The Lineout Calls of the Week

This week we concern ourselves with the debacle that we sadly got to witness firsthand at York Lions Stadium here in Toronto last Saturday. We went to our first Arrows game of the season, their second, and sadly were bitterly disappointed by what happened on and off the pitch during the match. After the narrow loss to the New York Ironworkers in their first home game of the season a week earlier we went with cautious optimism, despite their opponents, the New England Free Jacks being the best in the East. What we got treated to instead of a good day out was a record defeat in the MLR as Toronto went down 80-5 to New England and a truly awful fan experience in the stands. The fans themselves as always were great, but the way in which the game was run by the organisers at the Stadium meant that the rugby, instead of being the focus of the evening, was treated almost like a sideshow. Disappointed fans left the stadium half deaf, with their ears bleeding from an aural onslaught of music and ridiculous drivel from the sidelines as a game that was completely forgettable compounded Toronto’s miseries this season.

We also look at the Womens’ Six Nations as it serves to highlight the massive gulf between England/France and the rest of the competition. As entertaining as some of the rugby is and as brave as some of the teams have been there is no denying that the playing field of women’s rugby in the infancy of its professional era is very uneven. We also look at the fortunes of the two Pacific Island sides in this year’s Super Rugby – a struggling but highly entertaining Moana Pasifika and a rapidly improving Fijian Drua who are easily one of the most exciting teams in the competition to watch. We ask the question can anybody beat Leinster as even with a C team in South Africa they continue their remarkable 24 game winning streak. Lastly we look at the idea of a “TMO bunker” being put forward by World Rugby for adoption in the upcoming World Cup.

So that’s what kept our pints frothy this week over some heated debates. There were plenty of talking points as there always are, but these five are the ones we kept coming back to.

The Toronto’s Arrows season seems in no better shape at home than on the road!

There was a good turnout at York Lions Stadium for the Arrows second home game, but fans were left disappointed by the action on the pitch as Toronto suffered the worst defeat of any team in MLR history as they went down to the New England Free Jacks 80-5. To add insult to injury the experience of being a fan in the stands was frustrating as the rugby was treated almost as a sideshow at times and often overshadowed by deafening music and incessant and irrelevant banter from the organisers

We want to start this discussion by saying up front that since day one we have been and will continue to be staunch Arrows supporters and have nothing but respect for team owner Bill Webb and his vision of bringing rugby to Toronto. We stand by all of you and salute your efforts.

However, what we experienced last Saturday at York Lions Stadium at our first Arrows game of the season put that support to the ultimate Test, and left us not exactly bubbling with enthusiasm to go back for more. What we loved about Arrows home games in the past was the fun family atmosphere, my 11 year old son loves going to Arrows games, and the ability to watch Rugby here in Toronto and get behind your local team. We weren’t able to do any of that on Saturday, and if truth be told left the stadium with a sigh of relief not convinced we would be coming back any time soon. We fully appreciate that the organisers need to create an atmosphere in the stands but it was downright obnoxious on Saturday, and we weren’t the only ones fuming at proceedings – a common murmur of dissent could be heard rumbling throughout the stands.

We’d paid good money to watch a rugby game, not have our ears continuously assaulted at full volume by the strangest mix of godawful music we’d heard in years, and don’t get us wrong we love a good tune to rally the troops. However, whoever was running the sidelines “entertainment”, if indeed you could call it that, seemed to be completely unaware that there was a rugby game in progress. The music blared onto the pitch as players were trying to set for kicks, during lineout throws and any stoppage due to referee arbitrations or setup for scrums. As a result we’re sure more than a few key calls were lost in the cacophony of sound and it showed a gross lack of respect to fans and players alike. If we’d wanted to go to a rock show/rave we’d have bought tickets for Coachella!

