Much like last weekend we were spoilt for choice regarding what to spill our pints over this past weekend. It got off to a rip roaring start on Friday with the two Women’s World Cup semi-finals, the quality of which in many cases was superior to many of the men’s offerings. Canada gave everything they had against one of the tournament favorites England in a thrilling contest which saw both sides in it till the final whistle. New Zealand and France then duked it out in an equally high octane match which saw the hosts pip their Gallic opponents by a mere point. It’s the final many predicted, but those two semi-finals will stay with us for a long time as their quality was outstanding and showcased just how far the Women’s game has come. France and Canada still have to put their disappointment behind them and rally themselves for the bronze medal game, which we always regard as perhaps the hardest game in the tournament to play psychologically.
Meanwhile in the Men’s game it was full throttle throughout Europe and more than just a few surprises. Scotland got the fright of their lives from a continually improving Fiji and Italy looked rather sharp against Samoa. In many ways there were few surprises as Wales were handed yet another hiding from the All Blacks. The dustup in Dublin lived up to its billing in a huge and closely fought physical encounter, which left the Springboks ruing the lack of a goalkicker as Ireland edged it by the narrowest of margins.
But there were surprises aplenty at the Stade de France and Twickenham. The contest between Australia and France in Paris was a messy affair at times in terms of execution and discipline from both sides, but what a contest we were treated to from both teams. France got a wake up call of note as a result of their one point win over the Wallabies, with the Australians running it to the wire in a thrilling match that had us all on the edge of our seats for the full eighty minutes as the lead changed hands almost continuously. Lastly on Sunday, Argentina in a similarly messy match at times with England, showed that they have the potential to ruin England’s World Cup party next year as the two share the same pool. Their one point victory was completely unexpected, especially when you consider that their Coach Michael Cheika had been doing double duty on Friday night with Lebanon in the Rugby League World Cup.
Heartbreak Hotel for Canada – but the future looks so bright we really do have to wear shades
Canada gave it their all and then some in their semi-final match against England and came agonizingly close to upsetting the odds. It was a pulsating game from both sides, and Canada made a relentless assault on England’s defenses in the second half. However, much as they have all tournament England held firm and sealed the win.
Canada’s exemplary Captain and one of the undisputed stars of the tournament, Sophie de Goede, clearly found the emotions in the post match interview tough going. We have to admit that we shared her heartbreak and were also having to reach for the tissues. Given that only half of Canada’s World Cup squad play professionally and have a mere fraction of the resources both financial and technical that are available to England, their achievements in this tournament are nothing short of extraordinary. To acquit themselves as well as they did against arguably the best Women’s team in the world is something we can all be exceptionally proud of. It was one of the best games of rugby we’re likely to see all year, and Canada’s Women need make no apologies whatsoever.
The future does look exceptionally bright for Canada’s Women, and we imagine that French and English club talent agents were rushing round post match with their cheque books looking to sign Canadian players. As it is the tight five that played in the semi-final are all signed to English Premiership Clubs. We fully expect to see flanker Fabiola Forteza signed up with a European club within in the year. De Goede is already a star for Saracens, but if they want it we’re sure that it won’t be long before the halfback partnership of Alex Tessier and Justine Pelletier head across the Pond based on their performance this tournament. In the backs Maddy Grant caught the eye and a contract with a big club is surely in her future, and we’re amazed that Sarah Kaljuvee hasn’t been snapped up already. Alysha Corrigan was one of the revelations of the tournament and Saracens will be delighted to have her back. We could go on as these are just a few of the outstanding performers in the red jersey over the past five weeks, but all of the squad stood up and were counted.
What is certain is that Canadian Women’s Rugby is on a fast track to success and the likely increased exposure to full time professional rugby for Canadian Women that this tournament will generate bodes well for the future. Canadian Women’s Rugby unlike the Men’s team has been quietly cementing its place on the world stage and after this tournament, our status in the top echelons of the game must be reinforced. We sincerely hope based on this World Cup that Canada’s future home games can generate big turnouts – imagine a full house at BMO Field in Toronto or BC Place in Vancouver and what that could do for the game in this country!
However, big dreams aside there is still some unfinished business left to deal with in this World Cup. Canada and France have to shrug off the bitter disappointment of not making the final and raise themselves mentally for arguably the most difficult game psychologically in a World Cup – the bronze or third place final. We’re not sure how you summon up the motivation to play in a game that is seen by many as a sideshow to the main event taking place the following day. Still rankings are at stake and statements need to be made by two excellent teams. Both will want to claim the honor of at least being among the top three teams in the world. However, we have a hunch that given where Women’s rugby is in Canada, that status may mean so much more to the Canadians this Friday night. France will have the Six Nations in a few months time to prove their worth but for Canada this is the last chance, for several months at least, to show how far they’ve come.
