Archive for the ‘General Commentary’ Category

Test Rugby is finally back after far too long and what a treat we were given as Australia and New Zealand provided us with a thrilling albeit rain soaked encounter in Wellington’s “cake tin”. After being less than slightly inspired by Super Rugby Australia, we were riveted by a Wallaby team that turned up in New Zealand wanting to play, and what’s more play with style. In short what a difference a Coach makes. Unlike the Michael Cheika era, this looked like a cohesive bunch of enthusiastic and talented players who had a pretty good idea of what they were trying to achieve despite the elements and the best efforts of the All Blacks. The proof of the pudding will be at Eden Park this weekend, but for Australian supporters it must have been truly refreshing, and for the rest of us made Australia/New Zealand contests worth watching again!

The long awaited conclusion to the 2019/20 Champions Cup season finally takes place this Saturday as England’s favorite upstart team Exeter have their first shot at lifting the Heineken Cup. Meanwhile France’s Racing 92 make their way to their third final, hoping that “third time’s a charm” really does ring true for them this weekend.

Today we learnt that South Africa will NOT be participating in this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship. It didn’t exactly come as a surprise but is still regrettable, especially as many of the reasons being cited for it, could also apply to Argentina who still are participating in the tournament. However, we don’t think as some are surmising that it is a further sign that South Africa may be moving North of the Equator to the Six Nations, even if its provincial sides are now joining European competitions instead of Super Rugby.

So with lots to talk about, here are our thoughts on a weekend you are not going to want to miss!

Heineken Cup Final – Racing 92 vs Exeter – Saturday, October 17th – Ashton Gate – Bristol

The weekend kicks off in style with a Heineken Cup final – what more could you ask for? This one should be a cracker. Two very inventive sides meet in Bristol for what should be a highly entertaining match, with plenty of flair from both sides. Two Scottish legends face off against each other in Racing 92’s Finn Russell and Exeter’s Stuart Hogg. The Championship’s top try scorer Exeter’s Sam Simmonds will be on hand to weave his own magic tied to some impressive brute force. England fans will be looking to see Exeter centre Henry Slade continue his run of form, while Racing’s back line has the potential to score tries from anywhere in the park, especially once centre Virimi Vakatawa develops a head of steam.

Racing 92 have been here before but somehow have yet to lift any silverware. Exeter on the other hand are the new kids on the block. Dominating the English Premiership in the last few years, the team’s meteoric rise through the ranks has been impressive to watch. Coupled to some big name signings, this is now a team to be reckoned with and then some. Despite Racing’s lack of success at the Heineken Cup’s final hurdle, they must surely arrive full of confidence after their demolition of a very gritty Saracens side. Will the experience of being at the Heineken’s big show favor Racing or will mavericks Exeter continue to turn heads as they have done all season, and currently remain the only undefeated team in the Championship.

We think up front Exeter should be able to boss the Frenchmen around, though Racing’s Hooker Camille Chat caused all sorts of problems for Saracens in the semi-finals. However, Exeter just looks the more complete unit from 1-8, with better control in the set pieces. With the likes of Jonny Gray and Sam Simmonds in the mix, Racing will really need to keep their composure in the discipline stakes on Saturday.

However, we can’t help feeling that what will really set these two teams apart is the half back combinations, and here we are handing the ball back to Racing. At 9 and 10, Racing have so much pace and imagination in Teddy Iribaren and Finn Russell that they are likely to keep Exeter guessing all afternoon and deny them the kind of platform where the English side’s mastery of the set pieces could prove vital. Racing should be able to force Exeter to constantly have to reset their defensive structures, if Russell and Iribaren are allowed space in which to operate. Given the fact that both have an eye for even the slightest of gaps, Exeter will need to be sharp in covering these two mischief makers on Saturday.

We’d argue the back lines are evenly matched. Whatever Exeter’s Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade can do, well Racing’s Vakatawa, Imhoff and Zebo can do too. Nowell and Hogg may be quicker out of the blocks than their French counterparts, but once either Imhoff or Vakatawa have built up a head of steam they are almost impossible to stop, especially the French Fijian who has the potential to carve off huge chunks of Exeter’s midfield defence. If Exeter don’t dominate possession and the set pieces which we’d argue they are well placed to do, then this could end up being a very free flowing game but our money is on the Frenchmen causing the most damage allied to their pair of tricksters in the halfback department.

Two very exciting and evenly matched teams should make for a highly entertaining final on Saturday, and hopefully not the kind of slugfest that finals can often degenerate into. The weather looks set to favor a running game, and the teams boast a host of characters able to provide just that. Impossible to call, but somehow we feel that Racing 92 might just find that at long last – third time around really is lucky!

Bledisloe Cup 2 – New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, October 17th – Eden Park – Auckland

What a truly remarkable game of Test Rugby last weekend, capped off by an epic final seven minutes! If you’re like us, we were so thrilled that the return of International Test Rugby provided us with such a memorable match.

First off though I think it’s fair to say we owe Australia an apology. We had in many ways written them off before the opening whistle, but they arrived in Wellington determined to play, and one could argue that in many ways they were the better team on Saturday. If Rieko Ioane’s blatant foot in touch in the opening stanzas of New Zealand’s first try had been caught by Australian referee Angus Gardner, then Australia would be travelling to Eden Park tomorrow with a few fingertips already resting lightly on the treasured Trans Tasman Cup.

What really struck us though was what a difference a Coach makes. We make no apologies for harboring a distinct dislike of former Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika whose Trumpesque style of coaching Australia clearly wrought havoc on their fortunes in the Test arena. New Coach New Zealander Dave Rennie, so far seems to be a breath of fresh air. Australia finally looked like they had a game plan, an idea as to how to execute it and a team working as one – qualities which were blatantly absent during the Cheika years. We have been rather puzzled by Australia’s decline, and although we perhaps have not been too flattering about the Wallabies exploits on the field in the last few years, we genuinely miss the class Wallaby sides of the 90s. Let’s face it John Eales still has cult status here at the Lineout as one of the finest the game has ever seen. Consequently, we really liked what we saw last Saturday, and some of Australia’s inventiveness and speed with ball in hand was a joy to watch and long overdue.

However, one swallow doesn’t make a summer as the saying goes. Both sides were clearly rusty and the All Blacks got off to their traditionally slow start, but in terms of both teams fielding new Coaches, you’d have to favor Rennie over the All Blacks Ian Foster. Admittedly anyone would look good after Cheika, but former All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen leaves behind a legacy that many doubt Foster will be able to uphold. Nevertheless, the All Blacks are rarely poor twice and never at Eden Park the site of tomorrow’s encounter.

The weather will be a lot more favorable tomorrow than it was in Wellington and New Zealand are likely to look a lot sharper than they did last weekend. They got bossed around by Australia in the set pieces except at lineout time, where they failed to assert their traditional dominance, had far less possession than Australia and their backs rarely looked assured – and don’t even get us started on Rieko Ioane’s ridiculous showboating which ultimately sees him relegated to the bench for tomorrow’s match. In short, it was a stodgy All Blacks performance, and when was the last time you’ve heard a New Zealand effort described in those terms?

This week though sees the return of key playmaker Beauden Barrett to the fullback position after Damian McKenzie ran around a lot last weekend but actually achieved very little. Rieko Ioane sits this one out on the bench, but to be honest we are not sure he is centre material and it will be interesting to see if, when he does come on, he replaces the out of position Jordie Barrett on the right wing. We are pleased to see Anton Liennert-Brown get a start at center as in our opinion he has been one of New Zealand’s most consistently under rated talents of the last five years. All that aside though New Zealand really need to lead from the front, and the only person who really put in a consistent and admirable showing last weekend was flanker and Captain Sam Cane. Everyone else had flashes of brilliance but the end result was still a disjointed and at times lackluster display. Even New Zealand’s one man version of Hurricane Irma, Ardie Savea, was struggling to make the headlines last weekend.

Australia ring a few changes, and we have to be honest and say that the choice of Ned Hanigan for Pete Samu who did seem to be a weak link in an otherwise impressive Wallaby back row last weekend, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, with Michael Hooper at his absolute best last weekend on the occassion of his 100th cap and Harry Wilson being the Wallaby find of the year, then all is not lost though expect to see New Zealand’s Ardie Savea take it up a few notches this weekend.

Nic White had a blinder of a game last weekend at scrum half for Australia, and fly half James O’Connor has finally come of age. Between the two of them they often made their All Black counterparts Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith look irrelevant, despite Smith’s try.

New Zealand’s back line was rarely to be seen last weekend, and centre Jack Goodhue’s new haircut made him almost anonymous, perhaps he needed that mullet after all to be effective? Australia on the other hand were electric in this part of the park. The two wingers newcomer Filipo Daugunu and traditional big gun Marika Koroibete were a nightmare for the Kiwi defences, while the centre pairing of Matt Toomua and Hunter Paisami looked solid. Tom Banks may pale into insignificance against the legendary Beauden Barrett this weekend, but there is definitely some potential in the Wallaby youngster at fullback.

Despite a rather off color performance from New Zealand last weekend, it’s hard to see them coming short two weeks in a row and at the hallowed ground of Eden Park to boot. In short the All Blacks just don’t lose there, and haven’t since 1994 when France managed to catch them off guard. Australia on the other hand haven’t won there in 33 years – 1986 to be precise. This is not a poor All Black team, and let’s face it, one awash with talent. Saturday’s lineup is the kind of fantasy draw for most Coaches. Consequently, Australia need to take the game they played last Saturday and up it by at least another five gears. As impressed as we were by their initial outing last weekend, we sadly fear that a harsh dose of reality is in store for Rennie and his Wallaby charges this Saturday.

Last but not least a special shout out has to go to Reece Hodge for providing the spark for the most remarkable seven minutes of Test rugby we’ve seen in a long time. If ever a rugby player’s facial expressions summed up Australian attitude then Reece Hodge gets the Oscar. The Australian utility back’s boot is the stuff of legend, but that final kick at goal last Saturday in appalling conditions was a tall order and then some. But there’s Hodge who steps up and clearly is thinking “well mate it’s a bit of a long shot, but what the hell let’s have a go!” And what a go he had! The agonizingly near miss off the posts and the resulting seven minutes of frantic rugby it set in motion for both sides will stay in the memory banks for years to come. So in short, well done Reece and any chance of the same again this weekend?

And then there were three – The Rugby Championship

We can’t say we were completely surprised, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t take the news of South Africa’s withdrawal from this year’s Rugby Championship as a crushing disappointment. Knowing the turmoil, both economic and social that is going on in South Africa at the moment, with COVID-19 as a catalyst, it is probably the right and judicious thing to do, but a Rugby Championship without the Springboks just isn’t the same. Now it’s just the Bledisloe Cup with Argentina on tour in Australia. You could argue that Argentina’s players are facing the same conundrum as South Africa’s squad in terms of game time and exposure to top level rugby, so all the more credit to the South Americans for taking the bold decision to participate. As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge Pumas fans and are really looking forward to seeing them in action again this fall, even if they may not be playing on a level playing field with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts who will be well and truly battle hardened by the time of the Pumas first match with the All Blacks on November 14th.

As for talk of this being the first step in the Springboks ultimate departure from the Rugby Championship in favor of the Six Nations, we think that is simply hot air. Annual fixtures between South Africa and New Zealand are one of the pillars of the global Test calendar, eagerly anticipated and watched by rugby fans around the world. The draw of such matches and the revenue generated is simply too strong to forfeit. South African Super Rugby sides may well now gravitate to European competitions, but South African and New Zealand fans, as well as many neutrals, still regard fixtures between the Springboks and All Blacks as key indicators of who’s who in rugby’s global pecking order. Fans in both countries ultimately judge where their teams are at on the basis of such encounters. In short, we may not get to see it this year, but expect to see South Africa back with a vengeance for the 2021 Rugby Championship unless the Six Nations governing bodies are willing to bankroll the costs of Springbok rugby from now till the next World Cup – which we somewhat doubt.

