Archive for the ‘Canuck Rugby’ Category

As the Christmas festivities wind down, we finally get some time to put pen to paper once more and put our heads together for our annual set of report cards for the top ten nations who compete in the two major annual Test competitions – the Rugby Championship in the Southern Hemisphere and the Six Nations in the North. However, to kick things off we take a quick look at Canada as they fall outside of these two competitions and this is after all a Canadian blog.

Canada – 6/10

It was a year that after the misery of the 2014 and 2015 seasons seemed to promise so much for Canada as their opening campaign of the year in the Americas Rugby Championship under interim Coach Francois Ratier saw them finish in second place behind Argentina. However, with Ratier’s departure and new Coach Mark Anscombe taking over at the helm Canada sadly seemed to slip back into their old ways.  Let’s face it if it were not for winger DTH van der Merwe there wouldn’t have been too much too talk about for Canada for the rest of 2016. A continued lack of decision-making from Rugby Canada in terms of Canadian participation in a regular professional competition, means that the majority of Canada’s top players still struggle to get the exposure to regular top-level rugby that is so vital to the development of a national squad.

Canada had a bright start to the year under interim coach Francois Ratier as they finished second in the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship and winning three of their five games.  Against the competition’s two strongest competitors the USA and Argentina, Canada fared well with a narrow loss to the Eagles in Texas but the Pumas in Argentina proved to be a bridge too far despite a competitive first half from Canada. Nevertheless despite these two losses, Canada ended the competition in second place just ahead of the Americans on points difference.

Canada’s new long-term Coach, Mark Anscombe, took over in the spring and he and his charges were put under the microscope with three challenging home tests in June.  First up were the Japanese. It was an exciting game and saw some outstanding performances from a number of Canadian players.  However, for much of the match, despite the closeness of the scoreline you felt that this was Canada’s game to lose. Consequently the Japanese comeback in the last ten minutes suddenly turned the game around, coupled with the fact that scrum half Gordon McRorie had clearly left his kicking boots at home that day as several key penalty opportunities went wide of the posts. Once again the familiar sight of Canadian players leaving the field as the losing side in a match they knew they should have won was there for all to see.

Canada and Gordon McRorie in particular redeemed themselves against Russia the following week with a resounding win over the East Europeans in Calgary.  The June series ended in Toronto against Italy.  In a lacklustre match from both sides, Canada once again at the death let their discipline and focus slip away and once more a match they should have won went begging.

After the disappointing results of the June series an even harder challenge awaited Canada in November as they headed to Europe for three  tough matches. Their opener was a real baptism of fire against Ireland in Dublin.  Ireland fresh off an historic victory against the All Blacks in Chicago were brimming with confidence, despite the fact that few if any of the Irish heroes of Soldier Field took part in the match against Canada. Despite the stiff challenge they faced, Canada put in a fantastic performance for the first 60 minutes and made Ireland work hard, with winger DTH van der Merwe being a constant rallying point for Canada with an excellent opening try of his own and a hand in Canada’s subsequent two forays across the Irish white line.  However, in the second half Ireland’s depth and pedigree simply left Coach Mark Anscombe’s charges in the dust.

It was Canada’s final two Tests of 2016 which really were the hardest to watch.  Canada lost to their old arch-enemy Romania for the third consecutive time in a row in Bucharest in a game where their concentration and ultimately discipline once more let them down. Once again this was a game Canada could have won but as usual, despite a bright start, they petered out in the final 20 minutes. Lastly, against Samoa who apart from an exceptional performance by their fly half D’Angelo Leuila, were average to say the least, Canada once more ended up on the wrong side of the score line at the end of eighty minutes. This despite winger DTH van der Merwe scoring two brilliant tries in the last fifteen minutes to try to put Canada firmly in control in the final quarter.

In short, despite some early optimism it ended up being a year of bitter disappointment for Canada. Winning only four out of 11 Tests played is simply not good enough, no matter how close some of the results were. We simply saw too many of the same problems that have almost become hallmark traits of Canadian rugby in the last three years. A lack of discipline and composure at key moments, especially in the final quarter is still proving crippling to Canada breaking out of the lower ranks of the Tier Two nations. This is made all the more frustrating as Canada is respected by all of the Tier One nations as a feisty and difficult opponent.  However, without the ability to finish opponents off the respect ultimately starts to feel a little hollow. Add to that an inconsistent kicking game and a lack of any real attacking threat other than that posed by winger DTH van der Merwe and at this stage there is still a mountain of work for Canada to get through if they want to stand any chance of getting within some kind of spitting distance of the world’s top 10. There is no doubt that Coach Mark Anscombe has the skill set and track record to help get them there with some promising players coming through the ranks. However, without regular exposure to some kind of professional competition Canada’s players will struggle as a unit and have to rely on the few players who have club experience overseas in Europe.  However, the lack of familiarity and time together will prove a constant handicap.  Consequently Canada’s decision to opt out of the newly formed professional league in the United States is likely to prove costly.

Having said that though it is not all gloom and doom for Canada.  We feel that the following players really stood up and were counted this year, despite Canada’s trials and tribulations on and off the pitch.  Prop Djustice Sears-Duru was immense for Canada this year and his obvious talents have been recognised by one of the star clubs of the PRO 12 competition in Europe, the Glasgow Warriors.  Playing at such high-level competition, and also in the European Champions Cup will only increase Sears-Duru’s already considerable talents and experience. We also felt that Canada in the shape of  Kyle Baillie, Admir Cejvanovic and Lucas Rumball has a back row that shows enormous promise for the future, and Clay Panga at number eight also looks the fitting complement to very solid-looking Canadian back row. Fly half Conor Braid, continued to show that he is an exceptionally talented player and has both a bright future in Europe and in a Canadian jersey while finally providing Canada with some long overdue spark in attack. Lastly whenever he pulls on a Canadian jersey magic is bound to happen. Yes we think you know who we’re talking about, Canadian superman – winger DTH van der Merwe.  On that note we’ll leave you with DTH in action at the last World Cup to just remind ourselves that Canada really does have some absolute world-class quality and once we can get fifteen of these guys then anything is possible!

