First up sorry for the silence since the World Cup. Work, Christmas, families etc all took precedence over us having a good look at matters pertaining to the oval ball for the last couple of months. 2020 will be a busy year for all, on and off the ball, so to accommodate we are changing our approach to how we cover things.
No dramatic changes – the focus is still 100% on International Rugby. To that effect we’ll continue looking at the usual suspects, the Heineken Cup, Pro 14, Super Rugby, the Six Nations, Rugby Championship, Americas Rugby Championship and all the tours in between. We’ll also be looking at Major League Rugby here in North America, as we are after all a Canadian site and our prized Toronto Arrows add a regular international flavour to the competition. However, apart from match reports on the Arrows home games, which we will be religiously attending, we’ll be moving away from previews of the big Tests. Instead, and in an effort to provide your weekly update over a cup of coffee, we’ll try and put out at least every other week, if not every week, a short synopsis of what got us talking about the important games played at the weekend and the ones coming up. In short a weekly digest of sound bites on the major competitions. We may throw the odd preview in there for things like the final weekend of the Six Nations and other big events, but with workloads this year, to do it regularly would just be too much. The only things we won’t be looking at is the English Premiership and the French Top14 – not because we don’t think they are important in the grand scheme of things, but for all intents and purposes they are domestic competitions strictly within the borders of England and France. Also it would just be too much rugby, and our families would probably have something to say about us turning into complete couch potatoes.
So without any further ado, here’s our first go for 2020.
European Champions Cup
The first four rounds of the competition have been enthralling and now with everything to play for in the final two before the playoffs, there’s plenty to talk about especially with the start of the Six Nations just around the corner.
English teams continue to struggle to make much of a dent in the competition, with the exception this year of Exeter Chiefs. The Chiefs have a tricky encounter in Glasgow this weekend with their Pool 2 rivals, but look set to book their place in the playoffs with ease. Despite topping the English domestic scene along with the Chiefs, Northampton have struggled to match up to the intensity of Irish Giants Leinster with whom they share Pool 1. Harlequins and Bath have been shown the door already, and Saracens and Gloucester appear to be hanging on for dear life, with both teams having do or die matches this weekend, though in Saracens case they look in a strong position as they take on the hapless Ospreys.
For French teams, they are either really good or having a season to forget in Europe with very little in the way of middle ground. Despite sitting pretty in France’s domestic Top 14 Competition, Lyon have struggled to make a statement in Europe this season, while La Rochelle and Montpelier have shown nothing to really make anyone sit up and take notice of their European efforts and sit firmly camped at the bottom of their respective pools. Racing 92 has played some exquisite running rugby, all sparked by Scotland superstar fly half Finn Russell. Toulouse are back to their glory days and Clermont are the European force they always are.
It’s Irish teams though who have perhaps shown the most dominance, particularly Leinster. It’s going to take a very special team to end their seemingly unstoppable run to the final. Meanwhile Ulster has proven to be the surprise package of the tournament so far, with scrum half John Cooney, providing some of the most spectacular razzle dazzle seen in the tournament, and giving incumbent Ireland scrum half Conor Murray a real run for his money for the number nine jersey come the Six Nations. Connacht sadly seem to be fading away, despite the comeback of the season against Gloucester in December, while Munster struggle with injury and form despite clinging to a vulnerable second place in Pool 4 that could well be undone this weekend in a difficult trip to Paris to take on Racing 92.
Scotland’s sole representative Glasgow, have looked awfully good at times but their second place in Pool 2 is more than a tad vulnerable, especially as they host English powerhouse Exeter this weekend. Meanwhile the Welsh and Italian contingents of Ospreys and Benetton Treviso have been embarrassing to watch at times, though the Italians have acquitted themselves with some aplomb by running both Northampton and Lyon exceptionally close. Ospreys sadly have little if anything to cheer about this season, having being comprehensively drubbed by Racing 92, Saracens and Munster in no uncertain terms.
With the final two rounds of pool play in the European Champions Cup taking place over the next two weekends, thoughts have naturally turned to the Six Nations.
England despite not dominating European Club competition still look like the team everyone is going to have to beat this year. As we saw in the World Cup there is enough talent in the English ranks to build a formidable Test day 23, and Coach Eddie Jones has been getting the results, barring that World Cup Final. Perhaps the biggest questions facing English selectors are who gets the Captain’s jersey and who takes the helm at scrum half. Current incumbent number 9 Ben Youngs, was for the most part England’s weak link in the World Cup barring that match against New Zealand, and it is clearly time for some of England’s youngsters to get into the next four year building cycle. The bigger question is the Captain conundrum. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, despite his enormous value to England, Owen Farrell is not the man for the job. He performs admirably in the role when things are going England’s way, but the minute the tides change he is nowhere to be found as evidenced against South Africa in the World Cup Final. He loses composure, his negativity when England are up against it clearly affects the rest of his teammates, and let’s not mention the liability of his tackling technique which somehow continues to slip under the radar of the officials. A great player but perhaps much more effective without the burden of the Captaincy. The million dollar question however remains if not Farrell then who? Quite frankly we are struggling to find an answer, but perhaps it lies somewhere in the second row amongst the likes of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes or George Kruis. Like we say it’s a real conundrum, there are plenty of Captains in the making in England’s young guns, but as to who could fulfill the role right now is a bit of a grey area.