So everyone have an absolutely outstanding rugby day tomorrow, details on how to watch are all over on the TV listings page. Once again a big shout out to everyone who wrote in to TSN and DAZN last week to remind them that there are a few rather important events happening over the next few weekends in relation to the oval ball. If our so called leading sports networks want to call themselves broadcasters of top flight international sporting competitions (Korean domestic baseball aside) then they have a bit of work to do.

COVID-19 has sadly thrown a massive spanner into all aspects of our lives in 2020, and we are clearly a long way from being out of the woods yet. We don’t for a second deny the gravity of the situation, but by the same token are longing for some sense of normality to return. The effects of the pandemic on our beloved sport have been no less severe albeit for all the right safety reasons. However, the Unions themselves are likely to look back on this period as one of bungling and incompetence in maintaining the sport’s global presence. We the fans are left to sort through the wreckage, while players face an uncertain future and a game that seems to have become rather rudderless in terms of its global direction. In short the State of Rugby Union for the forseeable future is messy to say the least and much of the progress made towards establishing it as a world game in the last ten years could well be lost.

In this our first post since lockdown put rugby on hold back in March, we take a wander around the world and express our concerns as to where the game finds itself.

Europe

It’s still the sport’s biggest market, yet in terms of the international aspect of the game it’s a disaster. The pandemic has seen the already simmering war between the Unions and clubs reach new heights of ferocity. Meanwhile broadcasting rights have become so convoluted that many fans in a time of deep personal financial insecurity are faced with the choice of putting food on the table or taking out a raft of paid subscriptions to watch the game they love. This may be a short term cash fix for clubs and Unions, but to us it smacks of desperation and a complete lack of marketing sense. Bury the game behind a multitude of different paywalls and ultimately the fans disappear.

In France and England, the clubs are at their usual loggerheads with the Unions in terms of player access and schedules. The players themselves are in danger of becoming mere commodities to be used and abused, till ultimately the player base dries up as prospective players come to the conclusion that a short term career riddled with life changing injury risks and mediocre earnings is just not worth it. The average professional player in England or France is likely to be completely burnt out by an insane club and country schedule in the course of a mere five years.

In the Celtic leagues, the situation seems a bit better in terms of player management, but with the Scottish, Irish and Welsh Unions teetering on the brink of insoluble bankruptcy you wonder how long they can hold out to the financial pressures and considerations that are driving their French and English counterparts. As for Italian rugby well it would appear they may be the best placed to survive as the game has been in permanent crisis in the country since 2000, and as a result if they’ve survived this long well how’s another messed up year any different?

For the smaller countries though such as Georgia, Romania, Spain and Portugal the next twelve months could well undo all the progress made in the last few years in terms of getting themselves on the international map. Spain and Romania already had serious issues with the sport’s governing bodies prior to the pandemic for breaking player eligibility rules and both nations could well face a further slide into oblivion. Georgia at least gets a much need shot of exposure in the forthcoming Autumn Nations Cup, and a good performance here could solidify the progress they’ve made over the last few years, even if it may not address the overall cash crisis that World Rugby is facing and therefore the limited pot with which to help emerging nations like Georgia.

Add to the mix an unholy battle for broadcasting rights, and your average viewer now has to have a bare minimum of at least three paid up subscriptions to catch this fall’s action. Meanwhile said broadcasters all have put geoblocks on their content for viewers like us in Canada where there are no agreements on broadcasting rights, leaving us with even less options to catch the action than our European friends. As the game gets hidden behind a myriad of paywalls in Europe, the sports global audience looks set to shrink even further.

SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina)

If you thought Europe was messy the picture is not much clearer South of the Equator, and in Argentina’s case rather alarming to say the least.

SANZAAR managed to get Super Rugby in Australia and New Zealand back underway over the summer, but limited it to only domestic competitions. Still it was a start and while the Australian competition was nowhere near the quality of its New Zealand counterpart, rugby fans did finally get to see some rugby of a relatively high standard once again.

South Africa unfortunately suffered the most dramatic effects of any of the four countries when it came to the pandemic. The country already in an economic crisis before COVID-19 really took hold, was brought to a standstill by the virus. Rugby found itself very much on the backburner in terms of the country’s list of priorities. Add in the fact that the pandemic made the long distance travel required to South Africa completely out of the question, and suddenly South African rugby franchises found themselves very much out in the cold. Even when Super Rugby resumes in its new format for 2021, South African franchises will have no part in it. Instead, South Africa’s Super Rugby sides will be plying their trade in Europe’s PRO 14 from now on. While the travel times are still significant, at least they won’t have time changes to deal with. The other positive is that the PRO 14 will benefit from the addition of some quality sides like the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls. The injection of two Super Rugby castoffs the Cheetahs and Southern Kings have added little to the PRO 14 in the last two years, but at least with the new teams there is some scope here to make the PRO 14 a genuinely competitive international league.

However, we have our doubts that either South Africa or Argentina are likely to set the world alight at this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship, now to be held in Australia in November and December. Given the respective turmoil in both countries and lack of playing time for players compared to their Australian and New Zealand counterparts, and the generally poor quality of Australian rugby in general this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship looks likely to be a very one sided affair in favor of men wearing black jerseys.

In the case of Argentina, the picture is particularly bleak. After only two short years in Super Rugby, Argentina now finds itself and its players with little opportunity to play the game at home, as the Jaguares no longer have a Super Rugby berth. For us perhaps more than anything else this has been the most bitter pill to swallow as a result of all the changes brought about by COVID 19. Argentina’s progress through the ranks in the last ten years has been nothing short of remarkable as they have welded themselves into a potent International Test force feared by the world’s best. However, this has all come about by the increased exposure that Argentinian based players have had to first the Rugby Championship and then in the last two years Super Rugby. Sadly now though all that progress looks like it is going to be lost. Sure there are a lot of very talented Argentinian players in Europe and overseas and increasingly here in North America in the MLR, but the exposure they were getting at the Super Rugby level was proving invaluable to the development of a national squad as well as giving people in Argentina something to really get behind in terms of local professional rugby. We would be absolutely gutted to see Argentina lose their status as an international side to be reckoned with as a result of all of this, and with it all the hard work of the last ten years by players be undone in a matter of months.

Just like in Europe the broadcasting rights for the forthcoming Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series are a veritable minefield, and once again for us here in Canada we are in danger of missing it all. World Rugby really needs some leverage here to ensure that coverage of the global game is both accessible and affordable to fans around the world, and not slip back into its stereotyped image of a rich man’s sport.

Asia/Pacific

Once again the picture looks remarkably bleak with one exception – Fiji. For everyone else though there are more questions than answers.

The darlings and hosts of the last World Cup Japan, look like Argentina to be on the verge of taking some giant steps backwards. With little international exposure for them on the cards over the next year, despite a relatively robust domestic structure, Japan runs the risk of losing all the extraordinary progress made at the last World Cup. Furthermore, despite the developments in their domestic competition it is still foreign player top heavy with many overseas players seeing Japan as a short term cash fix – hardly conducive to the establishment of a strong domestic player base.

In the South Pacific, cash strapped unions in Samoa and Tonga are unlikely to get much help or exposure over the next year, resulting in a further decline in the competitiveness and skill levels of these proud rugby nations. Furthermore allegations of corruption and lack of concern for player welfare plaguing the Samoan Union are even less likely to be resolved in the near future further weakening this rugby nation who in the 90s was more than capable of World Cup upsets – just ask Wales.

The only country that seems to have been thrown a lifeline in all of this is Fiji. Fiji as always were one of the most entertaining sides at the most recent World Cup. A country whose players approach everything they do with their hearts on their sleeves, once more caught the hearts and minds of the global rugby public, and as a result find themselves along with Georgia included in this year’s Autumn Nations Cup in Europe. The exposure to the Six Nations giants over the course of six weeks, is something that Fiji has been craving for at least the last decade. The potential boost this will provide to an already highly talented squad will be fascinating to watch and bodes well for their future development. One of the few positives in an otherwise rather bleak autumn.

North America

Ironically, despite being unable to watch much of this fall’s action on TV here in Canada, our Southern neighbors are much better served through NBC Gold, there have been some recent positive developments here in the frozen North when it comes to rugby.

Although the MLR season was cancelled for 2020, 2021’s offering is shaping up to be a good one. Some big name signings have come to the MLR over the summer, former England Captain Chris Robshaw joins San Diego Legion, while our own Toronto Arrows announced the signing of all star Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet from Argentina and the appointment of former Wales Coach Rob Howley to the Coaching team. It could well be a cracking season next year, and let’s face it the Arrows were looking pretty sharp before this year’s season got cut short. So even if we won’t get to watch the big boys play out on our TV screens this fall/winter at the International level there is plenty to look forward to once the Arrows get back to work in February. As rugby in the big traditional markets continues to be in flux, the relatively stable climate in North America may contribute to some significant growth in professional rugby’s newest market, provided the continued level of investment and interest continue to expand.

In the meantime we’re hoping we’ll get to catch some of this weekend’s action in some shape or form, and will be returning to provide our more regular analysis of what we think were the talking points of the big games coming up. Take care everyone and let’s all stay positive and hope that the broadcasters in this country come to their senses!!!!!

WELL DONE EVERYONE – PERSERVERANCE PAYS OFF!!!! TSN IS NOW SHOWING THE BLEDISLOE GAMES OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKENDS!!!!! MORE ON THE TV LISTINGS PAGE!!!

Excuse the silence but some of us have been taking some well earned breaks in the sunshine to get away from the Canadian winter. I had the particular privilege of watching France’s outstanding victory over Wales, in a particularly lively bar surrounded by French rugby fans on the island of St. Martin. The Six Nations has been thrown into disarray by the growing Corona virus epidemic, and while we all thoroughly support the precautions being taken, it all seems rather ham fisted and runs the risk of throwing the end result of what has been an otherwise outstanding tournament into disarray.

Super Rugby is really starting to get into its stride, with interestingly enough after five rounds, South Africa’s Stormers sitting atop the table, albeit due to most of the South African conference having a game in hand over most of their main rivals from the New Zealand conference. However, this early on there are no undefeated teams after only five rounds which should mean this year’s festivities could be a tightly contested affair, but much like last year New Zealand teams seem destined to dominate proceedings but with a strong challenge from Argentina’s Jaguares and South Africa’s Sharks and Stormers.

What’s really put a spring in our step these last few weeks is the Toronto Arrows barnstorming start to their MLR season. Along with San Diego, the only undefeated team after the first four rounds, it’s looking good for our home town heroes. If they are this good on the road and the injury gods are kind to them, what a prospect Canadian rugby fans have in store for them once the Arrows return to Toronto in April for the majority of their remaining games!

Six Nations

You knew it was coming, and for good reason, but let’s be honest the Corona virus machinations affecting the final two rounds of the competition have taken some of the shine off what was turning out to be one of the most intriguing Six Nations post a World Cup we can remember in a long time. The calling off of the Ireland/Italy clash due to public health concerns this weekend is understandable, but it is hard to fathom why the game couldn’t be played behind closed doors as is being proposed for the Italy/England clash. That would have kept the tournament’s table intact in determining the ultimate winner. As it stands now with the Ireland/Italy match now postponed indefinitely, with some saying that the most likely date is the November International window, we won’t really know who the Champions are potentially till then. If France go on to beat both Scotland this weekend and Ireland next weekend then such arguments become null and void as they will be the only team who at this stage remain undefeated. Given France’s red hot form at the moment, this is a distinct possibility, but it is still a shame that the tournament officials and their respective unions and governments have been rather ham fisted in their response to the crisis, and no clear unanimity on how to proceed.

On that note if France do remain undefeated in their final two matches, then you could argue that most neutrals would not be overly disheartened, as Les Bleus have certainly endeared themselves to many of us this tournament. France is back with a vengeance and we’d argue have done better than anyone else what all the teams in the Northern Hemisphere desperately need to do – take your youth and embrace it and reward players whose form has merited them a place in the national squad. New Coach Fabien Galthie has brought the breath of fresh air that French rugby has been gasping for for so long – and it is certainly paying dividends. Backed up by a stellar coaching team including the legendary English defence Coach Shaun Edwards, France look mean, efficient and breathtakingly talented. They have easily been the most enjoyable team to watch so far, and France’s investment in its youngsters this Championship has been a model for the other unions to look to. The half back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Emile Ntamack has been the talk of the tournament, while back rower Gregory Aldritt has been one of its most impressive performers. We’ve always thought Captain and openside flanker Charles Ollivon had many of the characteristics of the legendary Olivier Magne, and so far this tournament Ollivon has led from the front and been no stranger to the try line. Throw in a set of backs that can turn and weave on a dime and this is the France of old, and we can’t wait to watch them in their final two outings.