 

It was another ugly afternoon for Canada, as they came woefully short against a highly motivated US Eagles team who once again taught them a painful lesson in finishing skills amongst the cornfields south of Ottawa.  At this point with two extremely challenging warm-up games against Fiji and Georgia in England prior to the global showdown of the World Cup, Canada needs to find some answers as they recorded their seventh straight loss.  At the end of the match the team looked shattered and you could  feel the sense of despondency amongst the players.  They know they are better than this but somehow just can’t pull it together.  The players and coaching staff have a monumental task ahead of them in the next three weeks to shake off the demons of the last year and restore some pride and confidence to the Canadian jersey.  If this isn’t done Canada could end up having their worst World Cup in history, as the team potentially exits the tournament without a win.  The return of some of Canada’s big guns like Jamie Cudmore, DTH van der Merwe, Jebb Sinclair and Jeff Hassler should surely help the cause but these four alone can’t lift the team out of its current doldrums.  Let’s hope for the team’s sake that the performance in Ottawa last Saturday really was rock bottom for the team and it’s only onwards and upwards from here on end from every one of Canada’s 31 man World Cup squad!

Canada vs USA
Final Score – Canada 23/USA 41
Ottawa

Canada wanted to win this match desperately and so did their supporters, but sadly instead of coming agonizingly close to a victory as they have of late, they were blown away by an American side that for the most part looked the model of composure and a well executed game plan. The expressions on the Canadian players faces at the final whistle said it all – no matter what spin the PR people at Rugby Canada put on it this is a team suffering a crisis of confidence! Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Canada’s recent performances is that the team is not without talent, especially at an individual level, but somehow as a unit they just can’t seem to get organised to really harness the potential they have. To make matters worse, the player of the game from a Canadian perspective and who really could have added some firepower to Canada’s cause in England, Taylor Paris, took an injury that has now ruled him out of the World Cup. Sadly for this team for every step forward they take, they seem to take two backwards.

As I watched the opening ten minutes of this game, I like many Canadian supporters, really had the feeling that the misery of the last few months for the Canadians was all about to end in dramatic fashion. Canada came out of the blocks firing on all cylinders. They looked sharp, confident and were playing with lots of intent. The handling was good and their attacks were well executed while their defence looked solid. Winger Taylor Paris in his first outing in a Canadian shirt this year was on fire and looked a very exciting prospect for Canada’s World Cup campaign. In short there was hope and plenty of it!

However, once again after a stellar ten minutes, Canada’s game started to disintegrate in the face of well-organised and mounting US pressure. The errors in both discipline and handling crept back into Canada’s game and all of a sudden the euphoria of the first ten minutes quickly began to dissipate. Nevertheless Canada managed to keep themselves in front through the boots of scrum half Gordon McRorie and flyhalf Nathan Hiryama so that just before the half hour mark they were still in front 6-0. The Americans though had been increasingly winning the possession battle particularly from the set pieces and Canada’s defences were starting to creak again. Just on the half hour mark, the US lock Greg Petersen was able to take advantage of too many Canadian players sucked into defending against a US driving maul. Petersen dived across between the posts from a superb offload from the back of the driving maul. There were two Canadian defenders there, but they looked more surprised at Petersen’s move than actually ready for it. US flyhalf, AJ MacGinty just as he did at the beginning of the month would slot everything put before his highly accurate boot. All of a sudden the Americans were in front 7-6 and looking good for it.

Five minutes later the Americans would set up a superb counter attack and hit the Canadian defences at speed. Once again Canada’s problem of missing crucial first phase tackles would come back to haunt them. The defence was completely wrongfooted and as the Americans built up a blistering run of speed Canada’s last-ditch defence simply had no answers allowing Eagles flanker Andrew Durutalo the opportunity to claim another easy seven pointer. 17-6 to the Eagles going into halftime and Canada looked like they had few answers to the American onslaught.

The second half would start for Canada much in the same vein as the first and you felt that there had obviously been some positive work done in the dressing room at half time. In a sustained period of possession five minutes into the second half Canada looked positive after some excellent work from Canadian flanker John Moonlight. Canada put in a massive effort and although it wasn’t pretty at times, with the passing not the crispest and Canada often struggling to keep hold of the ball in the contact areas, they did enough to eventually get the ball to Taylor Paris on the wing allowing him to showcase his speed and skill and get Canada that much-needed first try. All of a sudden Canada were back in the match trailing 17-11 even though McRorie who didn’t have the most accurate afternoon with the boot couldn’t convert the try.

McRorie’s inability to really get Canada back in contention with an accurate kicking game saw his early departure in the second half to be replaced at scrum half by Phil Mack. As readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of Mack and feel that he adds a speed and intensity at the breakdown that Canada so desperately needs especially when they find themselves in games that are getting away from them physically. I wasn’t disappointed in Mack’s work rate and he immediately made a difference when at the 55 minute mark some sustained pressure and intensity from Canada saw Mack get an excellent offload to centre Nick Blevins. Blevins with some fancy footwork which is rapidly becoming his trademark would score a crucial try to get Canada right back in the hunt. Blevins has been really solid for Canada in their last few outings and will definitely be someone to watch come the World Cup. Canada trailed 20-16 as they headed into the final quarter, a period which has been their nemesis all year.

