The Lineout Calls of the Week

We apologise that last week’s Calls of the Week which was a mid-term review of the Six Nations got lost in a myriad of technical problems with this site. Fortunately that seems to have been resolved as we look forward to possibly THE most intriguing Round 4 of the Six Nations in a VERY long time. We also have a quick look at Super Rugby and the start of the Toronto Arrows MLR season.

However, whichever way you cut it all eyes will be on Rome, Twickenham and Murrayfield this weekend. This Six Nations has provided us with some thrilling encounters so far with, for the most part, the form book being thrown out the window. On a weekend where “Le Crunch” match between traditional superpowers France and England takes place it usually tends to take centre stage. This weekend though for a lot of people we can’t help feeling that it takes a back seat to the events to be played out in Rome and Edinburgh. Italy have been fantastic so far this Six Nations even though they remain winless. However, their competitiveness at times has been inspirational and gave both France and Ireland a serious fright. Wales meanwhile appear to be in a freefall that makes England’s trials and tribulations last year in the tournament seem almost trivial. Both Italy and Wales simply have to win Saturday’s match plain and simple and as a result it is perhaps the biggest game of the weekend and if not then surely a close second to the Scotland/Ireland game.

Scotland’s tussle with Ireland on Sunday is not only a dress rehearsal for the World Cup in six months time, as both teams share the same pool, but for Scotland in particular it provides them an opportunity to make a massive statement ahead of the global showdown. For Ireland, it’s a Test of how well they can cope under pressure with a potential Grand Slam on the line and on the road to boot. If you’d asked most of us before the tournament we probably wouldn’t have thought that come Round 4 we’d being seeing Scotland clinging on to second spot on the log. If Scotland pull off a win on Sunday, then all of a sudden life in Pool B for Ireland and South Africa suddenly becomes distinctly more uncomfortable come September in France.

All this is not to say that England’s date with France at Twickenham on Saturday isn’t of the same magnitude, but in the above mentioned matches the stakes just seem that much higher. France will be hoping the Scots do them a favor on Sunday, and that they can get their campaign back on track with a solid win over England, with only a disintegrating Welsh side to face in Paris on Super Saturday. For England an opportunity to lay down a marker for the World Cup lies in wait. The chance to make a genuine statement that England’s trajectory under new Coach Steve Borthwick is clearly upwards is something England will want to seize with both hands. For now they can feel relatively pleased with their third spot on the Six Nations table, even if their sternest Tests lie ahead of them in these final two rounds.

Last but not least Super Rugby has got off to a highly entertaining start, with Australian sides looking genuinely competitive this year. The Toronto Arrows opening two games have not exactly been the start they would have liked to this year’s 2023 season. However, the squad has a very new look and feel to it and it’s likely to take some time for them to find their groove, although hopefully not too much time. As a result their third game of the year against MLR newcomers Chicago Hounds this weekend is a key fixture.

There was much to think about this week and keep our pints frothy so let’s get into it.

Can Italy silence the Welsh dragon twice in a row while Wales desperately need to stop the rot that is hijacking their game

Apart from Louis Rees-Zammit the Welsh Dragon looks distinctly asthmatic this year while Italy are the exotic sports car that everyone wants to take a spin in

We think that this year it’s a pretty safe bet that as a neutral you’ve been watching Italy’s games live rather than wait for extended highlights once you’ve got the rest of your Six Nations day out of the way. Italy have simply been enthralling this year, plain and simple. They may not have any wins yet this year in the Championship, but many feel that Saturday could well change all that, and in the process watching Italy is a bit like watching Fiji – it’s just great entertainment and 110% passion and commitment.

But let’s put it in perspective, Italy no longer seem a flash in the pan. They have given the number one and two sides in the world during the course of this tournament a serious fright. They beat England in the second half of the game at Twickenham in Round 2 even if they couldn’t win the game itself.

Italy are also boasting some impressive statistics this year and have the second highest run metres of the Championship just behind Ireland along with the number of carries also just behind the Men in Green. They’ve passed the ball more than any other team, and broken more tackles than any other team except France. They are the leading proponent of turnovers won in the tackle and have the best lineout in the competition spearheaded by the outstanding Federico Ruzza. In short there is a great deal to like about the 2023 Azzurri vintage. All this razzle dazzle comes at a price though as their ambition with ball in hand has tripped them up at times and Italy have more handling errors than any other team this year. Also their scrum while effective at times could definitely use a bit more discipline as the Azzurri have given away the most scrum penalties of all the teams in the competition. But it’s still just so much fun to watch and no one can accuse Italy of being boring.