France also look to ring the changes this Six Nations, both in terms of players and a new Coaching direction under Fabien Galthie. There has been lots of razzle dazzle in French play in the European Champions Cup, but as always it remains to be seen if France can bring it to the Test arena. There is a potentially epic French Six Nations team in there somewhere and perhaps Galthie is finally the right man to tease it out.
Ireland may have failed to turn up for the World Cup, but outside of England, they perhaps look the most menacing side heading into the Six Nations. A new Coaching regime will be one of the main talking points under the tutelage of English import Andy Farrell, though many are surely wondering how long it will be before Leinster Coach Leo Cullen takes the reins, given Leinster’s dominance in Europe. Perhaps the biggest task facing Farrell will be to bid farewell to some of the old guard in Ireland and really use the next four years to develop a youthful but experienced Irish World Cup squad. Perhaps his most pressing concerns in this department are in the halfbacks. Conor Murray will likely have got close to the end of his career come the next World Cup, but there are a raft of young aspirants to the position, and who are arguably playing better at the moment, most notably Ulster’s John Cooney, with Leinster’s Luke McGrath also putting his hand up. Johnny Sexton will not be making the next World Cup, and given his issues with injury and mercurial form of late, you’d be hard pressed to argue against not seizing this Six Nations as a golden opportunity to give Leinster’s Ross Byrne the starting berth for the Championship, with team mate Ciaran Frawley and Ulster’s Billy Burns some serious game time as well during the course of the tournament. Joey Carberry has long been favoured as Sexton’s replacement, however the exceptionally gifted Munster fly half is so prone to injury that is hard for the Irish coaching staff to bank on him with on any degree of reliability.
Italy also see a change in management, and Benetton Treviso’s often feisty performances in Europe this season will give Italian supporters something to cheer about, as well as the exploits of Italian internationals in some of the English and French domestic leagues. Expect Italy to be competitive, even if the wooden spoon is likely to be their chosen cutlery this year once more.
Scotland are likely as always to provide us with some of the most enthralling encounters of the tournament, sparked predominantly by their bundle of fireworks at number ten Finn Russell. He’s packed more excitement this season for Racing 92 than many of his opponents would care to remember. There are also some Scottish youngsters champing hard at the bit to provide the kind of X-factor usually reserved for Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg. Glasgow’s Sam Johnson and Huw Jones along with Edinburgh’s Darcy Graham are likely to be making plenty of headlines in February and March.
Wales may not be having much luck in Europe at club level, but they have a competent new Coach in Wayne Pivac. However, Scarlets are still a force in the PRO14 and there is a healthy dose of Welsh big guns scattered across the French and English domestic competitions. Wales showed they were one of the grittiest sides in World Rugby at the recent festivities in Japan with a defense that seems almost indestructible at times. In short don’t judge Welsh fortunes in Europe as a measure of how they are likely to fare in the Six Nations. Just like last year they look set to be the competition’s number one dark horse.
It’s still a few weeks away, but it’s hard to raise our enthusiasm for this Southern Hemisphere club showpiece. With Australian rugby in shambles, doubts about the continued presence of a Japanese franchise and the rows and rows of empty seats (Buenos Aires being the only notable exception) in the stadiums, it just doesn’t seem to have the energy of its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, despite there being some very attractive and highly skilled rugby on display. It’s still a relevant competition but one desperately in need of an overhaul, as it’s current format is unwieldy and cumbersome making the run up to the playoffs more of a grind than an enjoyable spectacle of top flight rugby which at its core is what it should be. We’ll have more to say closer to the time but for now our focus is likely to remain on both sides of the Atlantic.
Major League Rugby
Yes it’s only a few weeks away but we’ve been heartened by the buildup to the forthcoming season, especially here in Toronto. There seems to be a genuine interest in the new and expanded league. The Toronto Arrows are hosting a community day this weekend aimed at kids, and my own 7 year old can’t wait. https://toronto-arrows-community-rugby-day-2020.eventbrite.ca/
Some big names have also been signed up to the League, most notably French International Matthieu Basteraud to Rugby United New York and Springbok World Cup Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira to Old Glory DC.
The Toronto Arrows will continue to be boosted by the presence of Uruguayan internationals Leandro Leivas and Gaston Mieres both of whom played a big part in Uruguay’s recent World Cup heroics. Toronto made it to the semifinals last year and there is every reason to think that, with the benefit of that experience behind them and a seasoned squad, they can aspire to a similar goal this season.
Despite two years of the MLR, Canada and the USA still fared poorly in the recent World Cup. However, we have a hunch that after another two years, both countries will find themselves on a much stronger footing against international opposition.
Well that’s it for this week. Head on over to the TV listings page for our picks of the weekend’s European Champions Cup on DAZN here in Canada.