England despite stumbling at their first hurdle in Paris to the French, have improved steadily as the tournament progressed. However, Scotland wasn’t really much of a test and the weather certainly didn’t help either side, though England made better use of the conditions. England simply resorted to the same playbook that saw them decimate Ireland last year and in the World Cup warm ups, something which the Irish for some reason best known to themselves seemed completely taken aback by for the third time in a row. Consequently, how much of a genuine Test England have had other than the French in this tournament is debatable. Of their remaining two fixtures, it’s only Wales that could potentially give them the kind of Test that could give them a benchmark of where England are right now. However Ireland, who England dispatched with ease a fortnight ago, managed to negate Wales’ supposed threats without too much difficulty in Dublin, and the Men in Red just don’t seem to be firing so far this year. England’s final clash with Italy, even if it does go ahead, should be a dead rubber, so as we say it’s difficult to really gauge where England are at post the World Cup. We’re not convinced by Eddie Jones selection choices especially at scrum half, and the jury is still out for us on Owen Farrell’s Captaincy – great when things are going well for England, but prone to unraveling in dramatic fashion when things aren’t – watch the France replay if you’re not convinced along with the World Cup final. England need to take a leaf out of France’s playbook and bring in some of their talented youngsters now and build a winning and youthful but experienced team for the next World Cup. That has to happen now and not two years down the road – and if not England will only have themselves to blame for yet another World Cup that ends in tears.

Last year’s Grand Slam heroes Wales, sadly look out of sorts this year. In many ways in 2020 they look a lot like Ireland post their 2018 successes. Wales had a stellar year in 2019 but much like Ireland in 2018 would appear to have peaked. Like Ireland they have some genuine talent in their youth but the new Coaching regime of Wayne Pivac seems to be struggling to get it to mesh. Their front row looks shambolic, their back row is clearly not gelling as a unit despite some extraordinary individual talent and their backs have lots of potential but it is just not being realized. In short, it’s hard to know what’s not working for Wales as on paper it should and then some. Their contest with England at Twickenham this weekend could be the match that leaves us with more than just a little egg on our faces, but as we put this out, we are not exactly stocking up on paper towels to clean up the mess. Our overriding impression with Wales is that they just look tired and like a team that has perhaps played just a bit too much rugby of late.

Ireland have blown hot and cold so much this tournament, that it’s almost impossible to know what is really going on in the Emerald Isle when it comes to the national team. Leinster continue to dominate the European club scene, but at a national level there is absolutely no consistency whatsoever. Coach Andy “Faz” Farrell may be a great guy to have a chinwag with in the locker and training rooms, but we are simply not convinced that any of that is really producing a plan that gets results on the pitch that would cause too many sleepless nights for the bigger teams. Although Ireland got their campaign off to a good start with a workmanlike win over a shambolic Scotland and a slightly more cohesive performance against a Welsh side that simply let Ireland get on with it, their implosion against an English game plan they had already seen twice in the space of a year was inexcusable. Ireland were utterly hopeless against England and once again looked like deer in the headlights in the face of a rampant and aggressive English onslaught. One they had already seen twice last year to the letter. There would appear to be no learning whatsoever going on in the Irish camp, coupled to the fact that their talented youth are wasted by Farrell’s insistence on sticking to some of his older players who just aren’t showing up. Don’t get us wrong – we’ve loved watching Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray’s exploits in an Irish jersey over the last few years – but even the most ignorant rugby observer could not deny that both of them are simply so far off the mark this year it is laughable. Ireland need to adopt the approach France has taken, as they have an abundance of talented players under 25 who need game time now – not in two years time. It’s highly doubtful that the Sextons and Murrays of this squad will make the next World Cup, so throw caution to the wind, roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with some serious squad development, even if that means taking a few ugly losses on the chin but learning from them in the process. At the moment we just feel that Ireland are learning absolutely nothing every time they run out onto the pitch and are just hoping that the opposition is a bit more clueless than they are. Given Ireland’s depth of talent that is criminal – plain and simple! Ireland can start to fix this by putting Conor Murray on the bench and starting John Cooney against France at nine – when Cooney came off the bench against England Ireland all of a sudden looked a completely different team.

Scotland’s off pitch soap operas continue, but they need to end and end quickly. Scotland is our underdog favorite here at the Lineout come the Six Nations, and are definitely “the little engine that could”. This is a team that is always capable of a big surprise when you least expect it, but sadly so far this year our belief and expectations have been stretched beyond belief. There is a good team in there somewhere but much like Wales it is just not firing at the moment, and the frustration is there for all to see. We really hope that beating Italy isn’t going to be their only highlight this tournament. Disgraced fly half Finn Russell probably knows Scotland’s French opponents better than anyone after his exploits with Racing 92 this year, and internal politics aside Scotland will miss him this Sunday. France traveled well to Cardiff and there is no reason to suppose they won’t do the same to Murrayfield.

Italy meanwhile, even with the Corona virus mayhem sadly affecting them more than any other Six Nations competitor, continue their traditional campaign for the Six Nations Wooden Spoon. A new Coaching regime hasn’t really done them much good, and after three truly turgid performances they have only managed to put a paltry 22 points on the scoreboard albeit against tournament darlings France. However, getting blanked by both Wales and Scotland is not exactly a convincing argument that Italy is progressing anywhere fast. We don’t really know what the answer is for Italy but in this their 20th year in the Six Nations you have to wonder for how much longer people will bother to continue asking, let alone be interested in a solution.

Super Rugby

Despite the half full stadiums, we have to admit as we always do, that there has been some hellishly entertaining rugby on display at times so far this year. What’s perhaps caught us most by surprise is that after five rounds it’s a South African team at the top of the tables. However, the three front runner teams from the New Zealand conference have only played four games, whereas the Stormers and Sharks who currently sit atop the points tables have five under their belt. In short expect it to all change this weekend, and normal service to resume with New Zealand teams once more asserting their dominance. However, it does look like this year’s competition is going to come down to a six horse race between three New Zealand teams, one Argentinian and two South African.

No we are not being dismissive of the Australian contingent in the tournament but so far, apart from the Brumbies, we’ve haven’t seen anything from Australia or Japan (home of the hapless Sunwolves who also are part of the Australian conference) that looks likely to give any of the six aforementioned teams too much to worry about. The Brumbies look the only Australian team likely to trouble the big guns this year and their win on the road against New Zealand’s traditional power house the Chiefs last weekend was a big confidence booster. But sadly for Australian teams this year we feel it’s going to be a case of take your big victories when you can find them but sadly they are likely to be few and far between against teams outside the Australian conference.

As mentioned above, with the three top New Zealand teams only having played four games after five rounds, they find themselves lagging behind their Argentinian and South African counterparts on the points table. However, as usual the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes all look like serious contenders for this year’s silverware. Nevertheless, all three sides don’t look quite as polished as they have in years gone by. All three should have easy wins this weekend, and it will be interesting to see how they build momentum for some much more challenging encounters at the end of the month.

In the South African conference, the Stormers find themselves at the top of the points table, but for us it is the Sharks and Argentina’s Jaguares who pose the more serious threat in the long run. Both teams are on fire with the Sharks in particular having a truly lethal set of backs. However, the Jaguares also look to be the surprise package again this year that they were in 2019. The loss of a key group of Pumas internationals to European clubs hasn’t seemed to have slowed them down, and of their two defeats so far this season only one was by more than three points. Argentina continues to be a hotbed of rugby talent and they continue to prove that they are very much a Tier 1 nation to be respected and worthy of their place at rugby’s top table.

Major League Rugby

Well how about them Arrows?!!!! What a terrific start it’s been to only their second season in Major League Rugby, and to top it all off they haven’t even played at home yet. If they can keep this form up to their first home game in Toronto on April 4th against the Utah Warriors, then what a season this promises to be.

The only other unbeaten team in the league so far is the San Diego Legion and Toronto will have the added advantage that their only encounter with the Californians prior to the playoffs will be at home in Toronto. There appears to be growing interest in the Arrows in Toronto, with live showings of their games at Hemingways bar in downtown Toronto being packed affairs.

There is no question that Toronto look a tight and well drilled unit this year. Their scrum is arguably the most devastating in the league, their lineout work is vastly improved over last season and they look a threat in the loose. They have a pacy and smart halfback contingent and their backs are just as quick and dangerous out wide as they were last year coupled to a solid centre pairing more than able to make inroads up the middle. In short, if the injury gods remain kind to Toronto for the rest of the season then this could be a very big year for the team. Having already dispatched last year’s Champions the Seattle Seawolves, there’s no reason to think the Arrows couldn’t go all the way this year. The impact of MLR success on Canada’s national team prospects this year and beyond could be very telling.

TV listings are over on the TV page for all this weekend’s Six Nations, Super Rugby and MLR action. Till next week enjoy a very tasty weekend ahead!

If you thought last weekend was pretty epic then this one coming up looks to be even better, with the added bonus of the Toronto Arrows getting their MLR campaign underway.

The Six Nations got off to a thrilling start and, despite the weather forecast for this Saturday, provides us two contests of titanic proportions to look forward to. Super Rugby also got underway and threw up plenty of surprises and we were pleased to see relatively healthy crowds in attendance and some very exciting rugby as always on display. Lastly, closer to home Canada’s first foray into professional rugby union gets into its second season as our own Toronto Arrows get their campaign underway in Texas.

In short LOTS to look forward to and plenty of talking points, so here’s what got us agreeing to disagree this week.

Six Nations

Six Nations post a World Cup have often tended to be slightly flat affairs, and this season threatened the same especially given the raft of wholesale changes going on in most of the squads. In reality however, last weekend was one of the best opening weekends we can remember in a while, and this year’s edition looks set to be a classic in the making.

Wales and Italy got us started and although it was a completely one-sided affair in favor of the Men in Red, it was still an entertaining contest. Although Italy didn’t get any points on the board they rarely looked like they were simply lying down and capitulating especially in the second half, despite the 42-0 scoreline. Wales though looked the business from start to finish and of all the six teams, would appear to be head and shoulders above the rest in terms of the favorites tag. Life under new Coach Wayne Pivac seems to be agreeing with them and some of the creativity we felt Wales have always had was finally allowed to run riot. Dan Biggar was clearly the best number ten in the competition so far, but Wales looked the complete package and a highly dangerous one at that. As regular visitors to these musings know we are MASSIVE fans of open side flanker Justin Tipuric, and he did not disappoint in this match as he put in a monumental shift that showcased his exceptional talents – in short one of the best in the business! Leigh Halfpenny also seemed to experience a second coming at fullback, while winger Josh Adams proceeded to cross the whitewash at will and debutant winger Johnny McNicholl adjusted to life at Test level exceptionally well. Given Ireland’s rather disjointed performance against Scotland, Wayne Pivac’s men must surely fancy their chances in Dublin this weekend. With foul weather promised, they may not be as expansive as they were against Italy, but they have a forward pack that is more than capable of slogging it out in the wet and a solid defense ably marshaled by Dan Biggar who is clearly at the top of his game.

Italy seemed to confirm widely held beliefs that they would once again be clasping the wooden spoon this year. After watching France dismantle a rather over rated England side last weekend, Italy must be feeling more than just a little nervous about their trip to the French capital this Sunday. Italy did have a few moments of promising creativity in the second half, but Wales had done so much damage in the first forty that although Italy entertained us at times, they rarely threatened and the Coaching staff will be concerned they left Cardiff without a point to their name. We’re not convinced that the Carlo Canna experiment worked at center and expect to see him returned to the number ten jersey this weekend albeit from the bench. There is some genuine talent in this Italian squad especially in the back line and the back row, but as mentioned last week, we really hope Coach Franco Smith returns second rower Federico Ruzza to the starting lineup for Italy this weekend, as his prowess in broken play off set pieces is a real asset to Italy’s ability to create opportunity when they need it the most.

