What we learned about Japan, the USA and Canada in their recent tours of the British Isles

Sadly much of what we learnt about Canada and the USA this summer doesn’t make for overly positive reading, but Japan gave us plenty to cheer about. All three sides emerged winless from their two Test visits to the UK and Ireland, but in Japan’s case it was no cause for long faces. The USA did give us a heroic and spirited second half performance in their first Test against England, but somehow failed to carry that momentum across the Irish sea a week later where they received a genuine thrashing at the hands of the Men in Green. Canada sadly left both the Principality Stadium and Twickenham with very little to cheer about. In short, Japan’s Top League domestic competition seems to be building on Japan’s recent World Cup success, while North America’s Major League Rugby has a painfully long way to go before it can rise to Japan’s lofty heights and allow the national sides to reap the benefits. Japan is a Tier One competitor and improving at a rate of knots, the USA has realistic ambitions to get there, while Canada glumly wonders if the golden years of the late eighties and early nineties will ever return.

Japan is the Northern Hemisphere’s most entertaining team to watch allied to a skill set that beggars belief at times

This was an absolutely cracking game of rugby and the best of the summer series by a country mile – Japan once again showed their truly remarkable offloading game

Like we say this was the highlight of the summer series for us – it was simply that good. We thoroughly enjoyed Japan’s first game against the Lions, but this was even better. It was just end to end stuff for the full eighty minutes and a real treat to watch. Ireland packed a powerhouse squad as a show of respect to their Japanese opponents, and Japan made sure that such respect was fully justified. Their offloading skills have to be seen to be believed at times, such is the skill level. Allied to that though is a physical game that is becoming increasingly more confident and difficult for the top teams to handle.

Japan has come so far in the last ten years, that we here in North America can only look on in envy. All the momentum of the last World Cup for Japan shows no signs of abating and they will be a threat that will need to be taken very seriously in France in two years time. Their game against Ireland was a full blown proper Test match, that simply did not let up in terms of intensity for the full eighty minutes, and in many ways Japan were unlucky to lose. However, in the process they showed that they are knocking hard at the doors of the Top Nations and thoroughly deserve their 10th place on the World Rankings table. Fly half Yu Tamura was every inch as good as he was in the World Cup and don’t be surprised to see him plying his trade this fall in Europe, like fellow teammate winger and fullback Kotaro Matsushima. His footwork in setting up Siosaia Fifita’s try was simply sublime.

Our only hope is that between now and the World Cup, Japan gets to play a consistent number of Tests against the top Tier one nations. They have earned the right and then some and the landscape of World Rugby will be better and infinitely more entertaining if they are allowed to do so. We doubt there is any team among the Top Ten teams who would deny the box office draw of a Test against the Japanese, and the resulting revenue it would create.

The USA are in it for the long haul, but will wish that there had been more to cheer about

US Coach Gary Gold knows that the much hoped for benefits of the advent of a professional league in North America in the shape of the MLR are still a long way off

After three years of professional rugby in North America and predominantly the USA (given that all the teams bar one are American), hopes were high that this tour would showcase some positive benefits at the Test Level for the Americans. There were some make no mistake. The USA’s second half dominance of England’s young guns at Twickenham in their first Test was impressive to say the least, especially considering the squad had only been together for four days prior to the match. However, that heroic effort seemed to vanish into obscurity a week later as they were ripped to shreds by an Irish side full of emerging talent for the Men in Green. The gulf between rugby on the two sides of the Atlantic could not have been more evident. The Americans failed to capitalize on the positives against England, and given that they had now been together longer as a unit, it seemed hard to fathom how poor they had become in the space of seven days against Ireland. While Gary Gold was rightly proud of his charges’ efforts against England, there is no way he can be happy with their implosion against Ireland.

While commendable, the USA’s steadfast refusal to take points on offer through penalty kicks, by kicking to the corner in futile attempts to break through a resolute Irish defence, beggared belief at times in terms of decision making. The execution and ball handling skills simply weren’t there for the Americans to justify that kind of thinking. As the match wore on their lack of any kind of structured defence allowed Ireland to run amok, and the Americans’ increasing frustration led to a complete breakdown in discipline and technique. This was perhaps summed up by flanker Riekert Hattingh seeing a red card on the 52nd minute, leaving his already stretched teammates with even more work to do as a 14 man Eagles side had to cope with an Irish team that was having a field day with the possession they were enjoying.

