If you thought last weekend was pretty epic then this one coming up looks to be even better, with the added bonus of the Toronto Arrows getting their MLR campaign underway.
The Six Nations got off to a thrilling start and, despite the weather forecast for this Saturday, provides us two contests of titanic proportions to look forward to. Super Rugby also got underway and threw up plenty of surprises and we were pleased to see relatively healthy crowds in attendance and some very exciting rugby as always on display. Lastly, closer to home Canada’s first foray into professional rugby union gets into its second season as our own Toronto Arrows get their campaign underway in Texas.
In short LOTS to look forward to and plenty of talking points, so here’s what got us agreeing to disagree this week.
Six Nations post a World Cup have often tended to be slightly flat affairs, and this season threatened the same especially given the raft of wholesale changes going on in most of the squads. In reality however, last weekend was one of the best opening weekends we can remember in a while, and this year’s edition looks set to be a classic in the making.
Wales and Italy got us started and although it was a completely one-sided affair in favor of the Men in Red, it was still an entertaining contest. Although Italy didn’t get any points on the board they rarely looked like they were simply lying down and capitulating especially in the second half, despite the 42-0 scoreline. Wales though looked the business from start to finish and of all the six teams, would appear to be head and shoulders above the rest in terms of the favorites tag. Life under new Coach Wayne Pivac seems to be agreeing with them and some of the creativity we felt Wales have always had was finally allowed to run riot. Dan Biggar was clearly the best number ten in the competition so far, but Wales looked the complete package and a highly dangerous one at that. As regular visitors to these musings know we are MASSIVE fans of open side flanker Justin Tipuric, and he did not disappoint in this match as he put in a monumental shift that showcased his exceptional talents – in short one of the best in the business! Leigh Halfpenny also seemed to experience a second coming at fullback, while winger Josh Adams proceeded to cross the whitewash at will and debutant winger Johnny McNicholl adjusted to life at Test level exceptionally well. Given Ireland’s rather disjointed performance against Scotland, Wayne Pivac’s men must surely fancy their chances in Dublin this weekend. With foul weather promised, they may not be as expansive as they were against Italy, but they have a forward pack that is more than capable of slogging it out in the wet and a solid defense ably marshaled by Dan Biggar who is clearly at the top of his game.
Italy seemed to confirm widely held beliefs that they would once again be clasping the wooden spoon this year. After watching France dismantle a rather over rated England side last weekend, Italy must be feeling more than just a little nervous about their trip to the French capital this Sunday. Italy did have a few moments of promising creativity in the second half, but Wales had done so much damage in the first forty that although Italy entertained us at times, they rarely threatened and the Coaching staff will be concerned they left Cardiff without a point to their name. We’re not convinced that the Carlo Canna experiment worked at center and expect to see him returned to the number ten jersey this weekend albeit from the bench. There is some genuine talent in this Italian squad especially in the back line and the back row, but as mentioned last week, we really hope Coach Franco Smith returns second rower Federico Ruzza to the starting lineup for Italy this weekend, as his prowess in broken play off set pieces is a real asset to Italy’s ability to create opportunity when they need it the most.
The contest in Dublin between Ireland and Scotland was a high octane affair, but both sides still suffer from an ability to score tries, which could ultimately leave them both in the middle to the bottom of the pack this year. Scotland fluffed their lines all too often close to the try line, with Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg clearly having the most frustrating moment of the tournament as he knocked the ball on in what was otherwise a gift of a try. What Scotland did show us though was some truly bruising and intense physicality, which before the weekend was supposed to have been the preserve of England according to their Coach Eddie Jones. In many ways it was the weekend of those chosen to wear the number seven jersey, with the representatives of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France in said shirts all having massive performances. Scotland’s Hamish Watson was once again inspirational to his team as a one man wrecking ball and perhaps one of the hardest working individuals in Test Rugby – if you want intensity it doesn’t get much more intense than Watson with a full head of steam. Scotland didn’t seem to miss the presence of fly half Finn Russell too much as Adam Hastings provided them with plenty of creativity and a calm head to boot. For us though it was that Scottish pack which really stood out, they pushed Ireland around in the scrums and in the loose were an absolute nightmare to defend against, as well as shutting down any ideas Ireland had about scoring tries for the most part. England will need to up their game and then some if they are looking to get past a determined Scottish outfit that seems to have no problem giving as good as they get in the physical stakes department in the Murrayfield citadel in the wind and the rain. If Scotland play like they did in Dublin and cut out the errors and play to the conditions well, England could find themselves being very unhappy tourists.
