First of all especially as it’s not one of our Calls of the Week this week, we want to give a HUGE shout out to Canada’s Women, who opened their Pacific Four series campaign earlier this month in Spain by thumping the USA 50-17. The tournament featuring Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA resumes in June, and Canada’s final two games against the Wallabies and Black Ferns should take place in Canada. Once we have dates and venues confirmed we’ll let you know, but if you can get out there and support our fantastic women make sure you do so! A video of the entire USA game can be found on the TV page of this website. Canada followed on from their resounding victory over the Springboks as a warm up a week earlier, and already in 2023 they look like they have every intention of picking up where they left off after their superb World Cup campaign last year. Canada still remain firmly entrenched as the fourth best side in the world and the future definitely looks bright!
So this week we reflect back on the fallout from two hectic weekends of Heineken Cup knockout rounds, which sadly sees South African sides out of their first foray into the European tournament, and ask ourselves the question as to whether or not it was all just too much rugby? Travel proved to be a major headache for all the teams but particularly the South African sides, who had no home quarter finals. This made us wonder how, given the fact that it was knockout rugby, it was set up like that in the first place. The same theme in many ways applies to the second last round of the URC with playoff spots up for grabs. There was some great rugby action played out over the past two weekends, that we cannot dispute, but the arrangements for it were far from ideal for the players being asked to perform at a level just shy of Test Rugby.
We also have a look at the Womens’ Six Nations which resumes this weekend, and despite the success of the their Men’s team, Ireland’s women find themselves holding the short end of the stick and so far are struggling to fire a shot in the tournament. Traditional Wooden Spooners of the last few years Scotland started the competition in a similar vein but their spirited resistance to a resurgent Welsh side in Round 2 certainly gave them grounds for optimism which Ireland seem to be without. Wales may not make much headway with England and France but certainly look to trouble Italy and finish the tournament strongly. Italy likewise can enjoy the fact that the hardest challenges of the competition, England and France, are now behind them and expect some big performances from the Azurre in the final three rounds. It all leads to that mouthwatering contest on April 29th between England and France to determine who is Europe’s best.
We look at the continuing struggle faced by Australian sides in Super Rugby to make any genuine headway against their New Zealand counterparts, with the Brumbies being the only real exception to the trend. New Wallabies Coach Eddie Jones will have an interesting time of it sorting out his first Wallabies side come their first Test of this World Cup year against the Springboks in July. He has enough talent to assemble a squad that can face off against the All Blacks but their lack of winning ways against New Zealand opposition is a worry.
Lastly we celebrate the Arrows return to Toronto and their first home game last weekend. While they may not have got the win, and a playoff spot is rapidly disappearing into the far distance, there was enough excitement on hand especially in the form of new winger D’Shawn Bowen, that fans can hopefully start to feel optimistic about next season.
So without any further ado, here’s what kept our pints frothy last week.
Too much too soon as European Professional Club Rugby (aka the Heineken Cup) tries to pack too much into a tight window
While we don’t want to come across as whinging or blaming the Stormers and Sharks quarter final exits on their travel arrangements, whichever way you cut it they had some bearing on last weekend’s proceedings. Particularly in the case of the Sharks who, despite a travel schedule from hell and 24 hours in economy class enroute to their quarter final date with Toulouse, made a genuine fist of their contest with the French giants which sadly cannot be said of the Stormers in their tussle with Exeter.
First of all you have to question why the Round of 16 initial knockout stage was immediately followed by the Quarter Finals the next weekend, which to the best of our knowledge has never happened before in the tournament’s history. Why would you do that when you know that some of the participants, unlike in tournaments in past years, are faced with a minimum of 15 hours of airline travel? Secondly, club budgets suddenly become ridiculously stretched and in the case of the Sharks to breaking point, necessitating them to have to travel 24 hours in economy class with only a three day turnaround between games where they were not travelling. Most of us find anything more than 4 hours in economy class these days a fate worse than death. For rugby players, who let’s face it are not exactly small and adaptable to the laughable seat pitch in economy cabins, expecting them to perform at the highest levels in a hugely demanding physical contest is downright cruel after such a flight.
So let’s break down their travel schedule. The weekend after the Six Nations all four South African sides, Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers travelled to Europe for a round of URC matches. The next weekend they were all back in South Africa for the Round of 16 matches in the Champions and Challenge Cup. The Lions, Sharks and Stormers were then expected to pack their bags right away again to head back to Europe for the Challenge and Champions Cup Quarter Finals which all of them lost. Once that was done then it was time to repack again and head back to South Africa for the final two rounds of the URC with playoff spots at stake for the Sharks. It’s a problem facing not just South African sides. Ireland’s Munster are in a similar predicament though not quite as exhausting. For their Round of Sixteen Champions Cup clash they had to travel to Durban. After returning back to Ireland a week later they found themselves back on the plane to South Africa for two critical games against the Stormers and Sharks to determine their playoff hopes in the URC.
