Archive for the ‘Pacific Nations Cup’ Category

Yes we know there are three other big games this weekend, but as we only have team sheets for the Canada/Tonga and Argentina/South Africa matches, our usual previews of Australia/New Zealand and the European World Cup warmups will have to wait till tomorrow.

Canada finish up a difficult Pacific Nations Cup this weekend, and if they don’t get an elusive win against Tonga tomorrow night then you’d have to wonder what they’ve actually learnt if anything over the last three weeks in terms of their World Cup preparations.

Meanwhile South Africa travel to Argentina, to try and seal their first Southern Hemisphere title since 2009. There is no denying that the Springboks are looking sharp this year and after dispatching Australia with ease and holding New Zealand to a draw, they find themselves at the top of the Rugby Championship table as they head into this weekend’s final round of games. Argentina will be no pushover though, and themselves put New Zealand under enormous pressure in the tournament opener. What exactly happened to them a week later in Australia is anyone’s guess, as we watched a dismal spectacle riddled with errors from both sides – quite frankly one of the worst games of rugby we’ve watched in this last World Cup cycle. Argentina are better than that – much better- and on home ground expect them to once more become the smoking gun that everyone is inevitably talking about as the World Cup draws closer.

Like we say we’ll cover the European warmups tomorrow along with Australia vs New Zealand in Bledisloe 1, but in the interim here’s what got us talking about these two matches.

Tonga vs Canada – Friday, August 9th (August 8th for Canadian TV viewers) – Fiji

Poor against the USA and a completely inept second half against Fiji, means that Canada have never really looked the part in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup which for all intents and purposes has been a warmup for the World Cup more than anything. Sadly Canada would appear to have learnt little about their strengths but a great deal about their weaknesses. Whether or not there is sufficient time between now and their World Cup opener against Italy to address these issues is a million dollar question. As a result, Canada know that tomorrow’s game will require a huge performance in order to restore some confidence to a team that has not enjoyed a winning culture for a very long time now.

With no disrespect to Tonga, who sadly we know very little about, Canada should at least be competitive and hopefully decidedly more polished than they were against Fiji and the USA. The game against Fiji was simply painful to watch. Canada spent the first half aimlessly box kicking to a team that is renowned for their ability to run the ball and who possess some of the most mesmerizing ball handling skills in open play in the modern game. Canada then spent the second half continuously trying to use rolling mauls which the Fijians brought to ground with almost joyful abandon. Canada seemed completely without a plan B, and simply stuck doggedly to two tactics that got them no traction whatsoever for the full eighty minutes. What was going on in the coaching box was beyond us.

This week, we are not exactly holding our breath after looking at the team sheet.

Michael Sheppard take a bow

We were really surprised to not see the Toronto Arrows tank in the starting lineup for last week’s match, and although we were devastated for Justin Blanchet who had to leave the field after only 2 minutes due to injury, the opportunity that it provided Sheppard was golden. In a match where Canadian standout performances were hard to find, the big second rower was one of the few who stood up and were counted. As a result we are delighted to see him get a starting berth for this match, and expect him to make life difficult for Tonga as well as provide some much needed inspiration and go forward ability for the rest of his colleagues.

Also in the forwards Tyler Ardron makes a welcome return

Like Sheppard against Fiji, Ardron was one of the few players who stood out in the game against the USA. With himself and Sheppard on the field tomorrow Canada should not be short in the inspiration department.

Tonga’s forward pack have plenty of Top14 experience in France so Canada will really need to be at their best here, but overall Canada are fielding perhaps their best forward pack of the competition. Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie shore up a solid back row.

The halfback combinations are not working and we don’t see much room for improvement tomorrow either

This week sees Gordon McRorie moved from scrum half to fly half, and when he moved to the role in the second half last week Canada did seem to gain a bit more fizz in their attack. Sadly we feel that McRorie brings absolutely nothing to the scrum half position and if his service was any slower off the base of the scrum and rucks then it would be more akin to lawn bowling than rugby. He allows the opposition so much time to set their defensive structures that Canada is going nowhere on attack. Phil Mack brings much more energy to the position, but his performance in the USA game was riddled with errors. We would really prefer to see Jamie Mackenzie get a starting berth at 9 in preparation for the World Cup and once more are dismayed to see him start on the bench. He did add some value in the last quarter against Fiji, and him at scrum half and McRorie at fly half does seem a better combination unless Mack has one of those games we all know he is capable of.