Ireland need to score tries plain and simple if they are really going to get themselves back to their lofty heights of 2018. While the players have all been singing the praises of new Coach Andy Farrell, we saw very little in Ireland’s performance on Saturday that looked dramatically different from last year. Sure they did seem to be willing to try their hand at a degree of creativity that had perhaps been stifled under Farrell’s predecessor Joe Schmidt, but Ireland still for the most part looked predictable and flat. They have an exceptionally talented back line, but it appeared to be standing in the queue at the unemployment office for large periods of the match. Fullback Jordan Larmour was clearly itching to have a go all match but Ireland were rarely able to capitalize on some scintillating counterattacks from deep from the number 15. Fly half Johnny Sexton produced one of the best moments of the match with a trademark Sexton try, but for the rest of the match put in a relatively average performance. His partner scrum half Conor Murray looked flat for much of the game and produced endless box kicks that the Scots appeared to know were coming weeks in advance. There were some epic individual performances from CJ Stander in the back row, Tadgh Furlong in the front row and James Ryan continued in his role as the most reliable second rower Ireland has had since Paul O’Connell. But were we left with the impression that this was a much needed new look Ireland? In short – NO. If Ireland are going to cope with the red hot smoking gun that is Wales this weekend, then they need to make a massive improvement in terms of performance. The weather may or may not be their friend this weekend, but they need to focus as a unit much more, as they are now a collection of talented individuals unsure of what type of game they want to play.
The big talking point of the weekend though was without a doubt the dust up in the rain in Paris. Hello France, who under new Coach Fabien Galthie look exciting, refreshing and ridiculously capable. That first 55 minutes were simply mesmerizing as they handed England a 24-0 deficit. New Captain Charles Ollivon always had the potential for greatness in our opinion and he certainly didn’t disappoint with two fine tries in this match. Gregory Alldritt at number eight produced the kind of performance usually reserved for Welsh flanker Justin Tipuric while second rower Bernard le Roux made the English eat their words about their supposed physical prowess. Antoine Dupont made the point that he is likely to be the scrum half of the tournament despite a moment of sheer folly in the 79th minute, and France’s set of backs delivered and then some. However, this French team of relative youngsters did display that alarming French tendency to throw away a perfectly good lead by taking their foot off the gas. England came back at them through two one man rescue missions delivered by English winger Jonny May, and the final ten minutes were a fraught affair for French supporters who were suddenly getting an alarming sense of deja vu. France managed to hold it together but know they really need to tighten up the final quarter of their game, something that is a recurring deficiency for them, despite a truly world class opening sixty. They have a relatively easy training session with Italy this Sunday to get that right before a VERY challenging trip to Wales.
It was England though who perhaps provided the biggest talking point of the weekend. To say that it was an inept performance by the English in Paris would be putting it mildly. If it hadn’t been for the Superhero solo efforts of winger Jonny May, England would have limped away from Paris as the laughing stock of the Six Nations. Their cause wasn’t helped by the ridiculous rhetoric being spouted about physicality and putting the French to the sword being made by Head Coach Eddie Jones prior to the match. Yes we know that it’s all part of trying to psyche the opposition out these days but Jones idiotic and arrogant soundbites these days are rapidly becoming an embarrassment to both players and supporters alike. There are clearly those who like him and those who don’t, but we have to confess to falling into the latter camp. We are also not convinced of his coaching credentials, especially after his selection choices for this match which remain beyond baffling. England are clearly in danger of becoming the most over hyped team in Test rugby at the moment, especially when you put their 2019 season into perspective. Sure they made a World Cup final, but there’s no denying they didn’t quite show up for it and were utterly out played by South Africa. Yes they beat a poor New Zealand side in the semi-finals, and for the rest of it had a relatively easy path to that fixture in the pool and quarter-final stages – let’s be honest beating Australia in the quarters wasn’t exactly difficult as most teams could have managed it. To top it off they didn’t win the Six Nations last year and other than putting Ireland to the sword weren’t exactly awe inspiring and narrowly avoided some massive embarrassment courtesy of the Scots in the final game of the tournament.