The question on everyone’s lips was could Canada, with twenty minutes to go and only four points behind, hold on and go one better and actually finish and win a game? The short answer was sadly no. With fifteen minutes to go, scrum half Phil Mack in a rare lapse of discipline found himself unable to get to the ball due to some fairly obvious US obstruction, but the frustration that had been building came to the fore and he carelessly stamped the offending player resulting in a yellow card. Even though I felt the card offence was harsh, the sad reality is that calls like that at this level are inevitable and if you want to compete you just have to rise above them and keep your composure. Canada suddenly found themselves in the last fifteen minutes a man down.

The USA saw their opportunities and struck mercilessly. US Captain and fullback Chris Wyles ran through some gaping holes in the Canadian defence, and this was followed up by replacement back Andrew Suniula running through a nonexistent Canadian defence to score a ridiculously easy try. As has been the case all year Canada simply started to fall apart in the last quarter. They looked lifeless and disorganised and that sense of a team that was utterly demoralised was there for all to see. US scrum half Mike Petri would score another soft try against the 14 man Canadians 5 minutes later, seizing on a gap presented by a half-hearted Canadian defence. 34-16 for the Americans and it was all over but the crying with five minutes to go. The return of Phil Mack from the sin bin put some fire back in the Canadian attack and their efforts were rewarded through a consolation try for Captain and number eight Aaron Carpenter who to give him credit has been a sound workhorse for Canada in all their matches this year that he has played in.

The last act of the game though would belong to the Americans as another example of the shocking passing skills that all too often seem to be a trademark of Canadian rugby at the moment would be there for all to see. On the eighty minute mark Canadian lock Tyler Hotson without really looking sent a wayward pass to no one in particular that was so easily snapped up by American lock Cameron Dolan, it had probably been advertised on the billboards leading into the ground. Dolan simply strolled to the Canadian try line as there was not a Canadian defender in sight. The final whistle blew and Canada shuffled off the field after a humiliating 41-23 loss.

Canada really need to find something special in the coming weeks. As I have said all along, hopefully they will go and spend some time with the Women’s team who at last year’s Women’s World Cup in France, showed us all what a winning culture looks like. As poor as Canada are at the moment, I for one, don’t feel that their World Cup campaign is a lost cause. Let’s be honest they do have a mountain to climb to turn themselves around and surely the big concern is will the two remaining warm-up games against a very physical Georgia and very fast Fiji result in yet more injuries to some of our key players, especially some of the bigger names like Cudmore and company? Those risks will have to be carefully managed by the Canadian coaching staff, as well as really digging deep to fix and address the problems Canada are facing.

There is no question in my mind that Canada’s 31 man World Cup squad has the talent to put in a credible World Cup performance provided they can get the basics right. Tighten up the handling and really work on that defence and Canada can hopefully once more earn the respect of the bigger teams like Ireland and France that they will be facing in three weeks time. For me there is nothing worse than watching a proud and motivated group of players start to lose their sense of self-belief and that is my biggest concern for the team going into the World Cup. Three weeks is not much time for Canadian Coach Kieran Crowley and his staff to turn things around, but I genuinely believe that last Saturday’s performance in Ottawa was rock bottom and it really can’t get any worse than that. Canada will pick themselves up and I am confident that once they leave these shores will find that focus and motivation to put in at least one really big performance at the World Cup that will restore the pride we all know is there in the Canadian jersey.

After a very disappointing Pacific Nations Cup tournament this summer which saw Canada put in some big performances but ultimately fall short at the last hurdle of every game, the three remaining warm-up matches against the USA, Fiji and Georgia before the World Cup, which starts on September 18th, are a critical time for the team.  Furthermore after only 4 wins out of 15 games in the last two years Canada really needs to start developing a winning culture going into the World Cup otherwise it could be a very demoralising experience for a group of young and talented players who are all exceptionally motivated to do their country proud in the coming weeks.

Fixtures this weekend

Canada vs USA
Saturday, August 22nd
Ottawa

Canada will be seeking to avoid a third straight loss to the USA this weekend in Ottawa.  The team that Coach Kieran Crowley has put together for this encounter should be more than capable of getting the job done.  While I haven’t seen the team that the US will be fielding, there is enough star quality in terms of emerging talent in the Canadian lineup that provided they keep their discipline and more importantly their focus till the final whistle they should break their current losing streak against our Southern neighbours.  Although surprised to see some of Canada’s big guns like overseas based players Jamie Cudmore, Jebb Sinclair, DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler not get a start on Saturday, I would assume that these four are already assured of their roles in Canada’s World Cup campaign, whereas all the players running onto the pitch in Ottawa are seeking to make the final cut with some big performances.

Nevertheless as mentioned above, this is still a game Canada desperately needs to win, especially as it is Canada’s last test in front of a home audience.  As I have said before I don’t regard the game against a depleted Glasgow Warriors side (most of their first choice players being on training duty for Scotland’s World Cup campaign) in Halifax as a real test. Thus as Canada’s last Test match before heading to England and the warm-up games there against Fiji and Georgia, statements need to be made to ensure a strong level of confidence in the squad after a winless Pacific Nations.