Canada will be looking to DTH to once more save the day

He is undoubtedly Canada’s only genuine world class player, but all too often he is expected to perform miracles by the rest of his teammates. Furthermore, to be honest the outstanding winger has been ominously quiet in Canada’s most recent outings. We really hope that won’t be the case tomorrow.

Verdict

Canada has a hard road to hoe tomorrow, but surely their luck has to turn at some point, even if doing it in the heat of the South Pacific is a tall order. Tonga have a better winning record than Canada at the moment, and have managed to beat Fiji last year. However, much like Canada they seem to be a very hit and miss outfit. Playing in Fiji will be much more like home turf for them than Canada, as well as being more used to playing in the humidity. It’s a close call but based on form we’d have to hand it to Tonga. Nevertheless, Canada should be able to run them a lot closer than perhaps they expect. However, we’re still giving it to the Pacific Islanders by three while still hoping for a big performance from Canada!

Argentina vs South Africa – Saturday, August 10th – Salta

Like we say we are really not sure what happened to Argentina in Australia, but hopefully by now they have figured it out. South Africa on the other hand while still having some work to do, are no doubt feeling rather pleased with their World Cup preparations which seem to be on a very positive trajectory.

Argentina are not in the hunt for any silverware but that is clearly not much of an agenda item for them, as they seek to use the tournament to gel overseas based players back into the squad, and Saturday’s match is no exception.

Argentina’s scrum has struggled and Saturday’s Test will see just how much progress Coach Ledesma has made in fixing it

South Africa bring two powerhouse front rows to Argentina on Saturday, with tight head prop Frans Malherbe being the only possible weak link. We’re not overly convinced that the Pumas outfit will be able to go the distance. The only real consistency and competitiveness we see here for the Pumas is at hooker with Agustin Creevy and Julian Montoya. The rest of it we fear will just be going backwards on Saturday.

Talking of hookers is Mbonambi bringing the accuracy the Springboks are missing at lineout time?

Don’t get us wrong we are HUGE fans of Malcolm Marx, but there is no denying his lineout throwing has been poor to say the least, and to make up for it we haven’t quite seen the kind of barnstorming heroics that made him such a household name in Test rugby eighteen months ago, to make up for his discrepancies at lineout time. Consequently, up steps Mbonambi who for the most part appears to be a pretty accurate dart thrower. He’s no slouch at the coalface either and Coach Rassie Erasmus clearly sees him as Mr. Dependable heading into the World Cup, with Marx coming in to shake things up when the opposition could really do without it.

Argentina’s Europeans didn’t quite make the cut in Australia but history is unlikely to repeat itself this weekend

We really felt that Argentina looked poor against the Wallabies, and we certainly weren’t expecting it. We are putting it down to the overseas based players’ unfamiliarity with a unit that essentially has operated as one for the last six months in the shape of the Jaguares. There was no denying that Facundo Isa and Santiago Cordero looked slightly out of sorts and unsure of how to function in a unit that had a genuine track record of success under their belts. We very much doubt that will be the case this Saturday, and despite a wobble against Australia Nicolas Sanchez should also be back to his best, especially after putting in such a strong performance against New Zealand last month straight off the plane from France.

Is this the kind of game where Kwagga Smith finally lights up the pitch?

As regular readers of this blog know, we are big fans of the Springbok utility forward who is an expert at putting his sevens experience to good use. Unfortunately he hasn’t quite had the opportunity to do so in his last few outings in a Springbok jersey but this could be his chance to shine. Given the slightly frenetic pace of any match against the Pumas, Smith could well find himself with the kind of open space he excels at exploiting. Talking of open space for the Springboks, we also feel that Pieter-Steph du Toit deserves honourable mention here as well, after his chip kick exploits against New Zealand a fortnight ago, with the big utility forward clearly becoming one of the Springboks most valuable players. Much like Smith we’ve rated him from day one in a Springbok jersey.

