. Saturday’s victory over Brazil was a much-needed shot in the arm, but it is still a long and rocky road ahead of Canada to start the hard climb up the world rankings once more.
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