England have enormous talent, make no mistake and even the team that journeyed to Paris would be the envy of most Coaches, were it managed properly. England have a golden opportunity to build towards the next generation with a new crop of young players, something France has clearly embraced with open arms. England has massive problems at scrum half, with Ben Youngs a consistent weak link in the chain and Willi Heinz likely to be well past his sell by date come the next World Cup. England has an extraordinary talent in Alex Dombrandt for the eight jersey yet for reasons best known to himself Eddie Jones decided to take one of the world’s best up and coming open side flankers in Tom Curry and shift him to number eight. England’s entire second and back row looked so unbalanced on Sunday it was almost laughable and France clearly couldn’t believe their good fortune. Owen Farrell continued to stick his head in the sand like some wounded ostrich as things unraveled for England and leadership went out the window as a result. Manu Tuilagi is too predictable at centre and is simply not long-term Test material due to his unfortunate run of luck with persistent injuries, while debutant fullback George Furbank got thrown in at the deep end and failed to rise to the occassion. England found a bit of their mojo once winger Jonny May decided to take matters into his own hands in the 57th minute, but prior to that we really weren’t quite sure where the “greatest ever rugby team in the making” to quote Jones actually was – not in Paris that’s for sure. Our heart goes out to English players and supporters who know they are far better than this and it remains to be seen if Paris was simply a blip on the radar or the beginning of England’s winter of discontent. We fear that their trip to Murrayfield this Saturday in the driving rain and a howling wind and cauldron of fervent Scottish supporters could well be something they might want to forget in a hurry. Jones has remained stubborn once more in his choices and perhaps he really does know something we all don’t, but we’re beginning to wonder if it’s more in the tea leaves than the playbooks.
The season got off to an entertaining start last weekend, with some notable surprises. Perhaps the biggest talking points were Japan’s Sunwolves unexpected win over Australia’s Rebels and South Africa’s Stormers thrashing of traditional Super Rugby powerhouse New Zealand’s Hurricanes. Meanwhile New Zealand’s Crusaders and Argentina’s Jaguares got comfortable wins over Australia’s Waratahs and South Africa’s Lions respectively.
In the local derbies in each of the respective conferences, there were few surprises in New Zealand as the Chiefs emerged victorious over the Blues while in Australia the Brumbies got the better of the Reds in a feisty and entertaining match. In South Africa, the traditional rivalry between the Bulls and the Sharks provided a match which saw the Sharks the more accomplished side.
As mentioned the big surprise was the Sunwolves shock defeat of the Rebels, especially since the Sunwolves face their final season in Super Rugby with a very depleted squad and very few if any well known names. The Rebels on the other hand brought a Wallaby studded team to Fukouka but really struggled to get any traction against their Japanese hosts in an error strewn performance. The Rebels did manage a comeback in the second half but it wasn’t enough for a bonus point loss, and the Sunwolves now find themselves in the unique position of sitting atop the Australian conference with a bonus point win. Once again what that says about the actual state of Australian rugby is potentially alarming and it remains to be seen how competitive Australian teams will be this year both at Super Rugby and international level, given the continuing turmoil going on in the game at home.
The Stormers got off to a dream start as they eclipsed the Hurricanes 27-0 with Captain Siya Kolisi and scrum half Herschel Jantjies putting in some very impressive performances. Jantjies in particular is a remarkable player and expect to see the 23 year old Springbok lighting up pitches across the globe between now and the next World Cup. One negative of the game was an injury that will see Kolisi miss much of the Stormers regular season but the Stormers certainly don’t look short on talent this year. Despite some very big names in the Hurricanes squad, it was an exceptionally uncharacteristic error strewn performance from them, and it is rare to see such a quality side so utterly outclassed and outplayed. We doubt it will stay that way for long as there is just too much talent in the Hurricanes lineup, but it will certainly have rattled their confidence ahead of a difficult trip to Buenos Aires this Saturday.
The Stormers annihilation of the Hurricanes, wasn’t good enough to see them top the South African conference in the opening weekend, as that honor went to Argentina’s Jaguares. Despite missing a raft of big international stars who have been snapped up by European clubs the Jaguares exciting blend of youth and experience looked very much the finished product as they dismantled South Africa’s Lions in an almost leisurely fashion. They face a sterner test this weekend in theory against a wounded Hurricanes side, but we have a fairly strong hunch that they look set once again to go deep into the tournament this year which also bodes well for the Pumas once their season gets underway later in the year.
In short, despite some initial reservations we thoroughly enjoyed the opening round of this year’s tournament and look forward to plenty more.
Major League Rugby
It’s back, and promises to be even better than last year with 12 teams and a host of international big names added to some of the squads. The Toronto Arrows get their season underway this weekend against Austin Herd and both times these teams met each other last year Toronto came out on top. We expect more of the same this weekend, barring opening night nerves from both teams, and it should give Toronto some much needed confidence for their encounter with two times MLR defending champions the Seattle Seawolves in two weeks time. Just like last year Toronto will play their first 7 games on the road before returning to Toronto for an extended run of home games to accommodate Toronto’s inclement winter weather in February and March. TSN has the broadcast rights, so coverage of the games will be so much more consistent and better quality than last year, and we can’t wait for it all to get underway.
Enjoy and see you next week!