The statistics make for eye watering reading. 796 run metres for Ireland compared to a paltry 151 for the Americans. 11 defenders beaten by the USA compared to 31 by Ireland. 29 clean breaks by Ireland but none by the USA. 31 missed tackles for the US compared to 11 for Ireland. That’s not pretty and needs addressing fast. They made a better fist of it overall than Canada who they face in September for their first go at World Cup qualifying, so should feel the more confident of the two sides, but there is no denying that so far Major League Rugby has only scratched the surface of what needs to be done in terms of bringing rugby in the States to the level at which it can compete on a level playing field with Tier One nations.

We hate to say it but after a tour to forget for Canada, it’s time to acknowledge that the ship is heading for the rocks unless drastic action is taken immediately

Fullback Cooper Coats was the only real positive to come out of Canada’s tour

You can’t imagine how much it pains us to feel so negative about Canada’s recent tour of Wales and England. But no matter what spin we put on it, we simply can’t find reasons to be cheerful, and we get the feeling that the players likely feel much the same. Canada got hammered by Wales and then were dispatched by an English side that had struggled at times to contain our greatest rivals the United States.

As Canada heads into its first two World Cup qualifying matches with the United States in September it’s hard to find grounds for optimism. If we’re frustrated we can only imagine how the players must be feeling. We’re tired of the endless sound bites about “positives” and “lessons learnt” when we can see very little of either on the pitch. Canada’s dismal decline down the World Rankings since 2010 is simply unacceptable.

Meanwhile Rugby Canada seems oblivious to the plight of the national side, the Coaching staff appear nonplussed by a seemingly endless string of defeats and the team itself just don’t look like they enjoy what they do anymore. In 54 games since 2016 Canada have managed to win only 15, and the last time they beat a country ranked in the top 20 was 2017 when they beat Spain. The US is ranked 16 and we can only manage a ranking of 23, with countries like the Netherlands hard on our heels. In short, it’s a pretty miserable picture and someone, somewhere has to start taking responsibility for it all, and stop hoping that the problems will simply go away if we don’t talk about them.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all is that we are not without talent, and our players deserve a better deal than they are getting now. Captain and flanker Lucas Rumball and centre Ben LeSage are world class. Our revelation of the tour however was fullback Cooper Coats. We simply can’t say enough good things about the man, and neither could the commentators during the match with England. He was outstanding plain and simple and one of the few things that gave us cause for celebration. It seems remarkable that he is without a club contract. Admittedly he made a few mistakes in the game against Wales that can be put down to lack of experience but he more than made amends for them against England. In both games, however we kept wondering why we hadn’t seen more of the 25 year old prior to this summer. We also really liked the look of scrum half Ross Braude, and hope to see him get plenty of game time for the Toronto Arrows next season.

Apparently Coats has been lighting up the pitches on the 7s circuit, and here perhaps lies the problem. We were led to believe that Rugby Canada was shifting away from the practice of swopping players between the 7s and fifteen a side game. We’ve been advocating it for years and hence were delighted when it appeared our recommendations were no longer falling on deaf ears. Well it would appear it was just lip service. A genuine talent like Coats needs to be nurtured into the 15 a side game and kept there. This constant flipping between codes disrupts any kind of continuity Canada is trying to create, and must be a nightmare for the Coaching staff. In short, enough is enough – pick which direction you want your players to go in and stick to it. We hear the argument that we have a limited player base, but with the advent of MLR and the fact that at least 40% of players in the league’s 12 teams are Canadian, we think that’s rather a weak excuse these days. As Rugby Canada flips players from one version of the game to the other in a vain attempt to snatch fleeting moments of glory for the national side and silence their critics, the quality of the game at both levels suffers.

The Coaching staff, after this tour and in preparation for the World Cup qualifiers with the USA now have a ton of work to do, as the statistics don’t make for happy reading. Canada’s tackle success rate is a disturbing 71% across both matches, which is just not Test level standard, with lineouts not faring much better at 79%. We do seem able to hold our own when it comes to winning our own scrums and rucks. However, we appear to have no offloading skills (perhaps some time in Japan is in order), and getting the ball across the gain line is depressingly weak in comparison with our opponents along with metres made. A lot of the basic ball handling skills were just not there at times against Wales and England, and ball security rarely seemed to be a priority. All too often overly ambitious plays were attempted without the core skills needed to execute them. We often felt fly half Peter Nelson was making life far more complicated for his teammates than it needed to be.

Canada has the potential to get itself back on track, but it requires discipline and a genuine commitment from those in charge to address the issues the national side is facing. The upcoming two World Cup qualifiers against the USA are looking set to be far more of a challenge for Canada than they should be. However, six weeks can be a long time in Test Rugby and here’s hoping that we finally have something to cheer about come September. The commitment and hard work of Canada’s current squad is and has never been in question, and we continue to stand firmly behind them – but it’s time to see those efforts rewarded!

Published by Neil Olsen

Passionate about rugby and trying to promote the global game in Canada and North America.

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