We’re hoping for a memorable bronze final match, with both teams proving that it is still a game worth playing. We have a hunch that Canada may want the result just that little bit more, but to dismiss this impressive French team would be beyond foolish. May the best side win and let’s give credit to both for giving us some awesome rugby over the last five weeks!
Meanwhile the biggest game this weekend awaits!
Sure there’s a bunch of Men’s Internationals going on this weekend, but we have a hunch a lot of you will be warming up those PVRs in the wee hours of Saturday morning, or even keeping the espresso machines going to stay up for this one. New Zealand have been electric and England absolutely resolute. The Red Roses head into this match on the back of a truly extraordinary unbeaten 30 game winning streak. In short that’s unheard of in either the Men’s or Women’s game. Surely they must be tournament favorites?
However, New Zealand have got better and better with every game. There is no denying that France ran them down to the barest of wires, and had French fly half Caroline Drouin been luckier with that final kick then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Nevertheless there seems to be an almost inevitable momentum growing in this Black Ferns side. Eden Park which is a Fortress for their male counterparts could well become the same for the Ferns on Saturday. Apparently it’s set to be the biggest crowd ever recorded for a Women’s International, and expect the locals to be rather loud to say the least. It all makes for a great spectacle as two teams with very different, but equally effective styles of play go head to head in what should be a thrilling Final. Finals in the Men’s World Cup are often a bit of an anticlimax, with the best games usually reserved for the quarters and semis. However, we have a hunch that in the Women’s game it’s likely to be slightly different.
As we’ve said over on the Podcast we find the Women’s game to resemble a fascinating hybrid of the sevens and fifteen a side game. It’s going to be an arm wrestle of note with England trying to physically suffocate New Zealand and the Black Ferns running the ball from every inch of the park in an effort to exhaust the Red Roses into submission and costly mistakes. In short we can’t wait. As gutted as we were for Canada and France missing out on the final, it is hard to argue against this being the Final that many expected and wanted. Either way we simply can’t look away!
A worthy experiment but one that somehow didn’t work
Much has already been said about South Africa’s lack of a goalkicker last Saturday against Ireland so we don’t want to belabor the point. South Africa switched Cheslin Kolbe off the wing to fullback to help out with the kicking duties and reduce the pressure on Damian Willemse at fly half. In fairness to both, fullback is not Kolbe’s natural position and a Test level goal and place kicker he is not. Willemse on the other hand we feel does have a natural talent for the 10 jersey, but sadly goal kicking is simply not his forte and is unlikely to be so. Sadly, we felt he was under so much pressure regarding his goal kicking that his playmaking abilities suffered at times against Ireland.
In short, South Africa need a goal kicker that can relieve Willemse of some unwanted pressure and allow him to focus on the other core duties of the fly half position, and for which he has shown some impressive aptitude at Test level. Many pundits are expressing growing frustration with the fact that Stormers fly half Manie Libbok is not getting a look in at the 10 jersey. The Springbok Coaching staff have elected to keep Willemse in the starting jersey for their clash with France but, to many South African supporters relief, Libbok is finally granted a place on the bench. Kolbe moves back to his natural berth on the wing and Willie le Roux comes in to save the day for South Africa in the 15 jersey – a role he increasingly seems be given in the run up to the World Cup. Let’s face it while consistency is not always Le Roux’s strong suit when he’s on song he is one of the best counterattacking fullbacks in Test Rugby, and his playmaking skills can genuinely take some of the pressure off Willemse.
It’s an exceptionally strong looking South African side that travel to Marseille to take on a French outfit that looked distinctly vulnerable and rusty at times against Australia last weekend. The tweaks being made to the side may finally strike a balance that South Africa has been looking for all year in terms of both physicality and attack. In short, along with the Women’s World Cup Final this is the game of the weekend and you won’t want to miss it.
France get lucky against a Wallaby side that couldn’t care less about World Rankings
Whichever why you cut it that was an exceptionally impressive Wallaby performance last weekend in Paris, that clearly rattled the French and required them to dig very deep into their vault of skill sets. The Wallabies were clearly not fazed by facing off against the number 2 side in the World in their own backyard in front of 70,000 delirious French supporters. Continuing with the above theme of the dustup in Marseille being THE game of the weekend along with the Women’s World Cup Final – France know they need to step up a few gears on Saturday if they are to get past a genuinely awkward and physically dangerous Springbok side. Winger Damian Penaud, as he so often does for France, got them out of jail with one of his trademark “how does he do that” tries. It was remarkable in that it not only sucked in Tom Wright out wide but also Jock Campbell and ultimately Jake Gordon inside of him, as Penaud simply changed direction and burned up a path between the three of them fending off defenders seemingly at ease.