As for the rugby itself – well what can we say? Toronto’s ongoing problem with a complete lack of any sort of defensive organisation continued to plague them as they leaked 12 soft tries, two of them penalty tries. Their set piece work remains a minefield of lost opportunity and with it their discipline. While we felt the officiating of referee Paulo Duarte left a fair amount to be desired at times, Toronto’s sloppy organisation really didn’t help their cause and set them up for failure more often than not. However the glaring problem that has manifested itself all season continued with a vengeance, Toronto is just missing far too many first up tackles and against a team like the Free Jacks that’s already nailed your coffin shut before being put ten feet under, as was the case with the 80-5 scoreline.

After being the hero of the weekend last week the Arrows decided that somehow winger D’Shawn Bowen would singlehandedly rescue them from the jaws of fate for the full eighty minutes. We lost track of how many times they would simply kick or pass him the ball with little if any support and hope that he could somehow perform miracles. To give him his credit he was one of the few standout players last weekend and, despite the increasingly alarming scoreline, simply refused to quit. He put in some critical tackles and ran like a man possessed whenever he got the ball, but often found himself isolated. Other than that we struggled to find anybody else worthy of a notable mention.

One thing that did strike us was the fact that the Free Jacks boasted four former Arrows players, front rowers Andrew Quattrain, Cole Keith, Centre Ben LeSage and fullback Spencer Jones, all of whom contributed immensely to the Free Jacks routing of Toronto last Saturday, while fellow Canadian international Conor Keys also had a big impact in the second row for the Boston outfit. The four former Arrows all had significant roles in Toronto’s initial success in the MLR and you have to ask yourself why such players can’t be kept. Furthermore, many of the South American internationals who lit up pitches for the Arrows in seasons past are no longer with the team. Instead Toronto seems to have ended up this year with a group of very green Canadian development players and a mix of Canadian internationals and decidedly middle of the road overseas players who seem to be past their prime. They have managed to maintain the services of scrum half Ross Braude but even he seems to have lost some of the sparkle he had from last year. Add to that an injury list from hell, which most notably kept fly half Sam Malcolm out of contention last weekend, and it looks set to be a long and painful conclusion to the 2023 MLR season for Toronto.

We fully appreciate that the sky high cost of living in Toronto has probably made it harder for the Arrows to keep and attract quality players, but if that is genuinely the case we have to wonder how long the franchise, as Canada’s sole entry in the MLR, can remain viable. That has no doubt put a long rumoured second franchise in Vancouver out of the question.

Like we say we have enormous respect for team owner Bill Webb and what he is trying to do with the Arrows and for the rugby community in Toronto and Canada as a whole, but from the minute you entered the grounds last weekend none of that vision was honored. The rugby was of very poor quality and the fan experience was downright painful. While fixing the Arrows ongoing problems on the pitch this season is probably a lot more complex and difficult, rectifying the fan experience is simple and we hope to hear a more positive report from Sunday’s game against the Seawolves which, unfortunately due to other commitments, we won’t be attending. We will be back but until then the Arrows and their management know they have a lot of work to get through. As for the team itself, we know you’ve got this in you boys so onwards and upwards!

England and France are in such a league of their own in the Women’s Six Nations it resembles a two tier competition with Italy and Wales being the two most dominant sides in this supposed Division 2

Italy have been the only side able to stand up to France, and it will be fascinating to see if Wales can also do the same this weekend. Meanwhile England seems untouchable by anyone.

After watching Wales and Scotland get completely outplayed by England and France respectively last weekend we had to ask ourselves if perhaps the Women’s Six Nations in its current format isn’t more like a version of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions. In the former you essentially have two teams competing for silverware, England and France with everyone else on a more level playing field in the Challenge Cup with Italy and Wales clearly starting to look like the two dominant teams.

In fairness to both Wales and Scotland they managed to give their English and French opponents a decent scrap for the first 30 minutes, after which the dam wall burst in both matches. In the Ireland game against Italy, even the Irish managed to remain in the match for the first half hour, and although the floodgates didn’t exactly open in the same way they did in Cardiff and Vannes it still wasn’t comfortable viewing if you were an Irish supporter. There is a ton of heart and commitment in all six teams, but only England and France appear to look like they have made the quantum leap to professionalism. Italy and Wales are extremely promising works in progress and there are some positive signs starting to emerge from Scotland. However, there is no denying that in the Northern Hemisphere England and France are completely and utterly in a league of their own when it comes to Women’s rugby.