On a positive note, I must say from what I saw in the Pacific Nations Cup, I like the look of the team selected to play in Ottawa.  Amongst the forwards Hubert Buydens stood out along with Ray Barkwill, Doug Woolridge and Tyler Hotson who all had a massive performance against a very physical Samoa.  John Moonlight as openside flanker impressed as well throughout the tournament.  I am curious to see Aaron Carpenter play at number eight as opposed to hooker but he was often superb in the loose and does lend some experience and inspiration to the side in place of the injured Tyler Ardron.

I am still slightly puzzled by the choice of John McRorie as starting scrum half for Canada.  I appreciate that Canada are looking to use his boot, but he didn’t exactly stamp his ability in this department all that well in the Pacific Nations.  Canada does have other kicking options and for me Liam Underwood was more reliable in this department, even though Nathan Hirayama gets the nod over Underwood for the fly half position for this match based on his stellar performance against Samoa.  As I have said all year, if you want intensity behind the scrum and at the breakdown then Phil Mack has clearly demonstrated his value as a first choice scrum half.  He may not have the kicking prowess of McRorie, but I would rather see him used to orchestrate Canada getting some big points differences on the board through some well worked tries at the start of a match as in the game against Samoa.  Then bring in McRorie at the end to penalize a tired opposition defence being forced into disciplinary errors and resulting penalties.  Oh well just an opinion and at least Mack is on the bench for this game!

In terms of the rest of the backs however, I must say I feel pretty confident about Canada’s lineup.  I would have preferred to see Matt Evans start at fullback rather than the bench, as I was not overly impressed with Harry Jones in Canada’s PNC outing against the USA.  Conor Trainor and Nick Blevins were good value for money for the entire Pacific Nations experience and I am interested to see Taylor Paris in action for the first time on the wing, as I am not familiar with his form for his French club Agen.  The big question on everyone’s lips is whether or not winger Phil Mackenzie will be able to reproduce some of the magic which got him the try that should have won the game for Canada against Samoa.  Big, strong and fast and with an ability to make something out of nothing, Mackenzie is an exciting prospect for Canada.

In short a solid team that if they’ve got the basics right should manage to easily get past a USA team prone to serious lapses in discipline.  Hopefully Canada have put the painful lessons of the Pacific Nations behind them, done their homework and are ready to restore Canada to the upper levels of the tier two countries.  I am confident that it can only get better from now on and in front of a home crowd, Canada will get the win they so desperately need.  Canada to put in a complete performance at last and take the game by 10 points at least!

Put your hand up if you’re a frustrated Canadian supporter – as I get the impression there are an increasing number of us!  Once again Canada loses a game they easily should have won, and sure there were some impressive performances but they simply cannot justify a track record of just 4 wins in 15 games over the last two years.  In fairness to some of Canada’s excellent players the time for constant experimenting and tinkering with combinations must surely be over with literally weeks to go before we are to compete on the World stage.  There is no point in almost winning game after game if you are just not finishing them.  Canada was up against a woefully disciplined American side on Monday night in Burnaby whom they should have easily dominated especially as the Eagles played large periods of the match with just fourteen men.  As heroic and impressive as the performance against Samoa was last week it doesn’t count for much if you can only play 70 minutes of an 80 minute game.  This is a side which desperately needs confidence going into a World Cup where they potentially will get eaten alive by Ireland and France and stand a good chance of being humiliated by their other opponents Romania and Italy, especially as they have lost both encounters with Romania in the last two years as well as their last match with Italy.  To say that Canada needed to get at least one win out of the Pacific Nations Cup is the understatement of the year, and one can only feel empathy for a squad heading into the biggest challenge of their rugby careers with very little to show for their efforts.  If there is not a crisis of confidence yet within the Canadian camp then it is surely coming at a time when they can least afford it!

Canada vs USA
Final Score – Canada 13/USA 15
Burnaby

Once again, like many Canadian supporters I was left scratching my head at the final whistle as to how we managed to lose yet another game in the last 10 minutes. The USA was not particularly flash, and their discipline was truly appalling, but they somehow managed to do the basics when it mattered most better than Canada, and if anything the three yellow cards they got pulled them closer together and focused them on the task at hand. Canada only once managed to make any gains against the Americans in the 30 minutes of the match that the Eagles were reduced to fourteen men. To rub salt into the wound the Americans actually managed to score a large proportion of their points with only fourteen men.

Canada was the only side to score a try, and it was certainly an impressive score by Nick Blevins who continued his impressive form from the game against Samoa. However, that in all reality was about the only thing to get excited about in a match where Canada failed to ever really put the Americans under any kind of sustained or consistent pressure.

Canada as usual started the match well and many of the improvements witnessed against Samoa were kept up, with greater intensity and support at the breakdowns and crisper passing. However, after fifteen minutes the errors started to creep back in and the discipline started to once more slip. Canada when able to use him properly were making excellent use of winger Jeff Hassler. Connor Braid was having a solid day out in centrefield and was making some fine passes and line breaks for the most part to put Hassler into space. But in all honesty that was about it. The Americans pushed Canada hard in the set pieces and scrums, their lineouts left a lot to be desired and as the game wore on the intensity started to slide even despite the arrival of Phil Mack at scrum half for the last quarter. Canada were increasingly unable to maintain possession beyond more than one or two phases and as this continued the passing skills and overall organisation started to look suspect. The Americans could sniff victory as a tired and disorganised Canada allowed the Eagles to take up residence in their 22 for the last five minutes of the game and Eagles fly half AJ MacGinty had acres of space to loiter in the pocket to set himself up for a last-minute drop goal that would once again rob Canada of a game they should have easily won.