This was always going to be a problem once South African sides got integrated into European club competition, but the seemingly blatant disregard for player welfare just smacks of yet another epic fail in how the game is managed these days in the professional era. In short, there is simply too much rugby compressed into too small a time frame. Surely there must be a way to ensure that the schedule reflects the distances now involved and the toll this takes on players. If not the sport as a spectacle fails and we have to be concerned for the long term of health of the players. Like we say we want to give the Sharks FULL credit for putting up a magnificent challenge in their duel with one of Europe’s greatest clubs, Toulouse, right up until the 65th minute. The Stormers on the other hand appeared resigned to their fate before they even walked onto the pitch at Sandy Park, as they simply did little more than go through the motions in their game against Exeter.
We’re not saying that ultimately this is the reason that we find ourselves with no South African representation post the quarter finals in their first foray in the Champions Cup, but it would be hard to argue against it not being a contributing factor. Toulouse and Exeter were ultimately too good on the day and are worthy semi-finalists along with Leinster and La Rochelle, but it is our hope that a slightly more level playing field is created next year in the interests of the sport, the competition’s legitimacy and player welfare.
A clash of Titans awaits at the end of the month
England simply look too good and must be striking fear into all and sundry in this year’s competition. France like their male counterparts clearly struggled with Italian bus timetables and got off a few stops before the Parma Stadium causing them to appear out of sorts at times against Italy in the first round. However, now armed with Lonely Planet and Rough Guides they once again look the all conquering force that came so close to preventing New Zealand from lifting the World Cup last year. In short, these are the two best sides in the competition by a country mile and are heading towards a monumental showdown in the final round of the tournament.
It’s hard to find any chinks in either of these two teams’ armor. After France dispatched Ireland with such ease in Cork two weekends ago, the wobbles against Italy seem almost irrelevant. The only thing really separating the sides is that France’s discipline isn’t quite as tight as England’s and their spectacular ambition at times in open play has resulted in them having more handling errors than any other team. England’s seemingly unstoppable brute power spearheaded by the remarkable Marlie Packer, will mean that everyone including France will find it hard to put the brakes on the Red Roses this year, and the fact that they will have to do it at Twickenham to boot makes it doubly hard.
Either way, if you want to watch two quality sides in action you simply won’t want to miss the final three rounds of this fascinating tournament which once again showcases the meteoric rise in popularity and quality of the Women’s game.
Ireland wonder why it’s all gone so horribly wrong while Scotland start to feel that a new dawn beckons
Watching Ireland implode against France in Cork a fortnight ago, we found it hard to believe that Ireland were such a force in this tournament from 2013 to 2017 including a Grand Slam during those years. Everyone else has moved on in the modern Women’s game but Ireland seem to be only just waking up to the realities of professionalism. It seems all the more ironic when you consider how successful the Men’s programme has become in the Emerald Isle. Centrally contracted players are just starting to appear in Ireland but in general the game is woefully underfunded and managed almost as if it were an entertaining side show to the National Men’s programme. Much like our own Men’s programme here in Canada there is tug of war between 7s and 15s duties, with players being forced to jump from one code to the other and one tournament to the next, ultimately not doing very well in either.
A creaking review of the Women’s game in Ireland has been made, but change is still slow to be implemented. With the IRFU seeming to be solely focused on getting the Men’s team beyond the Quarter Finals of the World Cup for the first time in history, don’t expect any reversal in fortunes in the near future.
All that aside though, there are some reasons to be cheerful. Hooker Neve Jones is the leading dominant tackler of the tournament so far while flanker Nichola Fryday is second in lineouts won. But other than that it’s pretty slim pickings if you’re an Irish supporter. Their next game is a tough trip to Italy fo face an Italian side reeling from a loss to England of epic proportions. Italy are simply not as bad as the 68-5 scoreline suggested having given France the fright of their lives a week earlier. After that it’s a daunting home game against Tournament giants England followed up by a last round encounter away with a rapidly improving Scottish outfit. This will probably be a tournament to forget for Ireland, but hopefully as the necessary changes to how the game is managed start to take effect, Ireland’s Grand Slam winning ways of 2013 can return.
As for Scotland, apart from their initial heavy Round 1 defeat to England, their performance against Wales gave them reasons to feel optimistic about the rest of their tournament. There are still no easy games and this weekend’s trip to France is not something you’d wish on anyone looking to build confidence.
However, Scotland looked remarkably improved in their gritty loss to Wales. Scotland’s tackling is phenomenal and they lead the tournament in the number of tackles made as well as having more turnovers won in the tackle than anyone else. Admittedly they are missing too many tackles which will cost them dearly against the likes of France and Italy. Their discipline overall has also been good, while Fullback Chloe Rollie along with England’s Abigail Dow have broken more tackles than anyone else. Hooker Lana Skeldon and back rower Evie Gallagher have led those tackle statistics, as well as winning the most turnovers in the tackle in the competition. In short, there’s a lot to like about this Scottish side and they certainly look to have benefitted from their World Cup experience.
Once they get the French game out of the way this weekend, Scotland will no doubt fancy their chances against Italy and Ireland at home in front of a very vocal crowd. Scotland seem further ahead than Ireland in getting the women’s game administered properly, after a review at the end of last year put the way in which the women’s game in Scotland is managed under the harshest and most unflattering spotlight. Drastic action was required and although early days yet it seems to be paying dividends. It would seem the Irish could learn a thing or two from their Celtic cousins.