The contest in Dublin between Ireland and Scotland was a high octane affair, but both sides still suffer from an ability to score tries, which could ultimately leave them both in the middle to the bottom of the pack this year. Scotland fluffed their lines all too often close to the try line, with Captain and fullback Stuart Hogg clearly having the most frustrating moment of the tournament as he knocked the ball on in what was otherwise a gift of a try. What Scotland did show us though was some truly bruising and intense physicality, which before the weekend was supposed to have been the preserve of England according to their Coach Eddie Jones. In many ways it was the weekend of those chosen to wear the number seven jersey, with the representatives of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France in said shirts all having massive performances. Scotland’s Hamish Watson was once again inspirational to his team as a one man wrecking ball and perhaps one of the hardest working individuals in Test Rugby – if you want intensity it doesn’t get much more intense than Watson with a full head of steam. Scotland didn’t seem to miss the presence of fly half Finn Russell too much as Adam Hastings provided them with plenty of creativity and a calm head to boot. For us though it was that Scottish pack which really stood out, they pushed Ireland around in the scrums and in the loose were an absolute nightmare to defend against, as well as shutting down any ideas Ireland had about scoring tries for the most part. England will need to up their game and then some if they are looking to get past a determined Scottish outfit that seems to have no problem giving as good as they get in the physical stakes department in the Murrayfield citadel in the wind and the rain. If Scotland play like they did in Dublin and cut out the errors and play to the conditions well, England could find themselves being very unhappy tourists.

Ireland need to score tries plain and simple if they are really going to get themselves back to their lofty heights of 2018. While the players have all been singing the praises of new Coach Andy Farrell, we saw very little in Ireland’s performance on Saturday that looked dramatically different from last year. Sure they did seem to be willing to try their hand at a degree of creativity that had perhaps been stifled under Farrell’s predecessor Joe Schmidt, but Ireland still for the most part looked predictable and flat. They have an exceptionally talented back line, but it appeared to be standing in the queue at the unemployment office for large periods of the match. Fullback Jordan Larmour was clearly itching to have a go all match but Ireland were rarely able to capitalize on some scintillating counterattacks from deep from the number 15. Fly half Johnny Sexton produced one of the best moments of the match with a trademark Sexton try, but for the rest of the match put in a relatively average performance. His partner scrum half Conor Murray looked flat for much of the game and produced endless box kicks that the Scots appeared to know were coming weeks in advance. There were some epic individual performances from CJ Stander in the back row, Tadgh Furlong in the front row and James Ryan continued in his role as the most reliable second rower Ireland has had since Paul O’Connell. But were we left with the impression that this was a much needed new look Ireland? In short – NO. If Ireland are going to cope with the red hot smoking gun that is Wales this weekend, then they need to make a massive improvement in terms of performance. The weather may or may not be their friend this weekend, but they need to focus as a unit much more, as they are now a collection of talented individuals unsure of what type of game they want to play.

The big talking point of the weekend though was without a doubt the dust up in the rain in Paris. Hello France, who under new Coach Fabien Galthie look exciting, refreshing and ridiculously capable. That first 55 minutes were simply mesmerizing as they handed England a 24-0 deficit. New Captain Charles Ollivon always had the potential for greatness in our opinion and he certainly didn’t disappoint with two fine tries in this match. Gregory Alldritt at number eight produced the kind of performance usually reserved for Welsh flanker Justin Tipuric while second rower Bernard le Roux made the English eat their words about their supposed physical prowess. Antoine Dupont made the point that he is likely to be the scrum half of the tournament despite a moment of sheer folly in the 79th minute, and France’s set of backs delivered and then some. However, this French team of relative youngsters did display that alarming French tendency to throw away a perfectly good lead by taking their foot off the gas. England came back at them through two one man rescue missions delivered by English winger Jonny May, and the final ten minutes were a fraught affair for French supporters who were suddenly getting an alarming sense of deja vu. France managed to hold it together but know they really need to tighten up the final quarter of their game, something that is a recurring deficiency for them, despite a truly world class opening sixty. They have a relatively easy training session with Italy this Sunday to get that right before a VERY challenging trip to Wales.

It was England though who perhaps provided the biggest talking point of the weekend. To say that it was an inept performance by the English in Paris would be putting it mildly. If it hadn’t been for the Superhero solo efforts of winger Jonny May, England would have limped away from Paris as the laughing stock of the Six Nations. Their cause wasn’t helped by the ridiculous rhetoric being spouted about physicality and putting the French to the sword being made by Head Coach Eddie Jones prior to the match. Yes we know that it’s all part of trying to psyche the opposition out these days but Jones idiotic and arrogant soundbites these days are rapidly becoming an embarrassment to both players and supporters alike. There are clearly those who like him and those who don’t, but we have to confess to falling into the latter camp. We are also not convinced of his coaching credentials, especially after his selection choices for this match which remain beyond baffling. England are clearly in danger of becoming the most over hyped team in Test rugby at the moment, especially when you put their 2019 season into perspective. Sure they made a World Cup final, but there’s no denying they didn’t quite show up for it and were utterly out played by South Africa. Yes they beat a poor New Zealand side in the semi-finals, and for the rest of it had a relatively easy path to that fixture in the pool and quarter-final stages – let’s be honest beating Australia in the quarters wasn’t exactly difficult as most teams could have managed it. To top it off they didn’t win the Six Nations last year and other than putting Ireland to the sword weren’t exactly awe inspiring and narrowly avoided some massive embarrassment courtesy of the Scots in the final game of the tournament.

England have enormous talent, make no mistake and even the team that journeyed to Paris would be the envy of most Coaches, were it managed properly. England have a golden opportunity to build towards the next generation with a new crop of young players, something France has clearly embraced with open arms. England has massive problems at scrum half, with Ben Youngs a consistent weak link in the chain and Willi Heinz likely to be well past his sell by date come the next World Cup. England has an extraordinary talent in Alex Dombrandt for the eight jersey yet for reasons best known to himself Eddie Jones decided to take one of the world’s best up and coming open side flankers in Tom Curry and shift him to number eight. England’s entire second and back row looked so unbalanced on Sunday it was almost laughable and France clearly couldn’t believe their good fortune. Owen Farrell continued to stick his head in the sand like some wounded ostrich as things unraveled for England and leadership went out the window as a result. Manu Tuilagi is too predictable at centre and is simply not long-term Test material due to his unfortunate run of luck with persistent injuries, while debutant fullback George Furbank got thrown in at the deep end and failed to rise to the occassion. England found a bit of their mojo once winger Jonny May decided to take matters into his own hands in the 57th minute, but prior to that we really weren’t quite sure where the “greatest ever rugby team in the making” to quote Jones actually was – not in Paris that’s for sure. Our heart goes out to English players and supporters who know they are far better than this and it remains to be seen if Paris was simply a blip on the radar or the beginning of England’s winter of discontent. We fear that their trip to Murrayfield this Saturday in the driving rain and a howling wind and cauldron of fervent Scottish supporters could well be something they might want to forget in a hurry. Jones has remained stubborn once more in his choices and perhaps he really does know something we all don’t, but we’re beginning to wonder if it’s more in the tea leaves than the playbooks.

Super Rugby

The season got off to an entertaining start last weekend, with some notable surprises. Perhaps the biggest talking points were Japan’s Sunwolves unexpected win over Australia’s Rebels and South Africa’s Stormers thrashing of traditional Super Rugby powerhouse New Zealand’s Hurricanes. Meanwhile New Zealand’s Crusaders and Argentina’s Jaguares got comfortable wins over Australia’s Waratahs and South Africa’s Lions respectively.

In the local derbies in each of the respective conferences, there were few surprises in New Zealand as the Chiefs emerged victorious over the Blues while in Australia the Brumbies got the better of the Reds in a feisty and entertaining match. In South Africa, the traditional rivalry between the Bulls and the Sharks provided a match which saw the Sharks the more accomplished side.

As mentioned the big surprise was the Sunwolves shock defeat of the Rebels, especially since the Sunwolves face their final season in Super Rugby with a very depleted squad and very few if any well known names. The Rebels on the other hand brought a Wallaby studded team to Fukouka but really struggled to get any traction against their Japanese hosts in an error strewn performance. The Rebels did manage a comeback in the second half but it wasn’t enough for a bonus point loss, and the Sunwolves now find themselves in the unique position of sitting atop the Australian conference with a bonus point win. Once again what that says about the actual state of Australian rugby is potentially alarming and it remains to be seen how competitive Australian teams will be this year both at Super Rugby and international level, given the continuing turmoil going on in the game at home.

The Stormers got off to a dream start as they eclipsed the Hurricanes 27-0 with Captain Siya Kolisi and scrum half Herschel Jantjies putting in some very impressive performances. Jantjies in particular is a remarkable player and expect to see the 23 year old Springbok lighting up pitches across the globe between now and the next World Cup. One negative of the game was an injury that will see Kolisi miss much of the Stormers regular season but the Stormers certainly don’t look short on talent this year. Despite some very big names in the Hurricanes squad, it was an exceptionally uncharacteristic error strewn performance from them, and it is rare to see such a quality side so utterly outclassed and outplayed. We doubt it will stay that way for long as there is just too much talent in the Hurricanes lineup, but it will certainly have rattled their confidence ahead of a difficult trip to Buenos Aires this Saturday.

The Stormers annihilation of the Hurricanes, wasn’t good enough to see them top the South African conference in the opening weekend, as that honor went to Argentina’s Jaguares. Despite missing a raft of big international stars who have been snapped up by European clubs the Jaguares exciting blend of youth and experience looked very much the finished product as they dismantled South Africa’s Lions in an almost leisurely fashion. They face a sterner test this weekend in theory against a wounded Hurricanes side, but we have a fairly strong hunch that they look set once again to go deep into the tournament this year which also bodes well for the Pumas once their season gets underway later in the year.

In short, despite some initial reservations we thoroughly enjoyed the opening round of this year’s tournament and look forward to plenty more.

Major League Rugby

It’s back, and promises to be even better than last year with 12 teams and a host of international big names added to some of the squads. The Toronto Arrows get their season underway this weekend against Austin Herd and both times these teams met each other last year Toronto came out on top. We expect more of the same this weekend, barring opening night nerves from both teams, and it should give Toronto some much needed confidence for their encounter with two times MLR defending champions the Seattle Seawolves in two weeks time. Just like last year Toronto will play their first 7 games on the road before returning to Toronto for an extended run of home games to accommodate Toronto’s inclement winter weather in February and March. TSN has the broadcast rights, so coverage of the games will be so much more consistent and better quality than last year, and we can’t wait for it all to get underway.

Enjoy and see you next week!

It’s here and for all intents and purposes it’s Christmas time for rugby fans around the world, as the world’s oldest annual rugby competition the Six Nations gets underway this weekend and for those with leanings towards the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby has its opening festivities. With plenty of new faces and sea changes in personnel, this could be one of the most interesting opening weekends post a World Cup, that both tournaments have seen in a long time.

Six Nations

As mentioned above, we are genuinely fascinated by the start of this year’s tournament. A new look France is for many taking center stage on Sunday. It’s a team that boasts perhaps one of the most exciting crops of young French talent that we’ve seen in years. Add to that a new dynamic coaching regime under Fabien Galthie that has seemingly got off to a very determined start in building for the World Cup in 2023, perhaps more so than any other team in the competition. France could well end up being the surprise package of the tournament, and although it may sound like a broken record that has never really been the hit song it promised, we can’t help feeling that there’s something potentially ominous about this French squad. They’ve got a capable and very mobile set of young energetic forwards and a solid albeit young halfback partnership with scrum half Antoine Dupont being an absolute nightmare for opposition defences. It’s that French set of backs though that really get the heart racing and is going to test the other Six Nations defenses to the limit at times if used creatively and given any kind of space.