We played around with an alternative format for the tournament where you did actually have a Champions and Challenge Cup type setup. In the Champions Cup you’d have England and France with either Italy or Wales. The result of the Round 4 match up this weekend between the Azurre and Dragons is likely to tell us much about who really is the best of the rest. In the Challenge Cup at this stage it would most likely be Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The winner of the Challenge series would be promoted to play France and England the following year and the Wooden Spoon holders of the Champions tournament demoted to the Challenge competition.

Controversial we know, but possibly a way to start shrinking the gulf in skill levels and professionalism between France/England and everyone else. We’re not sure, but let’s be honest with two rounds to go there are only two genuinely intriguing fixtures left – that between Wales and Italy and England and France. That’s not to discredit the efforts of any of the teams, but given the significant gaps in both resources and skills available to each of the participating countries a temporary rebalancing act may be worth considering.

Fijian Drua have been the tournament’s cherished project this season, but Moana Pasifika in their first historic game in Samoa last weekend showed just how vibrant rugby is in the Islands.

Fijian Drua seem invincible on home soil. Although they lost Moana Pasifika’s first ever home game in their native Samoa was a resounding success and a superb advertisement for both the competition and the sport – highlighting just how important these two sides are to the tournament by lending it some genuine “international flavour”

Despite not getting the result they wanted, we loved watching Moana Pasifika make history and play in front of their “real home crowd” in Apia, Samoa last weekend. They may ultimately have emerged on the wrong side of the scoreline, but did so in a performance that oozed, commitment, heart and passion, and no shortage of skill (something our own Arrows could take on board). It was all backed up by scenes of absolute joy in the stands as the people of Samoa got to watch their heroes bravely battle a quality Reds side. It was a rugby spectacle and the enthusiasm both on and off the pitch, just like the Fijian Drua’s two home games to date was infectious.

Despite Moana Pasifika remaining winless so far in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition, they have still managed to provide a bucketload of entertainment in all their games and put on display some genuine skill and ambition. They may not quite be the “movie stars” of Pacific Island rugby in the same way the 100 mile an hour Fijian Drua are, but it’s still a project worth sticking with. The Fijian Drua have come into their own this year, especially with a good number of games held in Fiji and it is our hope that we will see more of Moana Pasifika’s “home” games take place in the Islands in future editions of the tournament. The Drua are rapidly becoming one of the biggest viewing draws in Super Rugby (they’re huge fan favourites with us here at the Lineout).

By promoting the Pacific Island aspect of Super Rugby, it not only develops the global game but also adds a much needed international element to Super Rugby which the competition was in danger of losing with the departure of South African teams and Argentina’s Jaguares. Furthermore, and perhaps most important of all the boost to the fortunes of Pacific Island sides in the World Cup will be enormous. In short, VIVA Pasifika!!!

Leinster’s C Team gets an A grade in South Africa as its younger stars come of age

Inspirational fly half Sam half Prendergast and his Leinster colleagues were exceptional in their comeback defeat of the Lions last weekend in the URC, as the seemingly limitless talent bank Leinster seems to have access to continues to grow

No we’re not going to ask the inevitable question as to whether or not Leinster fly half Sam Prendergast is the new Johnny Sexton. However, we won’t hide our admiration for the Ireland Under 20s star along with a decidedly B even C looking Leinster squad putting on such a show in South Africa for the final two rounds of regular URC season games at the moment. What it serves to illustrate though once more is the truly staggering depth that Leinster seems to have access to, both now and for the future. While the accolades are pouring in that essentially paint Leinster as a genuine superpower in club rugby, it’s hard to argue against the fact that this is a very special team indeed, the likes of which we probably haven’t seen in club rugby. New Zealand’s Crusaders probably being their equivalent in the Southern Hemisphere.

Everything Leinster does looks effortless and we have yet to see a better organised or more creative team this year. We take exception to the ridiculous comments made by former England international and commentator Brian Moore and others that Leinster have been gifted their progress this year and a place in the Heineken Cup Final come May. While perhaps they had the rub of the draw in the Pool stages, and a gentle run into their semi final clash with all their games being played at Fortress Aviva in Dublin, there is no denying that they’ve looked good for it.