The rise of the small men

Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe has become something of a legend here at the Lineout, and we don’t think we are the only ones who hold him in such high regard. He may be one of the smallest men on the pitch, but you would never think it. The sight of him hauling New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick to the ground needed to be seen to be believed. The man simply has no fear, and his tackling game is something to behold. Add to that his vision and pace and there is no doubt that the diminutive winger has developed into one of the finest all round players in the modern game. Debutant scrum half Herschel Jantjies has also become one of the finds of the year. Having scored a try in each of his two matches to date in a Springbok jersey, he is also a player playing well above his weight and experience grade. We can’t remember when we saw such a natural transition to Test level rugby. In a team renowned for giant bone crushing leviathans, the Springboks have finally found a place for 5 foot tall 75 kg titans!

Verdict

Beating Argentina’s Jaguares on home soil has become next to impossible, however beating the Pumas for some reason on home soil doesn’t quite hold the same challenge. However, despite their present form, South Africa have struggled with this task more than their other Southern Hemisphere rivals. Argentina has not been a happy hunting ground at times for the Springboks and Saturday should provide more of the same in terms of a challenge. Nevertheless South Africa seem to be going from strength the strength while the Pumas are still finding their feet after a disappointing season last year. With the added bonus of some silverware on offer and the confidence booster this provides ahead of a World Cup, expect the Springboks to be well and truly up for this one. Argentina will give them a very good run for their money in the process, but we expect South Africa to take the game by five!

Test Rugby is now in full swing and will remain so till the beginning of November and the final whistle of the World Cup. As a result there is plenty of action to be had this weekend. The Rugby Championship and Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa’s unofficial warm up for Japan continues in its abbreviated format this weekend. South Africa travel to Wellington to attempt to repeat their historic win against New Zealand on the same ground a year ago. Meanwhile Argentina travel to Australia to take on the Wallabies in Brisbane and also hope to repeat their famous victory on Australian soil last year. Lastly Canada travel to Denver before heading down to the South Pacific and take on the USA for the second time this year.

Unfortunately due to the pressures of work this week, we’ve been unable to do our usual five talking points for each match, but here’s a quick summary of what we’re looking at for all three games.

New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, July 27th – Wellington

Without a doubt given the thrill of last year’s spectacle, this is THE big fixture of the weekend. South Africa are fielding an exceptionally strong squad for this encounter as are New Zealand who will be keen to seek revenge for their defeat on home soil last year by the Springboks. South Africa arrive brimming with confidence after a comprehensive thrashing of Australia last weekend, made all the more impressive without some of their key players. Admittedly Australia are not exactly setting the world on fire at the moment, but it was still an important win that saw a well disciplined and cohesive Springbok performance. New Zealand on the other hand, although not fielding their strongest side, struggled to keep Argentina at bay last weekend, and were lucky to come away with a narrow win.

This weekend sees both sides field their first choice lineups, and given the form of both teams, promises to be an exciting encounter and a mirror image of both sides’ opening match in the World Cup in two months time.

Looking at the lineups, a couple of things stand out for us most notably the appearance of the two main contenders for the All Black 10 jersey on the field together. Beauden Barrett reverts to the fullback position for this match, while Richie Mo’unga takes up his usual spot with the Crusaders and New Zealand at fly half. Barrett ultimately got the job done last weekend but we felt that Argentina often had his measure and it wasn’t his greatest day at the office. In the case of Mo’unga we have yet to see him have a bad day this year, and if he can translate this form to Test level in an intensely physical and demanding Test, then the race for the selectors first choice will be that much tighter between the two fly halves. Barrett has not played fullback at Test level for quite some time, almost six years ago to be precise against Japan, and he has only played three times in the 15 jersey for the Men in Black. There is no doubting his versatility but to shift one of your key play makers to such a relatively unfamiliar position for such a big game, will really be a testimony to Barrett’s abilities if he pulls it off with flying colors. He’ll be up against one of Test Rugby’s best in the shape of Willie le Roux and we’d argue that in the aerial contests the South African may come off better given his familiarity with the position.

TJ Perenara gets the starting scrum half berth this weekend, and deservedly so in our opinion for a match of this stature. We’d argue he is New Zealand’s form number 9 by a country mile at the moment, and his rival Aaron Smith didn’t really do anything last weekend to make us sit up and take notice, and was often outplayed by Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli. Perenara will need to be on his toes as he goes head to head with South Africa’s live wire Faf de Klerk and with try scoring debutant machine Herschel Jantjies on the bench New Zealand will really have to keep their wits about them in this part of the park.