There is little question in my mind that the yellow card handed out to Eagles lock Greg Peterson early in the match should have been a red, as the video replay clearly shows a deliberate and malicious punch to the head on Canada’s Brett Beukeboom. It was the epitome of poor sportsmanship and has no place in the modern game. Had Peterson seen red and the Eagles been forced to play with just 14 men then perhaps it would have been a better day for Canada. However, the fact still remains that Canada failed to make any inroads against the US in the ten minutes Peterson spent in the sin bin and what’s worse conceded a penalty which resulted in 3 points for the Americans. In today’s game and given the often inconsistent standard of refereeing present in the global game at the moment, as a side you have to take such calls on the chin and move on. Canada should have had the edge in discipline by a country mile in this match but instead they gifted 12 points to the Americans through penalties. As Canada prepare to open their World Cup campaign against an Irish side who are probably the best in the world at forcing opposition teams into disciplinary mistakes, such weaknesses really need to be addressed and time is simply running out.  A tournament that promised so much for Canada and should have really set the team on a solid footing for the World Cup has sadly gone begging. Some serious reflection is now needed by both players and coaching staff as Canada makes its final preparations for the World Cup and their opening game with Ireland.

It saddens me that despite occasional flashes of brilliance from Canada in this match, and to be honest the two players who really stood out for me were Conor Braid and Jeff Hassler both of whom are reaping the rewards of their time in Europe, the tone of this piece is overwhelmingly negative. Canada needs some miracles in the three remaining games they have before the World Cup – I don’t regard the game against a third string Glasgow Warriors side at the end of August as anything more than a glorified practice session. The Americans will be keen to make it three from three when they meet Canada again in Ottawa in a fortnight, and the warm-up games in England against Fiji and Georgia will be exceptionally stern tests of character for Canada. On a positive note I still believe that Canada has a nucleus of exceptionally talented and motivated players, but there does seem to be a fundamental disconnect in how we are coaching these players to get the results needed to instill some much-needed confidence into a side heading into a World Cup. There is no question that Canada’s players are motivated and committed to doing their country proud come September/October, but have we really set them up with the confidence and organisation they need going into an exceptionally competitive World Cup? Looking at the evidence before us right now, I would sadly have to answer no.

We will know more once Canadian coach Kieran Crowley announces his World Cup squad on August 5th, and from there Canada has an exceptionally difficult albeit not impossible, given the spirit in the team, task of turning two years of misery into World Cup glory. I am sure everyone reading this wishes them the very best of luck and, as I have been saying since I started writing this blog, the men’s team would do well to spend some time  before leaving for England with the women’s team who did so well last year at the Women’s World Cup to tap into what a winning culture really feels like!

Canada finally puts in an almost complete performance in a thrilling encounter at BMO field in Toronto against Samoa, but a last-minute lapse in concentration sadly sees them just miss the victory they so desperately needed.  Nevertheless, there were a ton of positives to take out of Canada’s performance on Wednesday night.  The majority of the problems they faced in the opening two games of the Pacific Nations Cup seem for the most part to have been fixed.  It was a tight and energetic performance from Canada, despite the sweltering heat of a Toronto mid-summer evening.  Canada played with heart and commitment and matched the Samoans’ intensity for the full 80 minutes.  Phil Mackenzie’s brilliant try after defeating several Samoan defenders seemed to have the game sewn up for Canada at the 75th minute.  It was then five minutes of nail-biting tension to see if Canada could keep their composure till the very last whistle, something which they have consistently come short on in the last year.  Once again a lapse of concentration at the death cost Canada a game they really should have won, despite concerted Samoan pressure in the Canadian 22 for the last few minutes.  Still as disappointed for Canada as I along with the other several thousand fans at BMO field, we could all take heart from a dramatically improved Canadian performance and it is this that will hopefully carry them forward into final preparations for a tough World Cup.  To lose by only 1 point to a side as good as Samoa is heart-wrenching but every Canadian player stood up and was counted on Wednesday night and it was the most complete team performance from the Red Nation that I have seen in the last ten months – so hopefully it’s upwards and onwards from here on!

Canada vs Samoa
Final Score – Canada 20/Samoa 21
Toronto

Wow this one hurt! In a truly superb afternoon of rugby at BMO field in Toronto on a sweltering summer’s day, which yours truly got to attend, Canada put in their best performance of the year only to fall agonizingly short at the final whistle. The crowd had been treated to two superb games prior, which saw Tonga decimate a poor US Eagles outfit, while Fiji just squeaked past an ambitious and skillful Japanese team. By the time Canada and Samoa came onto the field the excitement had been built for an epic encounter which is exactly what the crowd got. Canada may have lost this match but they played out of their skins and can take a lot of confidence from this game especially if they can turn it into winning ways going into the World Cup. On the basis of that performance they should have no trouble dispatching the USA on Monday night in Burnaby as the two sides battle it out for the wooden spoon.

Canada started this match full of intent, and I was delighted to see Phil Mack selected to start as scrum half.  Against a powerhouse side like Samoa his intensity would prove vital and he did not disappoint being easily one of Canada’s best players on a night where many of his teammates put in equally big performances.  Canada completely dominated Samoa in the first half and you couldn’t help feeling in the stands that Canada were on the way to a historic victory.  They were doing everything right, the intensity at the breakdown as controlled by Phil Mack was outstanding as was the support play.  Canada were matching the big Samoans in the scrums and lineouts.  On top of that the passing by Canada was truly sublime at times and the wayward passing of games gone by seemed to have been stamped out.  Furthermore, the loss of inspirational Captain and number 8, Tyler Ardron after just five minutes due to injury did not seem to diminish the Canadians’ composure or intensity in the slightest.  Canada was avoiding a pointless kicking game and choosing instead to hold onto possession and take the ball and game to the Samoans.  In short, the first half was an inspirational performance with a superb try scored by centre Nick Blevins and at the half time whistle Canada were very much in charge at 13-3.