We have to admit to some confusion though regarding Wales’ selections for their opening match against Italy. Italy despite a strong selection are the weakest side going into the tournament. Consequently wouldn’t it be a golden opportunity for Wales to blood Gloucester sensation winger Louis Rees-Zammit? Much to our amazement he doesn’t even make the bench. It is after all Wales at home, a ground they rarely seem to lose on these days. However, it is also new Coach Wayne Pivac’s first proper international outing with his charges, so perhaps we can understand his caution and need to make a good impression with some tried and trusted figures in what should be a fairly foregone conclusion in terms of results. He has given winger Johnny McNicholl his first cap, and consequently perhaps felt two new wingers was too much of a gamble despite their obvious talents. Seasoned Welsh supporters will also be eagerly awaiting the return of Taulupe Faletau at number 8. Arguably one of Wales’ most important players in recent years, the powerful forward had to miss out on the tournament last year as well as the World Cup due to injury.

Italy should be able to give Wales a gritty physical contest up front at times, but we fear that ultimately they will, especially away from home, inevitably be outclassed with a slick looking Welsh squad that has a strong sense of unity and familiarity to it. Furthermore, we are puzzled at the omission of second rower Federico Ruzza, who was our Italian player of last year’s tournament, who doesn’t even make the bench.

Ireland field an exciting blend of youth and experience, although many, ourselves included felt that Ulster’s John Cooney should have got the start over Conor Murray for this match. Murray may be the seasoned campaigner that new Irish Coach Andy Farrell would want guiding his forwards, but there is no denying that Cooney is the form player at the moment. Cooney will get his chance from the bench and it will be fascinating to see at what point Farrell decides to give the youngster his chance. All eyes will be on newcomer Caelan Doris as he gets his first Irish cap, and once more proves that Ireland have rudely healthy stocks of back rowers. Ireland desperately need to make a BIG statement in Dublin on Saturday, and prove to their supporters and critics that their disastrous run of form last year is behind them and that they have genuinely learnt from their mistakes. We feel the team running out at the Aviva is the kind of team that can do that and hopefully make Ireland a genuine contender once more for Six Nations silverware.

Scotland a bit like France are the great unknown this tournament in more ways than one. Their campaign gets underway Saturday in Dublin surrounded by all the makings of a soap opera. Rumors of dissent in the camp about Gregor Townsend’s coaching methods abound fueled largely by the Finn Russell fiasco. Scotland have plenty of talent make no mistake, but how cohesive they are as a unit under pressure remains to be seen, and new Captain Stuart Hogg will have the additional task of building a team that seems clearly rattled heading into the tournament. We like many have mixed feelings about Finn Russell, as he is clearly one of the most talented players in International Rugby at the moment, but his maverick approach to the game doesn’t always provide the kind of stability a side like Scotland clearly need right now. He is willing to take enormous risks which when they pay off produce spectacular results, but when they don’t Scotland ends up at sixes and sevens and appears rather rudderless. Adam Hastings who gets the nod at fly half for this match, is also showing some impressive form and is starting to have a surprising arsenal of tricks of his own up his sleeve, so Scotland certainly won’t be lacking in the creativity department on Saturday. Still it’s going to be a very tall order to take down an impressive looking Irish unit in front of a demanding Dublin crowd.

England would still appear to be the favorites, but we are not entirely sure they are going to breeze through this tournament. Like many we think that their date with France Sunday could be a rather rude awakening from their World Cup disappointments. They will need to come out of the blocks firing, and your opening weekend in Paris is not always the best place to achieve that. France could well pack plenty of surprises that England may struggle to cope with, and as we saw in the World Cup, once the Men in White feel they are struggling to make any kind of headway they start to unravel rather dramatically, particularly in terms of leadership – something we feel that Captain Owen Farrell is not particularly effective at turning around. It’s a powerful and accomplished English team that runs out onto the pitch at Stade de France on Sunday – but can it stay that way for the next seven weeks? Add to that their dilemma at scrum half and seeming lack of any kind of long-term plan for the position, and England remains just short of where they need to be.

It’s still one of the greatest rugby shows on earth and we CAN’T wait!!!!!

Super Rugby

We sadly admit to the fact that we don’t quite have the same degree of enthusiasm for the opening weekend of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club tournament that we do for what will be taking place on the playing fields of Europe over the next seven weeks. Nevertheless it is a competition that has always showcased some extraordinary rugby skill and for that reason alone, it will get our attention.

Just like in the Northern Hemisphere there have been plenty of changes in setups across the fifteen competing sides since the end of the World Cup. It is Japan’s Sunwolves swansong in the tournament as they will no longer feature after 2020. Will New Zealand’s Blues finally return to winning ways after years in the wilderness? With former Welsh Coach Warren Gatland now back in his native land coaching the Chiefs and Crusaders Coach Scott Robertson likely feeling just a little pipped at not getting the All Blacks job, the race for the number one Coaching job in World Rugby is alive and well in the land of the long White Cloud once current incumbent Ian Foster’s contract is up for review at the end of two years. Can Argentina’s Jaguares still be the force they were last year with so many of their star players now having sought greener pastures? Can South African and Australian teams even be competitive with a player exodus of massive proportions for the former, and a fractured and rudderless administration running the show in the latter? In short, more questions than answers this year, which sadly detract from the rugby on hand especially as the competition is unlikely to survive in its current format beyond this year.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of matches that we are keen to have a look at this weekend. Although a raft of matches take place on Friday, it’s Saturday that has caught our eye. The competition sees three matches which highlight it’s globetrotting nature, as well as featuring three teams we think could well make the semis and one potential wild card. The Crusaders are always worth watching and once again are likely to produce a healthy contingent of the 2020 All Blacks side. Consequently their match against Australia’s Waratahs will be definitely one to watch, and pay particular attention to that set of Crusaders backs.

On looking at South African prospects this year, we have a hunch that the Stormers may well be the front runners. New Zealand’s Hurricanes remain a force but it remains to be seen how they adapt to the loss of the outstanding Beauden Barrett at fly half now he plies his trade with the Blues this season. This should definitely be a fiery contest and an interesting contrast of styles, especially in the contest between the two fly halves in terms of the experienced cut and thrust of the Hurricanes TJ Perenara and the live wire that is the Stormers Hershel Jantjies.

Lastly we have Argentina’s Jaguares kicking off their campaign in Buenos Aires against South Africa’s Lions. There have been some feisty contests between these two sides in the last two years, with both sides facing off against each other in the knockouts. The Lions and Jaguares have seen a massive depletion in terms of some of their big name players but some of the youngsters look just as exciting if not more, especially in the case of the South Americans. Furthermore we love the fact that the Estadio Jose Amalfitani often boasts the healthiest and liveliest crowds of the competition, with thousands of passionate supporters, which makes a refreshing change from the rows and rows of empty seats that often tend to be the norm in other stadiums in the tournament. In short it’s noisy, atmospheric and there’s plenty of fast paced exciting rugby on hand to keep it all bubbling along. We love it!

Major League Rugby

We’re still not sure who will be broadcasting Major League Rugby here in Canada once the Toronto Arrows kick of their season on February 9 in Austin against the Herd. We know CBS has acquired the rights in the US, but last year Game TV had them here in Canada, but it is still to be confirmed as to who will be covering it this season. Games can be watched through the Arrows Facebook page and hopefully we’ll have details in the next week as to who is covering it via streaming or on demand here in Canada. We know ESPN has an agreement to air some of the games in the US and given their affiliation with TSN we are hoping that something similar may happen North of the border. We’ll keep you posted.

So get ready, get the fridges stocked or find out where you and your mates can catch the games in a bar. If you’re in Toronto, Hemingway’s and Balmy Beach Club are two definites for the Six Nations, otherwise spark up the TV and fire up your Chromecast for DAZN and the Six Nations and TSN and Super Rugby!!!

Enjoy and see you next week!

This week saw the Heineken Cup playoffs finalized with the weekend providing some epic contests, but ultimately not too many surprises in the final draw for those eight spots in the knockout stages. Meanwhile England completed the Six Nations jigsaw puzzle by naming their squad, and lastly the Toronto Arrows had a rousing preseason opener in Las Vegas which saw them dispatch the Utah Warriors with ease 33-5.

Heineken Cup

The final round of the pool stages saw plenty of tense moments as five squads duked it out for the last two runner up spots in the playoffs. Munster and Glasgow provided us with plenty of entertainment and earned two solid wins but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough to get them a spot in the knockouts. Unfortunately a trip to one of French rugby’s heartlands was too much for Gloucester and despite throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Toulouse, they would sadly come short.

As a result, as expected Northampton and Saracens got the job done and booked the final two spots in the playoffs. Ulster had already been in a league of their own in the runner-up contest and dispatched Bath with ease to book the first of the runner up spots and a quarter final contest against tournament racehorses Toulouse. Northampton survived a serious first half scare from Lyon in France to emerge victorious and book a quarter final date with fellow English Premiership giants Exeter. Saracens did just enough in North London to hang on for dear life against a classy Racing 92 side, but now find themselves facing a challenging trip to Dublin to face a daunting Leinster side who currently are one of THE form teams of the tournament. The other quarter final will be an all-French affair as Clermont and Racing 92 replicate their race for the top in France’s Top 14 domestic competition.

Last weekend’s action gave us a mouthwatering glimpse of some of the names that are likely to feature in the upcoming Six Nations which is our next order of business.

Six Nations

England have made their selections and now the picture is complete. In one week it all kicks off and we can’t wait. So who’s looking good and who are the dark horses?

After their World Cup exploits, despite their implosion at the final hurdle against South Africa, England still remain the team to beat. However, we can’t help feeling that they are not quite going to have it all their own way this year. Jones has named a powerhouse squad, but we are once again utterly baffled by the scrum half options that Jones has gone with. Ben Youngs is so past his sell by date for the most part barring that one off performance against New Zealand in the World Cup, it’s laughable and even in the All Blacks game his teammates made him look good rather than his own individual brilliance. His backup Willi Heinz also doesn’t really look the part and is certainly not World Cup 2023 material. In our opinion a golden opportunity is being lost to develop some younger talent here, Ben Spencer probably being the most notable omission. The chances of England winning the tournament are certainly high, but on the back of a Grand Slam it won’t be. There are simply too many exceptionally talented banana skins lying in wait. Their first encounter with France being the most significant tripwire lying in wait for them in Paris. They may have the most notable dark horses Wales and Ireland to face on their home turf of Fortress Twickenham, but even that is no guarantee with the talent the two Celtic tigers have in their stables this year. There’s also the small matter of a difficult trip to Murrayfield to face a wild card Scotland. At the end of the day however, England are the only team along with Scotland who are not trying to adapt to a new Coach and that in this first International outing since the World Cup may be one of their most valuable assets.

France may still be the conundrum that all the teams will have to deal with. They potentially have the most exciting back line in the tournament if utilized properly, and Antoine Dupont may be the most exciting scrum half package the tournament has seen in years. They won’t take the silverware but they could definitely pose some massive problems for the teams that are in the running for top honors, and some definite upsets are on the cards.

Ireland are another dark horse package. There is some extraordinary young talent that is genuinely world class in Ireland’s Six Nations offering, and if it can adapt to Ireland’s new Coaching regime under Andy Farrell then they can not only upset any team on their day, but are also more than capable of competing for the silverware. Despite their dismal season last year, it would be foolish beyond belief to write them off.

Wales will not repeat their Grand Slam heroics of last year and furthermore we have trouble seeing them take the silverware. However, like Ireland we feel that a strong second place finish is well within the realms of possibility. Along the way expect them to produce some epic performances in both defence and attack and as we said last week, winger Louis Rees-Zammit could well end up being one of the players of the tournament.

Scotland would appear to have some dissension in the ranks with the Coaching regime of Gregor Townsend, but there is no denying that if they play with their hearts and a bit of devil may care attitude they could end up providing us with some of the most memorable moments of the Championship. Their encounter in round 2 with England at Murrayfield will be one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament.

We can’t see Italy doing anything other stir the Six Nations pot with the wooden spoon, but their match with Scotland in Rome and one of the last matches with the inspirational Sergio Parisse in an Azurri jersey could well be one for the Six Nations archives.