France traditionally start their campaigns slowly and warm to the task as they progress, whether it’s the November Internationals, Six Nations, Summer Tours or ultimately the World Cup. We doubt they’ll look as rusty this weekend, especially as this is a dress rehearsal for a possible quarter final at next year’s World Cup. They will take positives from the fact that they edged the possession and territory stats last weekend and were able to exploit Australia’s ongoing issues around defense. Although they leaked two tries to the Wallabies their ability to win the collisions and dominate the rucks and breakdowns as well as get decent returns from their lineouts still remains exceptional, and they’ll need them to be against South Africa. However, they will be seriously concerned at how their scrum creaked against an opponent not necessarily known for their abilities in that department. If they can’t compete at scrum time then they will be in for a world of hurt when the “Bomb Squad” and company arrive in Marseille.
However, France do seem, unlike in days of old, able to fix their issues fairly quickly mainly due to consistency in selection by Fabien Galthie and their Coaching staff. If they do that and tidy up some silly disciplinary errors, then the arm wrestle in Marseille against the Springboks should be just as enthralling and intense as that in Dublin a week ago. Like we say if you only watch two games this weekend then you’ll want to make sure this is one of them!
“So where do we go from here Eddie – now that all of the children are growing up?”
Now that so many of England’s impressive crop of youngsters have grown up, you can’t blame them for wondering why they simply can’t make it into Eddie Jones selection policies, as the English Coach still favors his OAP gang of that ill fated World Cup final. Some people seem to think that he’s been suffering PTSD ever since England’s loss to South Africa in the World Cup Final three years ago, and never really recovered. Others say he’s hiding a bunch of cards up his sleeve to flash out at the World Cup leaving us marveling at England’s charge to the Final – however, that plan didn’t quite work out last time did it when it mattered most.
Given the resources and talent at Jones’ disposal his selection policies defy logic. Whether he and his charges blatantly underestimated the threat Argentina brought to Twickenham last Sunday is probably a debate that will rage on long after this November series, but trip up they did and some of the blame for that lies at Jones’ ongoing issues with selection. While he may be experimenting with combinations ahead of the World Cup, you could argue that if he doesn’t know what they should look like at this stage a year out from the global showdown then England could well find themselves adrift next October.
England simply lacked pace, direction and energy for the most part against Argentina. Apart from the scrum England dominated every single statistic last Sunday, and in most cases by quite some margin, yet at the final whistle still found themselves a point adrift of the Pumas. Argentina simply were far more efficient, enterprising and clinical with what little ball they had, allied to the unshakeable reliability of Emiliano Boffelli’s boot.
Jones decided to stick with a lumpy and misshapen back row that just wasn’t balanced. Maro Itoje is a phenomenal second rower but he simply doesn’t slot seamlessly into the back row like Courtney Lawes. Billy Vunipola is not the bundle of energy he once was, with a raft of talented number 8s in the Premiership snapping at his heels. Ben Youngs pedestrian delivery at scrum half was highlighted in the blink of an eye as his replacement Jack van Poortvliet came on and scored a try in less than a minute. Marcus Smith is clearly growing tired of having Uncle Owen as his babysitter and the 10/12 axis simply isn’t firing, especially as Farrell still clearly plays as if he was wearing the pivot jersey. Eddie Jones’ great savior Manu Tuilagi was kept out of the fray lest he picks up an injury ahead of the encounter with New Zealand making his presence essentially pointless.
There were some highlights with Joe Cokanasiga looking like a genuine gas man out wide – but hang on let’s drop him completely for a game against a side like Japan who also love to run the ball. At least Freddie Steward was his usual outstanding self at fullback. We also thought Alex Coles made an impressive start in the second row and are glad to see he gets rewarded with a spot on the bench against Japan, with Jones also blooding some impressive new young talent in the shape of David Ribbans this weekend.
On the plus side Eddie and England do seem to be taking some notes from last weekend’s upset. Van Poortfliet gets a start at scrum half, Jonny May makes his return on the wing while the impressive Guy Porter gets to partner Owen Farrell in the midfield. However, Jones just can’t let go of his beloved golden oldies as Ben Youngs gets the bench in a match England should win and consequently deny the likes of in form Northampton youngster Alex Mitchell some much needed game time. Billy Vunipola continues keeping the bench warm along with brother Mako and Tuilagi also gets some apparently valuable time on the sidelines.
Eddie Jones and England proved themselves wily operators in the runup to the last World Cup, but it is getting increasingly hard to see a repeat performance come next October. It just looks muddled, confused and smacks of opportunities wasted and lost with England’s impressive raft of youngsters. While there may still be time, it’s increasingly looking like too little too late. England will be under huge pressure to improve on this year’s dismal Six Nations performance come February so don’t expect too much in the way of new talent there and then there is very little game time left prior to France. England have a real chance to showcase where they want to go against a challenging and exciting side like Japan this weekend, and while they are likely to emerge on the right side of the score line at the final whistle, we can’t help feeling that apart from a win a golden opportunity for the future will have been wasted.
Enjoy the rugby everyone this weekend and for those of you in Toronto – Hemingways is the place to be if you’ve been lucky enough to reserve a seat!