Samoa however started the second half full of intent and their efforts soon began to pay off as Canada seemed to lose some of the momentum they had in the first half.  Samoa used their immense strength in the shape of hooker Anthony Perenise to crash his way through the Canadian defence and get Samoa’s first try on the board.  Samoa then kept up the physical pressure on Canada and got themselves into the lead with two successful penalties as Canadian discipline started to crack under the weight of the Samoan onslaught.  With ten minutes to go it was 16-13 for Samoa and that sinking feeling was once more setting in with the home crowd.  Then a piece of Canadian magic happened that raised the roof at BMO field.  Phil Mackenzie managed to keep a Samoan kick to touch from their 22 in the field of play through some dazzling foot and hand work and then he was off, beating at least five Samoan defenders.  It was truly world-class and if Canada can play like that on a regular basis then they can hold their heads high.  Fullback James Pritchard converted and all of a sudden it was 20-16 for Canada with five minutes to go.  The crowd held its breath.

Samoa dug in and then proceeded to put immense pressure on Canada.  With a mere thirty seconds left on the clock, Canada stole a Samoan lineout on the Canadian 22, but then in a moment of confusion and a serious lapse in concentration, two Canadian players collided spilling the ball.  Replacement Samoan hooker Sakaria Taulafo pounced on the loose ball and talk about being in the right place at the right time.  Samoa missed the difficult conversion, but it didn’t matter the Pacific Islanders had just edged out the Canadians 21-20 and as predicted will now battle it out with the other tournament favorites in the final on Monday night.  The heartbreak for Canada’s players who had put in a truly heroic shift was there for all to see.  They had played well and this was a performance to be immensely proud of despite the loss by the narrowest of margins.  Still it all comes down to holding your composure to the very last second and that is the one area Canada really needs to fix.  I personally would have kept scrum half Phil Mack on the field till the end and not taken him off with ten minutes to go, his composure and organisational skills at the breakdown may have kept Canada from making that last-minute fatal lapse in concentration.  Readers of this blog know that I clearly regard him as Canada’s first choice scrum half, and I hope to see him play as such come the World Cup.

As I said as much as the loss was a crushing disappointment, Canada upped their game so much in this match that there is a lot to be excited about.  Samoa are the best side in the Pacific Nations Cup this year and to run them this close is a major achievement.  Some of the skills shown by Canada on Wednesday night were world-class and showcased some of the obvious talent in the squad.  This was a solid and composed performance and clearly demonstrated a concerted effort to fix problems we have seen in Canada’s game since last November.  If Canada can just find that little bit extra to close out big games like this then the future looks bright.  Although perhaps overdue Canada has finally found a game plan that works and the 23 players involved in this turnaround on Wednesday night can hold their heads high as they hopefully continue to take the cause of Canadian rugby onwards and upwards!

After coming short against Tonga, Canada has to come up with the goods this Wednesday to avoid the wooden spoon in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup.  In an exciting Triple Header at BMO field in Toronto which yours truly will be fortunate enough to attend, we also get to see the USA take on Tonga and probably the competition’s most exciting match-up in terms of running rugby will see Fiji do battle with Japan.  Buoyed by their success against Canada, Tonga will be a hard nut for the Americans to crack particularly in the sweltering heat that Toronto is currently experiencing but which will no doubt make the Pacific Islanders feel right at home.  Fiji and Japan have shown plenty of exciting running in this tournament and expect more of the same.  Canada meanwhile has to win their tussle with Samoa after a string of defeats in the last year and as a vital confidence booster going into the World Cup.  It is my hope that the home crowd really gets behind Canada and gives them the bonus of the sixteenth man.  On paper Canada has a team that should have been competitive but which in reality has not lived up to its potential.  The Canadians have now left it to this encounter with Samoa, who gave New Zealand’s All Blacks a serious scare at the beginning of the month, to prove themselves as a team – in short it doesn’t get any more challenging than this.  If Canada can turn it around and use the massive underdog tag that they now seem to be wearing to their advantage in front of a home crowd, then it will do wonders for their confidence heading into a World Cup.  If they can’t then it will be hard for them to build the confidence they need to compete in a very tough and unforgiving pool at the World Cup.

Canada vs Tonga
Final Score – Canada 18/Tonga 28
Burnaby, BC

Another puzzling performance from Canada, as they showed what they could do, but only for 20 minutes. Nevertheless after the weak performance against Japan, there were many aspects of Canada’s game that did improve dramatically, namely the breakdown work and the passing. However, even here there was still plenty of room for improvement, especially if Canada wants to face up to a Samoan side that is hitting all the right targets so far this year. Tonga on the other hand despite some of their trademark lapses in discipline at the end of the match showed an ability to regroup after Canada’s initial onslaught and effectively use their strength and speed to take the game away from Canada.

Canada started this match full of intensity, and played a brilliant first fifteen minutes of rugby which clearly caught the Tongans by surprise. After only 5 minutes Canada was holding a strong 10-0 lead thanks to some excellent work at the breakdown on the Tongan line by Canadian scrum half Aaron Carpenter. After the fairly dismal performance against Japan a week earlier you almost had the feeling that Canada had addressed all the areas where they had been shown up. Their discipline was better, the passing work and intensity and support at the breakdown were all showing dramatic improvements. It was hard not to think that this Canadian team which has so much promise on paper had finally shown up and was about to make a statement. Carpenter went on to score a second try after a superb passage of open running play by the Canadians and in just under twenty minutes Canada was ahead 15-3.