In short, a tournament that promises an enormous amount of excitement, and much more than most Six Nations immediately after a World Cup usually deliver. The best news for us here in Canada is that DAZN will be broadcasting all matches live and on demand. See TV listings on upcoming matches, broadcast times and how to subscribe.

Major League Rugby

The Toronto Arrows got their preseason underway in Las Vegas and put the Utah Warriors to the sword with ease. Next up they face Rugby United New York and then it’s 14 days till the season kicks off in earnest with their first regular season game against Austin Herd on February 9th. We’ve got a really good feeling about this season and think it’s going to be a great time to be a rugby fan in Toronto this year. Onwards and upwards!

Super Rugby

The Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition kicks off this Friday, January 31st and once again TSN has the rights for this season here in Canada. We’ve got the full schedule over on the TV listings page and will have more to say about the tournament later in the week.

See you later this week and get ready for five weeks of outstanding International Rugby action!

 

A busy week in the Heineken Cup sees a number of teams book their quarter final spots, and a fascinating five horse race for the last two runner up spots is on the agenda for this weekend.

Meanwhile this week saw plenty of developments ahead of the Six Nations as all but England have now named their squads.

Lastly Toronto Rugby fans and youngsters had a great day out last Saturday as the Arrows players held a morning of skills sessions with various age groups.

Heineken Champions Cup

Last weekend saw Exeter, Leinster, Toulouse and Racing 92 book their place in the playoffs, with Ulster securing the first of the three runner up spots. The remaining two spots though are very much up for grabs with Northhampton, Saracens and Gloucester leading the race but Glasgow and Munster are in with a shot albeit much slimmer and requiring a helping hand from some of the other teams doing battle this weekend, in addition to their own efforts.

As a result we’re in for a treat this weekend as some high stakes matches are on the cards. First up Northampton travel to France to take on Lyon who although finding it hard to replicate their Top 14 form, are still a daunting challenge at home. Furthermore, it is potentially a match of equals in terms of European competition as Northampton have also struggled to produce the kind of results on the European stage that have seen them made them such a force in the English Premiership this season.

Glasgow face a difficult trip south of Hadrian’s Wall to Sale, and in order to keep their playoff hopes alive, need to win with a bonus point as well as have La Rochelle do them a favor by upsetting Exeter.

Munster while having an easy go of it in their final pool match with an almost certain home bonus point win over the hapless Ospreys, will still need Racing 92 to overturn Saracens in North London on Sunday. Although Racing 92’s spot in the playoffs is assured there will still be plenty of motivation for them to upset the reigning champions as by doing so they would get the benefit of a home quarter final.

Lastly, although Toulouse are comfortably through to the playoffs, they will want to make it six from six by beating Gloucester. Gloucester have a difficult challenge ahead of them as they make the journey to a hotbed of French rugby which has seen a real resurgence in its fortunes of late. If Gloucester pull it off, which is a very tall order indeed, then the confidence it should give them would bode well for their fortunes come the playoffs.

In short some epic games lie in wait this weekend so make sure you don’t miss any of it, which is all covered here in Canada on DAZN, see TV listings pages for times.

Six Nations

The excitement mounts as everyone except England have laid out their stalls for the competition which starts in just over two weeks.

France have named a strong side that has taken stock of some of the exciting performances seen in the Heineken Cup so far, albeit with some notable exceptions. However, there is an exciting blend of experience and raw fresh talent that could provide us with a French team possessing both flair and considerable nous.

Ireland provided few surprises in giving Jonathan Sexton the captaincy, and while he is a class player through and through, much like Owen Farrell for England, we are not quite convinced that he is the right man for the job, but by the same token there are few if any in the current Ireland lineup who can match his experience and depth of understanding of the game’s subtleties. However, like Farrell he can get his team offside with the officials, and his attitude often doesn’t help the cause at such times. Nevertheless we feel that Coach Andy Farrell in his first outing as head Coach has made some positive choices in bringing in some new faces. Competition for the 9 jersey looks set to be fierce between Conor Murray and John Cooney. Ireland’s stocks at number eight continue to be strong despite an ongoing injury list and we are really looking forward to seeing Leinster sensation Caelan Doris get his first Irish cap.

Italy’s offerings are solid but still unlikely to help Italy over the hump of the wooden spoon once more this year. For us the forwards offer some real graft for Italy especially in the shape of Federico Ruzza and Jake Polledri. If the Italian backs can get some quality ball then there are plenty of slick runners for the Azurri, but consistent error free delivery remains a problem.

We also weren’t surprised to see Stuart Hogg get the Scotland Captain’s role, and expect fireworks from his fellow backs Graham Darcy (who was one of the standout players for us last competition) and Huw Jones. There are some exciting names up front as well, especially in Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury and expect George Horne to create some real excitement at scrum half along with the powerhouse duo of Finn Russell and Adam Hastings at fly half.

The big talking points in Wales’ selections are the inclusion of Gloucester superstar Louis Rees-Zammit. The 18 year old winger has been a revelation in the English premiership as well as making massive contributions to Gloucester’s European aspirations. Rhys Webb makes a return to the Welsh jersey at scrum half after a stint in France. However, Wales do not seem to suffer from a lack of quality scrum halves and Webb will really need to put his best forward to outshine Gareth Davies or Tomos Willams who in our opinion have the more impressive form going into the tournament.

The countdown to one of our favorite tournaments is on and we can’t wait!

Major League Rugby

As mentioned above, the Toronto Arrows held a community day last Saturday morning at the Toronto Soccerplex, and the players had coaching sessions with a variety of age groups. It was well attended and the kids clearly had a blast. In terms of making themselves accessible to their fans the Arrows are doing an admirable job as well as contributing to the development of a strong rugby grassroots community here in Toronto. It was great to meet with and chat to some of the players and the excitement is building to what promises to be another great season for Toronto in Major League Rugby.

That’s all from us this week. Head over to the TV listings page for our two picks of the weekend in terms of Heineken Cup action and broadcast times on DAZN.

 

 

 

First up sorry for the silence since the World Cup. Work, Christmas, families etc all took precedence over us having a good look at matters pertaining to the oval ball for the last couple of months. 2020 will be a busy year for all, on and off the ball, so to accommodate we are changing our approach to how we cover things.

No dramatic changes – the focus is still 100% on International Rugby. To that effect we’ll continue looking at the usual suspects, the Heineken Cup, Pro 14, Super Rugby, the Six Nations, Rugby Championship, Americas Rugby Championship and all the tours in between. We’ll also be looking at Major League Rugby here in North America, as we are after all a Canadian site and our prized Toronto Arrows add a regular international flavour to the competition. However, apart from match reports on the Arrows home games, which we will be religiously attending, we’ll be moving away from previews of the big Tests. Instead, and in an effort to provide your weekly update over a cup of coffee, we’ll try and put out at least every other week, if not every week, a short synopsis of what got us talking about the important games played at the weekend and the ones coming up. In short a weekly digest of sound bites on the major competitions. We may throw the odd preview in there for things like the final weekend of the Six Nations and other big events, but with workloads this year, to do it regularly would just be too much. The only things we won’t be looking at is the English Premiership and the French Top14 – not because we don’t think they are important in the grand scheme of things, but for all intents and purposes they are domestic competitions strictly within the borders of England and France. Also it would just be too much rugby, and our families would probably have something to say about us turning into complete couch potatoes.

So without any further ado, here’s our first go for 2020.

European Champions Cup

The first four rounds of the competition have been enthralling and now with everything to play for in the final two before the playoffs, there’s plenty to talk about especially with the start of the Six Nations just around the corner.

English teams continue to struggle to make much of a dent in the competition, with the exception this year of Exeter Chiefs. The Chiefs have a tricky encounter in Glasgow this weekend with their Pool 2 rivals, but look set to book their place in the playoffs with ease. Despite topping the English domestic scene along with the Chiefs, Northampton have struggled to match up to the intensity of Irish Giants Leinster with whom they share Pool 1.  Harlequins and Bath have been shown the door already, and Saracens and Gloucester appear to be hanging on for dear life, with both teams having do or die matches this weekend, though in Saracens case they look in a strong position as they take on the hapless Ospreys.

For French teams, they are either really good or having a season to forget in Europe with very little in the way of middle ground. Despite sitting pretty in France’s domestic Top 14 Competition, Lyon have struggled to make a statement in Europe this season, while La Rochelle and Montpelier have shown nothing to really make anyone sit up and take notice of their European efforts and sit firmly camped at the bottom of their respective pools. Racing 92 has played some exquisite running rugby, all sparked by Scotland superstar fly half Finn Russell. Toulouse are back to their glory days and Clermont are the European force they always are.

It’s Irish teams though who have perhaps shown the most dominance, particularly Leinster. It’s going to take a very special team to end their seemingly unstoppable run to the final. Meanwhile Ulster has proven to be the surprise package of the tournament so far, with scrum half John Cooney, providing some of the most spectacular razzle dazzle seen in the tournament, and giving incumbent Ireland scrum half Conor Murray a real run for his money for the number nine jersey come the Six Nations. Connacht sadly seem to be fading away, despite the comeback of the season against Gloucester in December, while Munster struggle with injury and form despite clinging to a vulnerable second place in Pool 4 that could well be undone this weekend in a difficult trip to Paris to take on Racing 92.

Scotland’s sole representative Glasgow, have looked awfully good at times but their second place in Pool 2 is more than a tad vulnerable, especially as they host English powerhouse Exeter this weekend. Meanwhile the Welsh and Italian contingents of Ospreys and Benetton Treviso have been embarrassing to watch at times, though the Italians have acquitted themselves with some aplomb by running both Northampton and Lyon exceptionally close. Ospreys sadly have little if anything to cheer about this season, having being comprehensively drubbed by Racing 92, Saracens and Munster in no uncertain terms.

Six Nations

With the final two rounds of pool play in the European Champions Cup taking place over the next two weekends, thoughts have naturally turned to the Six Nations.

England despite not dominating European Club competition still look like the team everyone is going to have to beat this year. As we saw in the World Cup there is enough talent in the English ranks to build a formidable Test day 23, and Coach Eddie Jones has been getting the results, barring that World Cup Final. Perhaps the biggest questions facing English selectors are who gets the Captain’s jersey and who takes the helm at scrum half. Current incumbent number 9 Ben Youngs, was for the most part England’s weak link in the World Cup barring that match against New Zealandand it is clearly time for some of England’s youngsters to get into the next four year building cycle. The bigger question is the Captain conundrum. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, despite his enormous value to England, Owen Farrell is not the man for the job. He performs admirably in the role when things are going England’s way, but the minute the tides change he is nowhere to be found as evidenced against South Africa in the World Cup Final. He loses composure, his negativity when England are up against it clearly affects the rest of his teammates, and let’s not mention the liability of his tackling technique which somehow continues to slip under the radar of the officials. A great player but perhaps much more effective without the burden of the Captaincy. The million dollar question however remains if not Farrell then who? Quite frankly we are struggling to find an answer, but perhaps it lies somewhere in the second row amongst the likes of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes or George Kruis. Like we say it’s a real conundrum, there are plenty of Captains in the making in England’s young guns, but as to who could fulfill the role right now is a bit of a grey area.

France also look to ring the changes this Six Nations, both in terms of players and a new Coaching direction under Fabien Galthie. There has been lots of razzle dazzle in French play in the European Champions Cup, but as always it remains to be seen if France can bring it to the Test arena. There is a potentially epic French Six Nations team in there somewhere and perhaps Galthie is finally the right man to tease it out.