For the game against Wales though they will miss the presence of last year’s sensation Ange Capuozzo, and who has been such a catalyst for the exciting brand of rugby Italy are trying to play. The all star fullback is out for the rest of the tournament with a shoulder injury and it is our sincere hope that he’ll be fit for the World Cup, as Italy have clearly built a lot of their attacking play around him. Nevertheless, Italy have proved that they can be defensively resolute and their forward pack can stand up to the world’s best. There are no slouchers in their backs and the return of their outstanding fly half Paolo Garbisi in the Ireland game added another quality arrow to their bow and he will be a welcome addition to their cause for the Welsh game. Italy know that if they can get back to back wins over Wales, and if Scotland trip up for a second time this Championship in their tussle with Ireland, another Six Nations upset could be within the Azzurri’s grasp when they travel to Murrayfield at the end of the tournament. It’s a tall order but a good result on Saturday against Wales will be a watershed moment for this young Italian team.

For Wales, it’s been a truly miserable Six Nations. With all the off field shenanigans surrounding the game in Wales, it’s a credit to the players that they’ve been able to focus on the business at hand. The results simply aren’t there and the 2023 edition of Wales looks a shadow of the side that has claimed five Triple Crowns, four Grand Slams and six Championships since 2000. Even the return of Warren Gatland as Coach who, let’s face it doesn’t look overly happy in his role these days, but led Wales to many of those milestones doesn’t seem to be helping. Wales like Italy have yet to win a game this Championship but unlike Italy they simply haven’t looked like they know how to. Defensively Wales look a shambles and their discipline is a mess with the highest number of penalties conceded in the tournament. On attack they simply fade away once they get into the opposition red zone despite some impressive graft at times and seem incapable of penetrating opposition defences. The one area they will take comfort from is that they have the second lowest handling error count behind France, but that is probably a function of the fact that they simply don’t get much ball to handle in the first place.

We’re not sure that despite the gravity of the situation facing Wales and the pedigree of some of their players, they can count on Rome being the place where they can attempt to start turning things around. The Stadio Olimpico will be in full voice on Saturday and Italy will rise to the passion of their fans. In short it’s not a place we think you’d want to go when your confidence is at an all time low and your opponents just ooze self belief and finally seem to have the skill sets and organisation necessary to backup that belief. What a contest awaits!

France need to click and England need to rise to the challenge of their biggest Test of the new Steve Borthwick era

France’s Antoine Dupont looked like he was just getting warmed up in the opening three rounds, which doesn’t bode well for England who now face their toughest Test in a campaign that has not exactly struck fear into their opponents hearts

As mentioned above, while it still holds all the excitement that “Le Crunch” matches traditionally have in this tournament, it does pale a bit in comparison to the high stakes matchups taking place in Rome and Edinburgh this weekend. Perhaps its usual gravity is being felt more by France this year, as a loss for them has deeper ramifications than it does for England. England appear to have come to terms with the fact that their primary goal this tournament is to demonstrate an upward trend in overall performance and settling on the squad needed to take them to the World Cup. Some Six Nations silverware would be a huge added bonus but it is perhaps not the same driver for them as it is for France.

After coming unstuck against Ireland, despite still being the number two side in the world, France find themselves behind England at this stage of the competition in fourth place. A loss at Twickenham would not only kill off their Championship hopes barring a few miracles, but also leave them with more questions than answers heading into the World Cup. In short, England will want to win but France know they simply HAVE to win given what is at stake in the grander scheme of things going forward.

Despite getting a bit of a schooling from the Irish at times in Round 2, and in general looking somewhat off their normally high pace so far this year, France are still very much in the hunt. Righting the ship by breaking Scotland’s Six Nations winning streak was key to both settling the side and getting their campaign back on its feet again. While Scotland pushed them hard for the win, France’s emphatic start to that match in the first half, left few of us in doubt that it would be anything other than a Gallic victory.

Nevertheless, France despite some moments of sheer brilliance have not always looked at the races this year. They clearly got off the bus at the wrong stop in Rome and had to rush to the Stadium and narrowly avoided the biggest upset of 2023. In Dublin a week later they got off at the right stop only to find that Ireland had taken a TGV to the Aviva ahead of them. At home and with two weeks to study bus and train timetables to the Stade de France , France looked like last year’s Grand Slam Champions once more and the Blue Juggernaut started to click especially in those opening twenty five minutes. They also then held their nerve and withstood a Scottish second half revival.

When you look at the tournament statistics, the only numbers where as a team France dominate is in tackles made, having made more than anyone else with second rower Thibaud Flament being the tournament’s top tackler. However, they also won’t be happy with having given away more penalties than anyone else other than Wales and like the Men in Red clearly grappling with the 2023 definition of offside.