It was there however, that the music quite literally stopped for Canada. The Tongans regrouped and began to physically push the Canadians around the park. In such a physical encounter it was always going to be a test of nerves in terms of discipline and the Tongans contrary to form seemed to have the edge here. The Tongans were starting to out muscle the Canadians in the set pieces and particularly at scrum time. You could see the frustration growing amongst the Canadians and their discipline start to slide. While I think that the yellow card awarded to Canadian fly half Liam Underwood was a bit of overreaction from Argentine referee Federico Anselmi it led to a further chink in an already weakened Canadian armor as they ended the first half and began the second with just fourteen men. Before the half time whistle Tonga got themselves right back into the match with a successful penalty kick and then the Tongan scrum half Sonatane Takulua produced his own magic off the base of a Tongan scrum and some weak Canadian defence. At the break it was 15-10 for Canada.

In the second half, the Tongans proceeded to dominate the Canadians across the park and the Tongans would produce another two fine tries through some porous Canadian defence to effectively put the game out of reach of Canada as the penalty count continued to mount and Tonga led 23-18. As they always seem to do, Canada suddenly found a last-minute injection of intensity and pace as the last five minutes saw a spirited fight back from Canada, but even against a Tongan side reduced by ill discipline to thirteen men, Canada couldn’t find a way through. There is no question Tonga were the deserved winners, but Canadian supporters walked away scratching their heads as yet again a team that promised so much delivered so little.

Forthcoming fixtures

Canada vs Samoa
Wednesday, July 29th
Toronto

With Canada out of contention for any of the silverware in this year’s Pacific Nation’s Cup, Wednesday’s fixture against Samoa is all about pride and a desperate need to end the losing streak the team has been on since their match against Namibia in France in November last year. The week after that victory Canada lost to Samoa in France after dominating the Pacific Islanders for much of the match. The question on everyone’s lips is what has happened since then?

We all hope the answers will have been found by Wednesday night, but let’s face it – Samoa is on fire right now and a very different team to the one Canada faced on a rainy afternoon in France nine months ago. After giving New Zealand’s All Blacks the fright of their lives three weeks ago, Samoa are so far undefeated in this year’s Pacific Nations, although only managing a draw with the other tournament favourites Fiji last weekend. Samoa are big, fast, powerful and very motivated. Canada are no less motivated but have so much to prove still as a complete unit unlike the Samoans who seem very settled as a side. Add to that a hot humid evening in store, conditions which should suit the Pacific Islanders down to a tee, and Canada has an exceptionally challenging task ahead of them.

Canada despite the loss last weekend against Tonga did show some definite improvements in their performance from the game against Japan. As I mentioned above their intensity, breakdown work, passing skills and overall support play were much better. However at times their defence was still disorganised and they were missing far too many first phase tackles, an area which Samoa will cut them to pieces on if not fixed. Furthermore their scrum buckled too many times under pressure and Samoa is putting a very big and powerful pack onto the field. If Canada can tighten their discipline, keep the intensity up for a full eighty minutes and put wingers DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler into space and allow them to use their exceptional speed and agility then it could be a good day out for Canada. Hassler and Van der Merwe are world-class players and will get any crowd on their feet given the opportunity. If they are able to do this and the Toronto crowd gets behind the team then Canada could end their current run of poor form.

I sincerely hope this will be the case and will certainly be doing my part to cheer them on. However, I can’t help feeling that unless Canada have managed to really turn things around in the space of four days, which is a ridiculously short time in international rugby, they are facing an almost impossible task against Samoa. Samoa is building nicely for the World Cup and are relishing the tag of being possible giant slayers in their pool against Scotland and South Africa. On Wednesday it will have to be Canada trying to emulate the Samoan’s reputation as the Canadian David takes on the Samoan Goliath. Here’s hoping for a great contest!

Canada opened their Pacific Nations Cup campaign in San Jose, California this weekend against an impressive looking Japanese outfit.  This was also Canada’s first step on the road to the World Cup in England in two months time and although outplayed by the Japanese for much of the match there was a glimmer of hope for Canada in the final ten minutes, and it is this last gasp performance that the squad must really build on and take into the next game against a very physical Tonga.  Let’s be honest it wasn’t a great day out on the park for Canada, but you could see that their recent success in winning the gold for Sevens Rugby at the Pan Am games in Toronto, was causing some players to have difficulty in switching gears to the fifteen a side game, as well as lasting a full eighty minutes.  Hopefully by the time we play Tonga on Friday at home in Burnaby, BC the coaching staff will have done some solid work with the squad and many of the glaring errors we saw on Saturday against the Japanese will have been rectified – if not this could be a painful and potentially demoralising period of preparation for the World Cup!

Canada vs Japan
Final Score – Canada 6/Japan 20
San Jose, CA

I have to confess at being a puzzled spectator as I watched this game.  Although Canada were effectively outplayed by Japan, I was still surprised by the scoreline.  Canada exhibited many strengths in the Californian sun on Saturday, but somehow you never really felt that they were in the match as a coherent unit, as opposed to the Japanese who seemed to be highly organised and working very effectively as a team.  As I mentioned above, I think that it is inevitable that with so many of Canada’s first choice players having just won gold the weekend before in the Sevens game at the Pan Am games, it is a definite challenge to suddenly switch your playing style to the fifteen a side game.  However, one area which I was concerned about on Canada’s end of year European tour in 2014, seemed still to be an area of serious concern and that is passing skills.  There is no doubt that some of the passing techniques demonstrated by Canada on Saturday would have worked splendidly on a Sevens field, but against a well organised Japanese 15 man defence it just looked wayward and nervous.  Canada has enormous talent on the wings in the shape of DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler, but there seemed to be little idea as a team as to how best to use these two fine players.  You could even sense the frustration in both the wingers as they were on the end of yet another wayward pass and were somehow expected to perform miracles with it.