Ireland may have failed to turn up for the World Cup, but outside of England, they perhaps look the most menacing side heading into the Six Nations. A new Coaching regime will be one of the main talking points under the tutelage of English import Andy Farrell, though many are surely wondering how long it will be before Leinster Coach Leo Cullen takes the reins, given Leinster’s dominance in Europe. Perhaps the biggest task facing Farrell will be to bid farewell to some of the old guard in Ireland and really use the next four years to develop a youthful but experienced Irish World Cup squad. Perhaps his most pressing concerns in this department are in the halfbacks. Conor Murray will likely have got close to the end of his career come the next World Cup, but there are a raft of young aspirants to the position, and who are arguably playing better at the moment, most notably Ulster’s John Cooney, with Leinster’s Luke McGrath also putting his hand up. Johnny Sexton will not be making the next World Cup, and given his issues with injury and mercurial form of late, you’d be hard pressed to argue against not seizing this Six Nations as a golden opportunity to give Leinster’s Ross Byrne the starting berth for the Championship, with team mate Ciaran Frawley and Ulster’s Billy Burns some serious game time as well during the course of the tournament. Joey Carberry has long been favoured as Sexton’s replacement, however the exceptionally gifted Munster fly half is so prone to injury that is hard for the Irish coaching staff to bank on him with on any degree of reliability.

Italy also see a change in management, and Benetton Treviso’s often feisty performances in Europe this season will give Italian supporters something to cheer about, as well as the exploits of Italian internationals in some of the English and French domestic leagues. Expect Italy to be competitive, even if the wooden spoon is likely to be their chosen cutlery this year once more.

Scotland are likely as always to provide us with some of the most enthralling encounters of the tournament, sparked predominantly by their bundle of fireworks at number ten Finn Russell. He’s packed more excitement this season for Racing 92 than many of his opponents would care to remember. There are also some Scottish youngsters champing hard at the bit to provide the kind of X-factor usually reserved for Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg. Glasgow’s Sam Johnson and Huw Jones along with Edinburgh’s Darcy Graham are likely to be making plenty of headlines in February and March.

Wales may not be having much luck in Europe at club level, but they have a competent new Coach in Wayne Pivac. However, Scarlets are still a force in the PRO14 and there is a healthy dose of Welsh big guns scattered across the French and English domestic competitions. Wales showed they were one of the grittiest sides in World Rugby at the recent festivities in Japan with a defense that seems almost indestructible at times. In short don’t judge Welsh fortunes in Europe as a measure of how they are likely to fare in the Six Nations. Just like last year they look set to be the competition’s number one dark horse.

Super Rugby

It’s still a few weeks away, but it’s hard to raise our enthusiasm for this Southern Hemisphere club showpiece. With Australian rugby in shambles, doubts about the continued presence of a Japanese franchise and the rows and rows of empty seats (Buenos Aires being the only notable exception) in the stadiums, it just doesn’t seem to have the energy of its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, despite there being some very attractive and highly skilled rugby on display. It’s still a relevant competition but one desperately in need of an overhaul, as it’s current format is unwieldy and cumbersome making the run up to the playoffs more of a grind than an enjoyable spectacle of top flight rugby which at its core is what it should be. We’ll have more to say closer to the time but for now our focus is likely to remain on both sides of the Atlantic.

Major League Rugby

Yes it’s only a few weeks away but we’ve been heartened by the buildup to the forthcoming season, especially here in Toronto. There seems to be a genuine interest in the new and expanded league. The Toronto Arrows are hosting a community day this weekend aimed at kids, and my own 7 year old can’t wait. https://toronto-arrows-community-rugby-day-2020.eventbrite.ca/

Some big names have also been signed up to the League, most notably French International Matthieu Basteraud to Rugby United New York and Springbok World Cup Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira to Old Glory DC.

The Toronto Arrows will continue to be boosted by the presence of Uruguayan internationals Leandro Leivas and Gaston Mieres both of whom played a big part in Uruguay’s recent World Cup heroics. Toronto made it to the semifinals last year and there is every reason to think that, with the benefit of that experience behind them and a seasoned squad, they can aspire to a similar goal this season.

Despite two years of the MLR, Canada and the USA still fared poorly in the recent World Cup. However, we have a hunch that after another two years, both countries will find themselves on a much stronger footing against international opposition.

Well that’s it for this week. Head on over to the TV listings page for our picks of the weekend’s European Champions Cup on DAZN here in Canada.

When we first looked at the pools draw for this World Cup, we felt that possibly the pool stages may have ended up being rather one-sided. In many ways they were, certainly in the case of Pool B. However, as always some of the Tier 2 nations packed some genuine punch. Uruguay were well worth their admission, as were Georgia and Fiji in Pool D and Japan completely turned the form book on its head in Pool A, much to the chagrin of Ireland and Scotland. The tournament in that respect has completely exceeded expectations and Japan have been a genuine revelation – their offloading game against Scotland was truly spectacular and had to be seen to be believed. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the tournament was the fact that despite the advent of a professional league in North America, Canada and the United States were sadly uncompetitive in their respective pools, with Canada having the added injury of being unable to play the only match they had a genuine shot at glory in against Namibia due to Typhoon Hagibis.

All that aside after a month of some glorious rugby, the business end of the tournament really gets underway on Saturday with the quarter finals. We’ll be having a look at all four matches, but as we only have the team sheets for the first round of Quarter Finals on Saturday, we’ll take a look at Wales vs France and Japan vs South Africa tomorrow.

As expected England topped their pool and now face an Australian side that got the job done but often looked less than convincing in their journey to the knockout stages. England really only had Argentina to test their resolve, after their final match with France was called off due to Typhoon Hagibis. Australia provided us with one of the best games of the pool stages in their thrilling second half comeback against a Welsh side who just managed to hang on to the narrowest of wins. By the same token Australia almost got embarrassed by Fiji and found the going tough at times against Georgia. The Wallabies will have the advantage of being slightly fresher out of the blocks than England, as their final game was not subjected to the vagaries of Typhoon Hagibis. 

England have looked dominant in their run up to their quarter finals after having dispatched Tonga, USA and Argentina with relative ease. They probably could have done without the enforced 14 day break between their game against Argentina and Saturday’s clash with Australia, but the flip side of the coin is it has given them time to sort out any niggling injuries picked up in the pool stages as well as allowing the team ample preparation time. While hardly ideal, were England to come short against Australia on Saturday, it would be a rather weak excuse.

Next up is New Zealand against Ireland, in a match that has so many subplots it would be worthy movie or thriller material. New Zealand will be seeking revenge for Ireland messing with their dominance of the global game in the last four years, in addition to the pressure of ensuring a spot in the semi-finals. Ireland, no doubt would have preferred the Springboks as a quarter final opponent, especially as the form that catapulted them to the top of the world rankings last year has all but deserted them of late. Sure they put away Scotland and Samoa convincingly, but their loss to Japan highlighted some glaring gaps in both strategy and execution on Ireland’s part. Their labored win over Russia did little to convince the rest of the world that Ireland are potential title holders. Ireland simply don’t look the part at the moment and it will take a monumental shift in both execution and effort on Saturday to get Ireland’s World Cup campaign back on track. Ireland have beaten New Zealand in two of their three encounters since the last World Cup, but for all intents and purposes that is now ancient and irrelevant history.

New Zealand on the other hand are having no such problems in their campaign. Their only major concern is likely to be the fact that so far in this World Cup they have only been put to the test once and that was four weeks ago, which is a very long time in the scope of a tournament like this. Their opening game of the tournament against South Africa is the only time that New Zealand have really felt any kind of genuine pressure. Their Sunday strolls in the park against Canada and Namibia, were simply that – good-natured training sessions amongst friends, and we say that in no disrespect to these two opponents who certainly threw everything they had into both matches, even if the outcome had been essentially predicted in the last century. As a result it is a fit and well rested New Zealand that takes on Ireland, but without the benefit of some genuinely hard fought clashes behind them to draw on in terms of big match preparation in the tournament so far. Add to the fact that Ireland would seem to have become New Zealand’s new bogey team, a title held until recently by France. As a result it is likely that there have been just a few jitters in the All Blacks camp this week, should the ghosts of 1999 and 2007 come back to haunt them, albeit in green rather than blue jerseys this time.

So without any further ado here’s our five talking points coming out of Saturday’s big bill of two mouth watering encounters!

England vs Australia – Saturday, October 19th – Oita

Since 2000 these two sides have met 25 times, and England have the healthier balance on the outcome sheet by a considerable margin, especially come World Cup time with the exception of that rather topical loss in the Pool stages of the last World Cup. If the statistics of these two teams aren’t enough of an argument in England’s favor come the World Cup since the turn of the century, there is the small matter of Australia’s form these last four years which is about as consistent as the value of airline shares on the stock exchange. One moment absolutely scintillating and capable of turning the All Blacks inside out and the next minute being blown off the park by any of the Tier one sides, the Wallabies are simply too unpredictable. In many ways they have become the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France in years gone by – in other words which Wallaby team will turn up on Saturday?

England meanwhile do not seem to be suffering the same identity crisis and with the exception of New Zealand, in many ways have looked the most self assured of all the competitors at this year’s World Cup. While they had a relatively easy journey to this quarter-final, courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis, there is no denying that they look a very capable side and one which barring one or two concerns certainly seems to know the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. In short, barring a few lingering questions around big match temperament and lapses in concentration, England look very much like a side who has every intention of being in Yokohama on November 2nd, and the skill set to ensure that becomes a reality.

England’s tight five to establish front foot dominance

Australia’s scrum has improved dramatically in the last year, but England’s has been all powerful. With a powerhouse front row, with a lethal second row providing some real stability and aggression in the set pieces, Australia are going to find the going tough here on Saturday. Like we say Australia have got better but not good enough to cope with England’s all out power, aggression and technical proficiency at the coalface. Australia may be a bit more competitive in the lineouts courtesy of Rory Arnold, Isaac Rodda and Adam Coleman, but with a power packed bench England are likely to be simply too much of a handful for Australia. It will be the platform from which England’s technical proficiency will be built on Saturday, leaving Australia with too much to do in terms of simply attempting to gain parity, let alone build a foundation of their own.

Australia will get some parity in the back row but even with Pocock and Hooper in the mix they won’t get the kind of dominance in the loose they tend to thrive on

If this was England’s back row of the first three years since the 2015 World Cup then we’d argue that Pocock and Hooper would be licking their lips. The problem is it isn’t and anything Pocock and Hooper can do, England’s back row for Saturday can do as well and in many cases probably better. As regular readers of this blog know, we simply cannot rate England’s Tom Curry highly enough. He’s England’s best find of the last four years and future Captain material at the tender age of 21. While the Australian duo, and Hooper in particular thrive in the loose, so too do England’s Sam Underhill and Curry. Add in to the mix England’s one man panzer division in the shape of Billy Vunipola and we just can’t see Australia keeping up here despite Pocock and Hooper’s exceptional talents.

It may seem harsh for George Ford, but Coach Eddie Jones has probably made the call he will stick by to the final should England get that far

George Ford has put in some big performances in the past few months in an English jersey, but when it comes down to the wire for the big games, Eddie Jones is likely to stick with Owen Farrell as his pivot to call the shots in the big games. Given what is at stake, it would seem to be the right call as Farrell seems to have a tighter hold on his game management skills from the ten slot than in the centres. For this match Jones probably could have got away with Ford at ten and Farrell at twelve as Australia do not really posess a world class number ten at the moment. However, for the clashes with England’s potential opponents in the next round, Jones needs some consistency in selection. Furthermore, Ben Youngs who has been seen as England’s weakest link of late at scrum half does seem to play better alongside Farrell than Ford. Ford will still have a chance to bring some impact in the final quarter but expect to see him on the bench for the remainder of the tournament as Jones hedges his bets on a combination that has served him well.

Wallabies Coach Cheika rolls the dice, but this could work out well for him as Eddie Jones also appears to throw caution to the wind

We think that it’s a bold decision by Jones to suddenly insert Henry Slade into the centre channels for a match of such importance, given the fact that the English centre has very little game time under his belt heading into this match. An absolutely brilliant player on his day with some outstanding skill sets, Slade has the potential to set the pitch alight. But then so too does Jordan Petaia for the Wallabies, which in many ways is an even bolder gamble by Cheika. The nineteen year old has very limited Super Rugby experience and even less Test experience. In terms of a leap of faith it doesn’t get much bigger than this. He has a huge amount of talent of that there is no doubt, but whether or not he will be able bring it to this kind of stage remains to be seen. If he does and Slade fails to find his groove and gel with Tuilagi, then with the electric Samu Kerevi alongside him Australia could end up with some momentum changing moments in this part of the park.