What’s more their unbeaten streak of 24 games so far since that narrow loss last year to La Rochelle in the Heineken Cup final should silence most of their critics. They should breeze their way through to a URC final, but there are no guarantees that they’ll be playing in a home Heineken Cup Final. To do that they’ll have to get past a red hot Toulouse, admittedly also at the Aviva. The French side who remain the most successful team to ever compete in the Heineken Cup are the number one TOP 14 side in France’s domestic competition this year and have got better and better with each game in the Champions Cup. Toulouse are peaking at just the right time and the question remains that just like last year have Leinster done so too early, especially as they will be without the services of Johnny Sexton?

After watching Prendergast in action, along with Ross Byrne in the Round 2 Six Nations Ireland/France game we’d argue that the above concern is now a minor technicality. Leinster will have a much sterner test this weekend against the Bulls, but if this current Leinster side of relative unknowns on tour in South Africa can pull it off, then it’s very hard to see anything but a clean sweep of both the URC and the Heineken Cup for the Men in Blue and that cherished fifth European Star on their jersey. If that is genuinely the case then perhaps Irish supporters can really start to believe that this World Cup is the one in which they finally consign their Quarter Final hoodoo to the graveyard of history!

Time to bunker down

The idea of a TMO “bunker” which will be trialed in the U20s Championship this summer in South Africa, is being put forward for adoption into this year’s Rugby World Cup

We’ll be honest and say we really like this idea and hope it gets adopted not only for the upcoming World Cup but for the game as a whole post the global showdown in France. What is it we hear you ask? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not Mathieu Raynal and Jaco Peyper hiding in an armor plated bunker in the heart of a bombed out World Rugby Headquarters building in Dublin.

We’re sure that like us you’re tired of the endless stoppages we now see across the board at both Club and Test level, where momentum gets sapped out of the game as the officiating team of TMOs, the referee and his on field assistants debate the issue of whether or not the laws determine it to be a yellow or red card based on a variety of mitigating circumstances. What World Rugby is proposing as a solution to this and is trialling in this summer’s U20s Championship is the idea of a TMO bunker. If successful it will be used during the World Cup in France starting in September.

The concept is very simple. Red cards for obvious and blatant foul play will be handed out by the on field referee on the spot, so essentially there are no changes there. However, in situations in which the decision is far from clear cut and requires some extensive video analysis to determine the level of foul play, whether it was accidental or not, level of danger and so on, it has been agreed that the time it takes to do this should not bring a halt to the momentum of the game or have the on field decision influenced by 50,000 partisan fans in the stands.

Consequently, what would happen now is that once a case of foul play has been observed but there is lack of consensus as to whether or not it’s a yellow or red card, the offending player will be issued a yellow card. In the ten minutes while he is in the sin bin, a dedicated team of television match officials will review all video footage and determine whether or not it is a yellow or needs to be upgraded to a red card. If it is a yellow card then the player returns to the field after ten minutes, but if that card is deemed worthy of an upgrade to a red he remains off the pitch for the remainder of the game and is not allowed to be replaced, reducing his team to 14 players for the rest of the match.

This would go a long way to ending some of the recent controversies and heat of the moment decisions such as Freddie Steward’s unfortunate red card against Ireland in the Six Nations or Zach Mercer’s unmerited sending off in the recent Champions Cup clash between Exeter and Montpellier. Furthermore, without sapping the momentum of the game it also removes the risk of on field referees being overwhelmed by crowd pressure and making incorrect decisions.

In short, we’re in favor of it plain and simple! Next order of business please World Rugby – consistency in officiating but hopefully this is a step in the right direction!

So that’s it for this week folks. Back to the grindstone tomorrow, so probably no missive from us next week – we’ll see how busy work gets. Till then take care and stay safe and hopefully last weekend’s tease of summer will return with a vengeance sooner rather than later!


Published by Neil Olsen

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

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