For England, they’ve got steadily better since that opening wobble against Scotland. However, they have also only played the two lowest ranked teams in the competition since their duel with the Scots. France on Saturday will be a considerable step up. While France may not be gelling the way they did last year, they are still a force to be reckoned with and the next big Test for the Borthwick era. England unlike France still seem unsure of what their team should look like and what type of game they want to play. What we have seen from England so far is rather conservative and may not respond all that well to the speed at which France and Ireland play the game. Perhaps Borthwick’s biggest achievement in his three games in charge so far is tidying up England’s woeful disciplinary record under Eddie Jones. The fact that England have conceded the least amount of penalties of any team this tournament by a considerable margin will be music to Borthwick’s ears.

Where Borthwick and his coaching team will be concerned though is England’s woeful record at the kicking tee, which is one of the worst in the competition and has led to Captain Owen Farrell being relegated to the bench for “Le Crunch” in favor of Marcus Smith. However, in many ways that is minor compared to England’s continued bluntness in attack, the worst knock on and handling error record of any team and a defensive structure that is the worst in the competition. England has missed more tackles than any other team, even a Welsh side clearly lost at sea fares marginally better than England in that regard albeit only just.

Perhaps England’s best news this tournament has been the revelation of Ollie Lawrence at centre which if you ask us has clearly made the Manu Tuilagi debate a side issue in England’s World Cup planning. Ollie Chessum improves week in week out in the second row and Lewis Ludlam has been solid as a rock in England’s back row along with Jack Willis. A big performance from Marcus Smith and Jack van Poortvliet against France in the halfback berths will certainly give England a genuine shot in the arm ahead of a tricky finale to their Six Nations campaign in Dublin, and their subsequent preparation for the World Cup.

To get one past France this weekend is a genuinely tough ask for a new look England still finding their feet this Saturday. France have assembled an all star cast for this one and there are very few if any weaknesses in it. France may not be as flash as they were last year, but they still know how to win and in the game against Scotland started to look like a team warming to the task of a home World Cup. In terms of making a statement this game is probably the most important one France will play between now and the World Cup, and as a result expect them to take no prisoners even if in the past Twickenham has not always been the happiest hunting ground for them.

Number one and number two – Celtic not Gallic dominance

The contest between Sexton’s impeccable game management and Russell’s increasingly clinical but always unpredictable magic will provide for a thrilling encounter on Sunday in Edinburgh with everything to play for as Scotland seek their first Triple Crown of the Six Nations era

It’s been 33 years since Scotland last won a Triple Crown, but they must quietly be fancying their chances on Sunday in front of the Murrayfield faithful. Ireland as the number one side in the world are not exactly the team you’d want to have to face in order to pull it off, but there is no denying that there is some serious belief in this Scottish squad and if they can prevent Ireland screaming out of the blocks in the opening 25 minutes, then there are reasons to be optimistic. That opening quarter in Paris a fortnight ago, simply left Scotland with too much to do and as a result they were forced to chase the game for a full hour. Although they made a remarkable comeback, the toll that kind of catch up rugby takes on a team at this level was plain to see. Scotland looked rushed and panicked at times, and playmaker Finn Russell started to once more favor the kind of 50/50 plays that when you’re only five points down are worth the risk, but can appear reckless when you’re 22-0 down.

So the big question on everyone’s lips is was the loss to France in Round 3 merely a bump in the road for Scotland or the start of their traditional Six Nations fadeout? We’d argue the former, as much like Italy there is something definitely different about this year’s Scotland. Scotland have scored more tries this tournament than any other team except their Irish opponents this weekend. In terms of tackles made they are only second to France and have the lowest missed tackle rate in the competition. They have the second best lineout in the competition after Italy and like the Azzurri are pretty handy at winning turnovers from their tackling technique. Their backline is truly lethal with the top three of the top five try scorers in the competition hailing from North of Hadrian’s Wall.

As for Ireland, their exercise in depth development in Round 3 against Italy ultimately paid off, even if the Azzurri made the Irish distinctly uncomfortable at times. Still it’s that kind of pressure for the younger generation of players that will pay huge dividends for Ireland come the World Cup and Ireland’s inevitable injury list. In attack Ireland look extremely dangerous and play at a speed most teams are finding it hard to keep up with, which has ensured they’ve scored more tries than any other team. Ireland have made more metres courtesy of James Lowe and exceptional fullback Hugo Keenan, as well as having carried and kept the ball in hand more than anyone else. The Irish defensive lines are so suffocating that very few teams can penetrate them and they have won more turnovers at the breakdown than all the other teams while at the same time conceding the least amount of turnovers. However, when those lines are pierced all of a sudden Ireland looks slightly less awe inspiring. Coach Andy Farrell and his associates will be concerned with Ireland’s missed tackle count which stands third highest in the competition. We worked it out that over three matches Ireland were only managing a 79% tackle success rate which leading into the World Cup is simply unacceptable.