Hopefully this is the game where Elliot Daly finally has his detractors leave him alone

We’ve struggled with a lot of the criticism directed at Elliot Daly, England’s fullback on Saturday. Agreed he’s made mistakes in the past, but in our opinion he’s been there when England have needed him, has an exceptionally reliable boot and overall puts in the effort as well as creating some special moments of his own. In short we fail to see the problem. Very few if any of the teams in this competition have a water tight fifteen, and Daly is no exception, but in terms of reliability and doing what it says on the tin, then we find it hard to argue against Daly. In short, we’re fans and think Jones is doing the right thing by sticking with Daly and we really hope he has the kind of performance on Saturday that puts such debates to bed once and for all.

Verdict

Although much has been made of England’s bench, in terms of it closing up shop in England’s favor on Saturday, apart from the front row replacements, we’d argue that it is one area where the two sides are on par. However, it still doesn’t detract from the fact that overall we feel England is simply going to do too much damage in the first hour, for a bench to really make that much of an impact on Saturday. Unless Australia have studied France’s exploits of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups and embraced their underdog status and with it a plan to turn the form books upside down, then it’s hard to see anything other than a fairly convincing England victory. Barring any surprises from Australia and the dreaded English “choke” factor under pressure, then the Men in White to keep moving forward to next weekend by 13 points!

New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, October 19th – Tokyo

Australia may have taken some notes out of French play books of years gone by, but Ireland are likely to have made them mandatory viewing each night as they desperately seek to come up with something that New Zealand are not expecting. Let’s be honest the Ireland of 2019 has become beyond predictable and as a result it is going to take a bag full of surprises and an Irish side that New Zealand and the rest of the world has never seen before, if they are to reverse history and go beyond the quarter finals for the first time in the Emerald Isle’s spirited but ultimately disappointing World Cup history.

New Zealand will be fully aware of this and the fact that Ireland have been the annoying thorn in their side since the last World Cup. In short as far as the All Blacks are concerned it’s time to bury this cheeky green demon once and for all, and what better stage to do it on than the World Cup. New Zealand have had their ups and downs this year make no mistake, but they haven’t quite hit the lows that Ireland have in their dizzying fall from their successes of 2018. New Zealand when they click, and they still do with alarming regularity, look unstoppable and while the golden years since 2011 may be coming to an end, this group of rather extraordinary sportsmen aren’t quite done yet.

The “Tadhg” is back and Ireland will need every ounce of the raging bull on Saturday

After a rather quiet 2019, in Ireland’s final pool game against Samoa, the Irish tighthead prop exploded back into his groove. Tadhg Furlong’s influence on Ireland’s fortunes was immediate and set the tone for much of the match. He and New Zealand’s Joe Moody are likely to have a great deal to say to each other on Saturday, but if the Wexford tank hits his mark in Tokyo, New Zealand could face a long day at the coalface as well as having a few broken bodies across the park as the Irish prop seems almost impossible to bring down once he’s built up a head of steam.

Ireland like to suffocate the ball and slow the game down, but referee Nigel Owens likes the game to flow – consequently Irish discipline and keeping on the right side of the laws will be paramount

Ireland are blessed with a superb disciplinary record, which of late has, fairly or unfairly depending on your point of view, lost some of its lustre. The dangers of slowing the ball down bring with it all kinds of issues around the fringes of the laws, territory which New Zealand excels at operating in. Ireland will need to keep it tight but also ensure that the game flows while at the same time not leaving themselves exposed especially in the loose. Ireland’s speed at the breakdown, their rush defense and efficiency at the ruck have all been exemplary under Coach Joe Schmidt, but the aggression and physicality New Zealand are likely to bring to the contact areas on Saturday are going to put this under the most extreme pressure. If Ireland are able to match this and not get bullied by New Zealand and consequently avoid costly disciplinary mistakes then they are in with a chance, but it will be a key area of concern for them and should they not master it, New Zealand will quickly run away with the match by dominating its momentum.

It’s Ireland’s back row that is perhaps their biggest concern

Once a thing of pride it seems to have lost its way not helped by injury, but Ireland’s back row efforts just don’t seem to be matching up to the competition of late. The heroics of Peter O’Mahony on that famous day back in Dublin last year against a group of individuals in black jerseys seem to be nothing more than a distant memory, while CJ Stander seems to have gone into hibernation – even if we did see flashes of his old self against Samoa. Even Josh van der Flier has been strangely quiet this year. It’s a good back row make no mistake, but New Zealand’s offering is simply humming with precision and an all out physicality that is hard to match. Ardie Savea is such a live wire he is almost impossible to read and opposition defenses are never quite sure where he is likely to pop out, and once he does good luck trying to catch him. Sam Cane is back to the bruising ball carrier he loves to be and Kieran Read although not quite the force he once was still lends that steady hand of leadership and provides the glue that keeps this unit together.

If you want entertainment then look no further than the respective nine and tens

What a match up – plain and simple!!! New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga may not have the pedigree and track record of the other three gentlemen he will be sharing this part of the park with on Saturday, but he certainly has the skill set to mix it with the best of them. We have to confess to being surprised at Aaron Smith getting the nod for the starting berth for the All Blacks at scrum half as we still feel that TJ Perenara is the more explosive of the two and thus a greater handful for the Irish defenses. Nevertheless, if the Irish forwards are managing to go toe to toe with their All Black counterparts and holding their discipline, then the playing field suddenly starts to level, especially if Ireland’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton hit their traditional high notes in terms of game management.

It’s a great set of Irish backs as a unit, but New Zealand look like they have more individual try scorers

If you look at the backs from both sides, then it’s really only Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour who stand out as dead ringer candidates likely to get familiar with the opposition try line for Ireland. Gary Ringrose also has some genuine dancing feet for Ireland in the center of the park and knows how to use them in space and create opportunities for the rest of his teammates. However for New Zealand, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett, George Bridge and Anton Liennert-Brown all seem to do it with alarming regularity. New Zealand have a set of backs who are more than comfortable operating as free agents, whereas Ireland’s backs thrive off a more orchestrated approach with the exception of Stockdale and Larmour. Consequently if Ireland are going to keep New Zealand at bay, denying any space whatsoever to five key players will be a much more challenging task than New Zealand having to keep only two or three Irish players in check who can really capitalize on broken play at speed.

Verdict

We would dearly love to see Ireland break their long suffering penury at the stocks in World Cup quarter finals, but it is hard to see it happening based on their buildup to Saturday’s match. They just haven’t looked the part so far this year, leading to the inevitable call that they peaked too early for this World Cup. All the evidence would tend to support that claim as other teams have left them in their wake in the last few months. Still to write off what is essentially an exceptionally talented group of world class players would be sheer folly, and New Zealand have clearly recognized this. Ireland may be down, but when it comes to passion and fire there are few teams who can top the Irish, and as a result they are definitely not out yet. They desperately need some new tricks up their sleeve though as they have sadly become far too easy to read. Whether or not they have been saving themselves for this moment and we will see a side full of surprises remains to be seen, but there is that nagging feeling that it all may be too little too late. New Zealand are building towards one last great hurrah for this group of players and it is going to take a very special team to derail them. Ireland may well end up giving them a fight to remember, but it is hard to see anything other than an All Black victory by 12 points!

While the opener with Japan and Russia had its merit, there is no denying that this is the first of the weekend’s key fixtures that have got everyone talking. Australia come into this tournament rather like the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France. Brilliant one day, hopeless the next – the question on everyone’s lips is which Australian team will show up in Sapporo tomorrow and will it be good enough to maintain consistency over seven matches on the trot? We have to be honest we have our doubts.

Up against them is a Fijian side that packs more excitement than a river barge full of fireworks in Sydney Harbor on New Year’s Eve. Fiji have become everyone’s banana skin in waiting and Australia know that if they are not at their best, they could very well slide into touch and out of the tournament before it’s really got going. Perhaps because of that it is no coincidence that Australia’s starting XV for tomorrow boasts 3 Fijian born players, who may have that edge in understanding how to get past their fellow countrymen in white jerseys.

Fiji have always been entertaining to watch at World Cups, but there is something distinctly different about the 2019 edition. Renowned for extraordinary speed and ball handling skills, Fiji has now developed a holistic approach to their game that also boasts a competent forward pack. The worrying thing for opposition sides is that many of those forwards also boast the same speed and ball handling skills that in the past have made their backs so famous. Fiji still lack a lot of the overall structure necessary to win at this level, but there is no denying that they have the power, pace and above all skill to upset many an apple cart, as France found out the hard way last November.

Australia vs Fiji – Saturday, September 21st – Sapporo

Australia will want to keep this game tight, as any propensity for loose play could see Fiji run riot

Don’t expect any fireworks from the Wallabies tomorrow in Sapporo. Their biggest concern will be keeping this game as tight and structured as possible, as space and loose play are just a few of Fiji’s favorite things. Australia have their own attacking threats up the middle and out wide make no mistake, but their defensive skills will be put to the Test first and foremost. We just think it is unlikely that Australia are going to lay on too much of the razzle dazzle in attack, when they have a set of Fijian opportunistic speedsters waiting to pounce on any mistake, and let’s face it when Australian execution on attack is off, it’s really off. As a result if you’re looking for excitement from the Wallabies tomorrow, you’re probably backing the wrong horse. True blue conservatism is likely to be the order of the day, especially with opening night jitters coming into play for Australia.

This edition of the Flying Fijians is a lot more than just fleet footed dazzling ball handling skills

Like we said above, Fijian rugby is clearly a different beast than what we’re used to. They can still take your breath away starting deep in their own 22, from some outlandish ball playing up the entire length of the field, but now they can also set that in motion from the set pieces. They are better organised and are much more of a team effort than a collection of individuals naturally blessed with the kind of skills most players only develop after years of grueling effort. In short, they have been and continue to be one of our favorite sides to watch, but the odds on them getting past some of the big teams are significantly increased as they have become much more clinical and accomplished in their approach to the game.

Their scrum may still be a little suspect, and question marks still linger around their overall defensive skills. However, on attack they can menace from the set pieces and in open play. Expect to see second rower Leone Nakarawa transform from a lineout wrecking force of nature to instant winger in the blink of an eye, while Peceli Yato causes just as much grief in the back row. They have an accomplished half back pairing, and then there’s the small matter of some of those backs, with Semi Radradra being any defensive coach’s worst nightmare, but plenty of others dominating the headlines while on club duty in France such as Waisea Nayaclevu, Josua Tuisova and Levani Botia.

If you are suffering from opening night nerves, something Australia have seemed prone to, then Fiji is probably the last side you want to meet

Australia do seem to be rattled by big occasions lately, and the opening game of a World Cup is a prime example of where the Wallabies’ nerves could get the better of them, especially against a side as unpredictable as Fiji. Australia would probably have been much more comfortable with someone like Uruguay or Georgia as their first order of business. Their recent warm up encounter with Samoa was a tight affair and didn’t exactly make the Wallabies look like giant killers, and Fiji are twice the side that Samoa is. Fiji are likely to come into this match feeling like they have nothing to lose, and eager to chance their hand at spoiling Australia and Wales’ assumed progress to the knockout stages. Australia on the other hand are under all kinds of pressure from the get go. A dismal couple of years since the last World Cup and a public back home demanding results lest the game slip further into obscurity in the Australian sporting psyche, means that they have much more to prove than Fiji.

Verdict

Australia should and can win this match. However, we very much doubt that it will be a comfortable affair for the Wallabies. We fully expect to see Fiji run them very close at times and genuinely strike fear into the hearts of Michael Hooper and his charges. Expect to see the odd dazed look from Wallaby players as Fiji pull off a seemingly impossible try. Nevertheless, Australia seem pretty hell bent on laying down a marker that they want to maintain for the rest of this World Cup and tomorrow’s match will be the first step in the process. Let’s face it, everyone had written them off at the last World Cup and they made it to the final. An edgy but conservative display from Australia should get them their first win of the tournament by six points, but Fiji to give them numerous hair raising moments that will test their resolve to the full!