Japan on the other hand for much of the match barring a few minor lapses in discipline which resulted in unnecessary yellow cards, looked the model of composure and a team that had thought out exactly how they were going to dismantle Canada.  In fairness, with the coaching know how of former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones in charge of the playbook, the Japanese are coming into this tournament and their preparations for the World Cup in very capable hands.  Furthermore, with the investment in the game in Japan, especially now they are hosting the 2019 World Cup, and the fact that many foreign-born players are now eligible to play for Japan, the country is increasingly able to put together a solid squad.  Japan has always been known for its courageous and pacy backs, but their age-old problems at scrum time if this Saturday’s performance is anything to go by seem to be a thing of the past.  They were able to compete effectively with Canada at the scrum and were far more dangerous and well organised at the breakdown than the Canadians.

Canada looked like they might ultimately be the team to run in the tries at the outset of the game as DTH van der Merwe quickly showed off his impressive skills right from the get go at the eighth minute as Canada looked to strike back after an initial successful penalty kick from Japan.  In a superb piece of passing, one of the few we got to see by Canada, Canadian number 8 Tyler Ardron offloaded to DTH van der Merwe who was forced off by a Japanese defender just as he made a solid offload to Canada’s other winger Jeff Hassler.  The pedigree that these two players have gained after several seasons in Europe was there for all to see but too often the rest of their team would blindly try to give them the ball and expect them to perform miracles with it.

Four minutes later, the Japanese showed the Canadians how to play a passing game.  Straight from a Japanese lineout, and through a brilliantly worked set of passes, Japanese centre Kotaro Matsushima who was impressive all afternoon was able to put winger Yoshikazu Fujita into space and onto a superb try.  You had to be impressed by the Japanese seamless passing and their speed and support at the breakdown.  All areas which until the last ten minutes of the game Canada seemed to be struggling with.  The Japanese passage of play also showed up how many first phase tackles the Canadians were missing and this is an area they will really have to work on against the fast and physical Pacific Islander sides in the remainder of the competition.  As I say it got better in the last ten minutes of the game for Canada in terms of addressing these problems but was too little too late and let’s hope that we play like we did in the last ten minutes for the full eighty minutes against Tonga on Friday.  In the meantime, Canada’s coaching staff would do well to study this video clip of Fujita’s try as in a nutshell it showed everything the Japanese did well on Saturday and everything Canada did poorly.

Despite the loss it is not all gloom and doom for Canada. As I said above I can’t help feeling that many of Canada’s problems last Saturday were due to the sudden transition for some of the players from the Sevens game to the full 15 a side game. In particular, the lack of pressure and support at the breakdown. On a positive note, Jeff Hassler and DTH van der Merwe on the wings and Captain Tyler Ardron at number eight all put in a massive game for Canada and are very exciting prospects for the World Cup. The instant impact that replacement scrum half, Phil Mack made from the moment he came on needs to be capitalised on in the game against Tonga and he should get the starting 9 berth. Cut down on the handling errors, fix the penalty count, dramatically improve the passing skills and be more effective at the breakdown are the items that should be on Canada’s to do list as they prepare this week for the match against Tonga in Burnaby on Friday. Despite the disappointment and the obvious frustration of the players at not being able to capitalise on opportunities that Canada did create, I am confident that this Friday’s match will be a much different prospect for Canada and hopefully a much more positive experience!

Fixtures this weekend

Canada vs Tonga
Friday, July 24th
Burnaby, BC

Canada’s campaign in the Pacific Nations Cup only gets harder with each outing, making the need to quickly get the problems sorted out that we saw against Japan all the more pressing. Canada’s next opponent, Tonga will be a serious challenge after Tonga managed to run Fiji close in a thrilling encounter last week. Fiji came out on top, but had to work exceptionally hard and Tonga’s three tries were well worth the price of admission. Tonga is a very physical side but as seen against Fiji they like all the Pacific Island sides are blessed with some very fast but exceptionally strong backs. Canada will have to improve their speed and composure at the breakdown and keep the ball in hand much more than they did against Japan. Some of the wild passing that we saw against Japan will be seen as gifts by the Tongans and must be kept to a minimum.

I am confident that we will see a much more settled Canadian side on Friday, and backed by a fervent home crowd, hopefully Canada will start to click into a rhythm that they can keep up for the rest of the tournament and going forward into the World Cup. I personally, would prefer to see Phil Mack start at scrum half as I feel his intensity, speed and accuracy particularly at the breakdowns will be key in a very physical encounter against Tonga. Canada should be under no illusion that Friday’s game will be a significant challenge, but if they can keep their composure and get the basics right I feel that home advantage could just end up being the factor to give them that first win of the tournament and some positives to build on as they prepare ultimately for the World Cup. On that note, let’s not forget that when Canada faced Tonga at the last World Cup they ultimately came out on top in a memorable match. Canada’s “beardos” from that match will not be on the field on Friday, but surely any Canadian team member watching a video of that superb Canadian performance can not help but feel inspired. Here’s to more of the same on Friday!