Sunday’s game has the added frisson of being a dress rehearsal for the Pool game which will feature these two teams in Paris the week before the World Cup quarter finals. Should Scotland beat Ireland this weekend, then all of a sudden Pool B becomes the most hotly contested group in the competition. To say that both sides have points to prove and statements to make on Sunday is putting it mildly to say the least. The weather looks fairly grim, so both sides will fret over the injuries that could arise from what could end up being a slugfest rather than the glorious display of full throttle rugby that both these teams like to showcase. Either way this is most likely the biggest game of Round 4 and you won’t want to miss a second of it!

Australia rising – or another false dawn?

The Brumbies remain a force in Super Rugby, but this year they look even more impressive, while their fellow countrymen are showing some genuine promise after the first two rounds – but can it last?

After some years in the wilderness, Australia’s Super Rugby contingent is starting to look rather tasty again. In the past few years the Brumbies have been the only side to carry the mantle of Australian rugby with any degree of consistency, but so far this season things are starting to look tasty across the board in the Land Down Under. In the past Australian sides have always looked impressive on attack but utterly porous in defence. So far this year things appear to be looking up in that department. The Brumbies are already showing they are a force to be reckoned with but the Waratahs are also starting to look the business with their turbo charged winger Mark Nawaqanitawase rapidly becoming one of the most exciting Wallaby prospects in a long time.

While all of this may be premature, especially after only two rounds and limited exposure to their New Zealand rivals, there surely must be grounds for cautious optimism in Australia this season. This weekend won’t tell us much, but if the Western Force can handle Moana Pasifika’s exciting ball runners and the following weekend the Waratahs keep the Hurricanes in check, the Rebels get one over the Chiefs away from home and the Reds shut down Fijian Drua’s bruising speedsters then what a Super Rugby season we have in store, as all of a sudden it’s not just about New Zealand anymore.

The Arrows struggle to hit the target in the opening two rounds of MLR – but it’s early days for this new look squad

The Arrows start to the 2023 season has looked shaky but with a significant number of personnel changes this year, they need to be given the benefit of the doubt after only two rounds

Don’t get us wrong there has definitely been spirit and heart at times in the Toronto Arrows opening two games, but we have to say we didn’t feel there was enough of it, and the precision was lacking as a new look team clearly struggled at times to find their shape. We appreciate the start of the season is always tougher for the Arrows than the other teams, as they spend the first two months of the season on the road and away from their fervent supporters now taking up residence at York Lions stadium here in Toronto. Furthemore while there are plenty of familiar faces on the team sheet for this year, there are also a lot of wholesale changes. The South American contingent that had served the Arrows so well in their opening seasons is no longer present and their absence has been clearly noted in the opening two rounds. Furthermore we were sorry to not see Irish import Ronan Foley in the lineup for this year in the back row, as he lent a genuine edge to the Arrows in the loose last year.

On the plus side we like the look of Mason Flesch in the back row and Kobe Faust looks to provide some genuine spark out wide on the wing. Carrying on from last season, Ross Braude is an exciting prospect for the Arrows and Canada in the nine jersey. However, in the set pieces in their opening two games the Arrows looked creaky and their lineouts remain an area of concern carried over from last year. Handling errors and missed tackles also seemed to be an issue, though the frigid temperatures in New York in Round 2 clearly didn’t help the former issue. However, in their first game against Atlanta, Toronto really only showed up in the final ten minutes which as impressive as it was ended up being too little too late. A week later they were dominated by a team who, in fairness, are last year’s defending champions, so perhaps hardly the team you want to face while still trying to settle your structures and processes with a new team.

So like we say, it’s early days yet and not fair to judge these initial slightly lacklustre performances. The Arrows face MLR newcomers for 2023 the Chicago Hounds this weekend. Hopefully having had a break to review what worked and what didn’t from their opening two rounds, the Arrows will get their season underway in earnest and give their fans some genuine spring cheer, ahead of their Toronto homecoming on April 8th for a rematch with New York. Check out the link on the TV page for ticket links.

So till next week, make sure you’re near a TV somewhere this weekend for what should be some legendary Six Nations action, have a glance at the action going on in Super Rugby and get behind the Arrows. Take care everyone!


Published by Neil Olsen

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

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