Excuse the silence but some of us have been taking some well earned breaks in the sunshine to get away from the Canadian winter. I had the particular privilege of watching France’s outstanding victory over Wales, in a particularly lively bar surrounded by French rugby fans on the island of St. Martin. The Six Nations has been thrown into disarray by the growing Corona virus epidemic, and while we all thoroughly support the precautions being taken, it all seems rather ham fisted and runs the risk of throwing the end result of what has been an otherwise outstanding tournament into disarray.
Super Rugby is really starting to get into its stride, with interestingly enough after five rounds, South Africa’s Stormers sitting atop the table, albeit due to most of the South African conference having a game in hand over most of their main rivals from the New Zealand conference. However, this early on there are no undefeated teams after only five rounds which should mean this year’s festivities could be a tightly contested affair, but much like last year New Zealand teams seem destined to dominate proceedings but with a strong challenge from Argentina’s Jaguares and South Africa’s Sharks and Stormers.
What’s really put a spring in our step these last few weeks is the Toronto Arrows barnstorming start to their MLR season. Along with San Diego, the only undefeated team after the first four rounds, it’s looking good for our home town heroes. If they are this good on the road and the injury gods are kind to them, what a prospect Canadian rugby fans have in store for them once the Arrows return to Toronto in April for the majority of their remaining games!
You knew it was coming, and for good reason, but let’s be honest the Corona virus machinations affecting the final two rounds of the competition have taken some of the shine off what was turning out to be one of the most intriguing Six Nations post a World Cup we can remember in a long time. The calling off of the Ireland/Italy clash due to public health concerns this weekend is understandable, but it is hard to fathom why the game couldn’t be played behind closed doors as is being proposed for the Italy/England clash. That would have kept the tournament’s table intact in determining the ultimate winner. As it stands now with the Ireland/Italy match now postponed indefinitely, with some saying that the most likely date is the November International window, we won’t really know who the Champions are potentially till then. If France go on to beat both Scotland this weekend and Ireland next weekend then such arguments become null and void as they will be the only team who at this stage remain undefeated. Given France’s red hot form at the moment, this is a distinct possibility, but it is still a shame that the tournament officials and their respective unions and governments have been rather ham fisted in their response to the crisis, and no clear unanimity on how to proceed.
On that note if France do remain undefeated in their final two matches, then you could argue that most neutrals would not be overly disheartened, as Les Bleus have certainly endeared themselves to many of us this tournament. France is back with a vengeance and we’d argue have done better than anyone else what all the teams in the Northern Hemisphere desperately need to do – take your youth and embrace it and reward players whose form has merited them a place in the national squad. New Coach Fabien Galthie has brought the breath of fresh air that French rugby has been gasping for for so long – and it is certainly paying dividends. Backed up by a stellar coaching team including the legendary English defence Coach Shaun Edwards, France look mean, efficient and breathtakingly talented. They have easily been the most enjoyable team to watch so far, and France’s investment in its youngsters this Championship has been a model for the other unions to look to. The half back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Emile Ntamack has been the talk of the tournament, while back rower Gregory Aldritt has been one of its most impressive performers. We’ve always thought Captain and openside flanker Charles Ollivon had many of the characteristics of the legendary Olivier Magne, and so far this tournament Ollivon has led from the front and been no stranger to the try line. Throw in a set of backs that can turn and weave on a dime and this is the France of old, and we can’t wait to watch them in their final two outings.
England despite stumbling at their first hurdle in Paris to the French, have improved steadily as the tournament progressed. However, Scotland wasn’t really much of a test and the weather certainly didn’t help either side, though England made better use of the conditions. England simply resorted to the same playbook that saw them decimate Ireland last year and in the World Cup warm ups, something which the Irish for some reason best known to themselves seemed completely taken aback by for the third time in a row. Consequently, how much of a genuine Test England have had other than the French in this tournament is debatable. Of their remaining two fixtures, it’s only Wales that could potentially give them the kind of Test that could give them a benchmark of where England are right now. However Ireland, who England dispatched with ease a fortnight ago, managed to negate Wales’ supposed threats without too much difficulty in Dublin, and the Men in Red just don’t seem to be firing so far this year. England’s final clash with Italy, even if it does go ahead, should be a dead rubber, so as we say it’s difficult to really gauge where England are at post the World Cup. We’re not convinced by Eddie Jones selection choices especially at scrum half, and the jury is still out for us on Owen Farrell’s Captaincy – great when things are going well for England, but prone to unraveling in dramatic fashion when things aren’t – watch the France replay if you’re not convinced along with the World Cup final. England need to take a leaf out of France’s playbook and bring in some of their talented youngsters now and build a winning and youthful but experienced team for the next World Cup. That has to happen now and not two years down the road – and if not England will only have themselves to blame for yet another World Cup that ends in tears.