“So what am I supposed to do with this lot mate?”
Once again in Super Rugby, there really is only one Australian team when it comes to the international component of the competition that is consistent in being able to go head to head with their New Zealand rivals. You guessed it – the Brumbies. For everyone else they can display some very attractive rugby, but a brand that simply doesn’t get results when it comes time to take on their Trans Tasman opponents. Some questionable decision making in terms of team selections for these matches don’t seem to help the cause either. Take for example the Brumbies selection for their trip to Christchurch to take on tournament giants the Crusaders. The Brumbies for reasons best known to themselves decided to take an understrength B team to Christchurch and paid the price in a fairly comprehensive defeat. Surely this was a chance to showcase the best of Australian rugby against one of New Zealand’s top sides, but instead it simply smacked of opportunity lost. The Brumbies did manage to beat the Blues but that game was played in Australia which was a slight advantage. For everyone else the defeats have been consistent and for the most part heavy, especially in away games.
It’s not all doom and gloom as some of the tournament statistics favor the Australians. The Brumbies are the second highest try scoring team in the competition, and in lineouts won the Reds lead the way along with the Rebels. The Rebels have a pretty handy offloading game and the Waratahs a fairly formidable scrum.
Winger Jordan Petaia of the Reds has impressed with his try scoring ability and several Australian players have stood up and been counted in set piece work. However, it would appear that incoming Wallaby Coach Eddie Jones is inheriting a team of brilliant individuals but one that is hard to weld together into an effective unit. It looks strikingly similar to what he was faced with in his last two years in charge of England and we all know how that went. In short, in the space of less than six months he has quite the job on his hands of getting some selection consistency going and developing a team of talented individuals into a cohesive and effective unit capable of going toe to toe with the World’s best.
Admittedly Jones has been granted an easy side of the World Cup draw in which to try and pull it all together and a gem of a Pool to settle the nerves. However, provided he can win the Pool and then deal with a thorny England or Argentina in the quarter finals, New Zealand, Ireland, France or South Africa await him and his charges in the semis and given the state of Australian rugby right now that’s a bit of a messy set of dishes to deal with. Defensively Australian sides continue to look distinctly second best against their New Zealand counterparts and such gaps will be manna from heaven for sides like France and Ireland.
In short, Eddie has a mess to sort out and he needs to do it quickly. Apparently that’s his stock in trade, though once done it all seems to go downhill at a rate of knots if England are anything to go by. For now though Australia will hope that his miracle worker abilities in the short term are still intact.
The Toronto Arrows find their version of Superman and with it some good cheer
While we banged our heads a few times on the bar when the final whistle blew at the end of Toronto’s first home game of the MLR 2023 season, we have to admit we thoroughly enjoyed watching the Arrows in their narrow defeat to the New York Ironworkers – something we can’t say we’ve done up to this point. It was great to see packed stands of the Arrows faithful again at York Lions stadium thoroughly enjoying themselves and the exploits of superstar winger D’Shawn Bowen in particular. The team clearly fed off it and while there still remains much work to be done and a playoff spot seems a rather remote possibility to say the least, it was still the start of something positive. Unlike in their first six games where the Arrows faded dramatically in the second half, on Saturday they held their own and kept it a contest right until the final whistle.
There’s still some notable work-ons though let’s not pretend otherwise before we get to the good stuff. Toronto gave away far too many penalties, the lineouts still need some major surgery, the Arrows are not dominant at the breakdown and most importantly of all their first up tackles are almost nonexistent. New York was having a field day in getting past the Arrows in first phase play, and had it not been for the number of handling errors the Ironworkers made, the scoreline could have been very different.
So that’s the bad news, the good news is all bundled up in one number – 14. Winger D’Shawn Bowen’s spectacular 3 try hat trick debut for the Arrows was something to behold. The 7s star brought his A game and then some to York Lions Stadium on Saturday and made it a party for the fans in the stands. Shane O’Leary also looked positive in the fly half jersey although the move of Sam Malcolm from 10 to 15 seemed to diminish his normal star of the show quality. However, there is no question that Bowen is something special for the Arrows and possibly even Canada in the future, having already starred for the national side at 7s level. While everyone knows we think one of Canada’s fundamental problems is switching players between codes, we hope that in Bowen’s case a decent stint in an Arrows jersey and then the national 15s squad could do Canada’s cause no end of good.
It still may be a long and very difficult season ahead for the Arrows, but a bit more of what was on display last Saturday, and all of a sudden the future could start to look very bright indeed for next year and beyond!
Well that’s it folks for another week. Last week was insane with the day job hence the silence but hopefully we can stick to at least once every other week for the rest of the year (probably more realistic). Once again a massive shout out to our phenomenal Canadian women and their success in the Pacific Four series! Enjoy spring which finally seems to have decided to get underway with a balmy 29 C in Toronto today – time to get out the barbecues!!!!