Last year’s Grand Slam heroes Wales, sadly look out of sorts this year. In many ways in 2020 they look a lot like Ireland post their 2018 successes. Wales had a stellar year in 2019 but much like Ireland in 2018 would appear to have peaked. Like Ireland they have some genuine talent in their youth but the new Coaching regime of Wayne Pivac seems to be struggling to get it to mesh. Their front row looks shambolic, their back row is clearly not gelling as a unit despite some extraordinary individual talent and their backs have lots of potential but it is just not being realized. In short, it’s hard to know what’s not working for Wales as on paper it should and then some. Their contest with England at Twickenham this weekend could be the match that leaves us with more than just a little egg on our faces, but as we put this out, we are not exactly stocking up on paper towels to clean up the mess. Our overriding impression with Wales is that they just look tired and like a team that has perhaps played just a bit too much rugby of late.
Ireland have blown hot and cold so much this tournament, that it’s almost impossible to know what is really going on in the Emerald Isle when it comes to the national team. Leinster continue to dominate the European club scene, but at a national level there is absolutely no consistency whatsoever. Coach Andy “Faz” Farrell may be a great guy to have a chinwag with in the locker and training rooms, but we are simply not convinced that any of that is really producing a plan that gets results on the pitch that would cause too many sleepless nights for the bigger teams. Although Ireland got their campaign off to a good start with a workmanlike win over a shambolic Scotland and a slightly more cohesive performance against a Welsh side that simply let Ireland get on with it, their implosion against an English game plan they had already seen twice in the space of a year was inexcusable. Ireland were utterly hopeless against England and once again looked like deer in the headlights in the face of a rampant and aggressive English onslaught. One they had already seen twice last year to the letter. There would appear to be no learning whatsoever going on in the Irish camp, coupled to the fact that their talented youth are wasted by Farrell’s insistence on sticking to some of his older players who just aren’t showing up. Don’t get us wrong – we’ve loved watching Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray’s exploits in an Irish jersey over the last few years – but even the most ignorant rugby observer could not deny that both of them are simply so far off the mark this year it is laughable. Ireland need to adopt the approach France has taken, as they have an abundance of talented players under 25 who need game time now – not in two years time. It’s highly doubtful that the Sextons and Murrays of this squad will make the next World Cup, so throw caution to the wind, roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with some serious squad development, even if that means taking a few ugly losses on the chin but learning from them in the process. At the moment we just feel that Ireland are learning absolutely nothing every time they run out onto the pitch and are just hoping that the opposition is a bit more clueless than they are. Given Ireland’s depth of talent that is criminal – plain and simple! Ireland can start to fix this by putting Conor Murray on the bench and starting John Cooney against France at nine – when Cooney came off the bench against England Ireland all of a sudden looked a completely different team.
Scotland’s off pitch soap operas continue, but they need to end and end quickly. Scotland is our underdog favorite here at the Lineout come the Six Nations, and are definitely “the little engine that could”. This is a team that is always capable of a big surprise when you least expect it, but sadly so far this year our belief and expectations have been stretched beyond belief. There is a good team in there somewhere but much like Wales it is just not firing at the moment, and the frustration is there for all to see. We really hope that beating Italy isn’t going to be their only highlight this tournament. Disgraced fly half Finn Russell probably knows Scotland’s French opponents better than anyone after his exploits with Racing 92 this year, and internal politics aside Scotland will miss him this Sunday. France traveled well to Cardiff and there is no reason to suppose they won’t do the same to Murrayfield.
Italy meanwhile, even with the Corona virus mayhem sadly affecting them more than any other Six Nations competitor, continue their traditional campaign for the Six Nations Wooden Spoon. A new Coaching regime hasn’t really done them much good, and after three truly turgid performances they have only managed to put a paltry 22 points on the scoreboard albeit against tournament darlings France. However, getting blanked by both Wales and Scotland is not exactly a convincing argument that Italy is progressing anywhere fast. We don’t really know what the answer is for Italy but in this their 20th year in the Six Nations you have to wonder for how much longer people will bother to continue asking, let alone be interested in a solution.
Despite the half full stadiums, we have to admit as we always do, that there has been some hellishly entertaining rugby on display at times so far this year. What’s perhaps caught us most by surprise is that after five rounds it’s a South African team at the top of the tables. However, the three front runner teams from the New Zealand conference have only played four games, whereas the Stormers and Sharks who currently sit atop the points tables have five under their belt. In short expect it to all change this weekend, and normal service to resume with New Zealand teams once more asserting their dominance. However, it does look like this year’s competition is going to come down to a six horse race between three New Zealand teams, one Argentinian and two South African.
No we are not being dismissive of the Australian contingent in the tournament but so far, apart from the Brumbies, we’ve haven’t seen anything from Australia or Japan (home of the hapless Sunwolves who also are part of the Australian conference) that looks likely to give any of the six aforementioned teams too much to worry about. The Brumbies look the only Australian team likely to trouble the big guns this year and their win on the road against New Zealand’s traditional power house the Chiefs last weekend was a big confidence booster. But sadly for Australian teams this year we feel it’s going to be a case of take your big victories when you can find them but sadly they are likely to be few and far between against teams outside the Australian conference.
As mentioned above, with the three top New Zealand teams only having played four games after five rounds, they find themselves lagging behind their Argentinian and South African counterparts on the points table. However, as usual the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes all look like serious contenders for this year’s silverware. Nevertheless, all three sides don’t look quite as polished as they have in years gone by. All three should have easy wins this weekend, and it will be interesting to see how they build momentum for some much more challenging encounters at the end of the month.
In the South African conference, the Stormers find themselves at the top of the points table, but for us it is the Sharks and Argentina’s Jaguares who pose the more serious threat in the long run. Both teams are on fire with the Sharks in particular having a truly lethal set of backs. However, the Jaguares also look to be the surprise package again this year that they were in 2019. The loss of a key group of Pumas internationals to European clubs hasn’t seemed to have slowed them down, and of their two defeats so far this season only one was by more than three points. Argentina continues to be a hotbed of rugby talent and they continue to prove that they are very much a Tier 1 nation to be respected and worthy of their place at rugby’s top table.
Major League Rugby
Well how about them Arrows?!!!! What a terrific start it’s been to only their second season in Major League Rugby, and to top it all off they haven’t even played at home yet. If they can keep this form up to their first home game in Toronto on April 4th against the Utah Warriors, then what a season this promises to be.
The only other unbeaten team in the league so far is the San Diego Legion and Toronto will have the added advantage that their only encounter with the Californians prior to the playoffs will be at home in Toronto. There appears to be growing interest in the Arrows in Toronto, with live showings of their games at Hemingways bar in downtown Toronto being packed affairs.
There is no question that Toronto look a tight and well drilled unit this year. Their scrum is arguably the most devastating in the league, their lineout work is vastly improved over last season and they look a threat in the loose. They have a pacy and smart halfback contingent and their backs are just as quick and dangerous out wide as they were last year coupled to a solid centre pairing more than able to make inroads up the middle. In short, if the injury gods remain kind to Toronto for the rest of the season then this could be a very big year for the team. Having already dispatched last year’s Champions the Seattle Seawolves, there’s no reason to think the Arrows couldn’t go all the way this year. The impact of MLR success on Canada’s national team prospects this year and beyond could be very telling.
TV listings are over on the TV page for all this weekend’s Six Nations, Super Rugby and MLR action. Till next week enjoy a very tasty weekend ahead!