The back row for South Africa sees the highly anticipated return of one of our favorite Springboks Kwagga Smith. For us he is the try scoring equivalent of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea who we are surprised to see sit this one out. Whenever Smith is on the field South Africa’s X-factor goes up another few notches. He may not be the whirlwind wrecking ball that Savea is, but he is one of Test Rugby’s most glorious opportunists. Add to the mix the figure of flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit, whose emotions at the end of last year’s match on the same ground so effectively summed up what that victory meant to the Springboks, and South Africa will be hard to beat up front.

Our last big surprise for a game with so much riding on it was the decision by New Zealand to start Sonny Bill Williams. This surely must be the last chance saloon for the All Black centre, as in our opinion, with no disrespect to the great man we feel he is past his sell by date and brings nothing particularly dynamic to an area of the park that will be hotly contested, with South Africa’s Lukhanyo Am being an exciting prospect for the Springboks and Damian de Allende having dramatically upped his game since last year.

Lastly we feel South Africa pack an absolute power house bench. New Zealand’s offering from the sidelines is respectable make no mistake, but we feel if South Africa have the edge by the time the bench becomes a factor it could swing the game in the Springboks favor.

Verdict

Either way a huge match in prospect and one you won’t want to miss. Despite their shock defeat last year, the likelihood of New Zealand losing at home twice in a row and at the same venue to boot seems on paper to be rather remote. We think South Africa is fielding a team more than capable of matching up to the All Blacks, but New Zealand will have a fairly hefty point to prove in front of a home crowd who will make sure they remember why they’re there. Consequently in a hard fought match we’re giving it to New Zealand by five, perhaps more than anything on the premise that lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice!

Australia vs Argentina – Saturday, July 27th – Brisbane

Last year Australia got ultimately shown the door by a better disciplined and structured Pumas side. We’d argue the Pumas are even better organised and focused than they were last year, and despite their loss last weekend will be buoyed by the fact that they made the best team in the world work for a full eighty minutes last Saturday. Australia to be honest, seemed no better than they were last season and if anything a tad worse. Their match against South Africa was riddled with schoolboy mistakes, handling errors and a general lack of cohesion and poor execution. To get past a Pumas side that is really starting to click nicely they are going to have to be a lot better, and home advantage alone is unlikely to address the error count we saw last week.

Argentina seem to have finally addressed their scrum problems, while we have seen little if any evidence that Australia have got their house in order in this department. Argentina still have plenty of work to do, but guiding proceedings at the coalface is the exceptionally capable Julian Montoya. Argentina to make some much needed progress here on Saturday, most likely at Australia’s expense, with the Wallabies misery likely to be compounded in the second row, as Argentina’s Guido Petti and Tomas Lavanini show them how it’s done.

Australia’s problems are unlikely to improve in the back row, with the talking point of the week being the eagerly awaited return of Facundo Isa to the Pumas number eight jersey. Throw in the wrecking ball that is Pablo Matera who is likely to make mincemeat of the Wallabies Michael Hooper and we just can’t see Australia making any inroads here. In short, when it comes to the battles up front we have a hunch that Australia may find themselves completely outclassed.

Things get better for Australia in the backs, but even there we’d argue Argentina don’t have too much to worry about, especially given Australia’s lack of ball handling skills last weekend. The one positive we did see for Australia was the welcome return to the scrum half berth of Nic White, and in one of the very few standout Wallaby performances last weekend, White has given Will Genia a lot to think about this Saturday as he makes his bid for the first choice scrum half berth. Australia pack some very big, powerful and mobile units in their set of backs both on the wing and the center channels this weekend, and Kurtley Beale  immediately made his presence known last Saturday when he came off the bench. He has also proven himself handy in the fullback position which is where he starts this week. Argentina though possess some devastating speed merchants and Saturday also sees the long overdue return of European based winger Santiago Cordero who made plenty of headlines for the Pumas at the last World Cup. With the exception of perhaps the physical aspect, it is very much a question of Argentina being able to say to Australia, “anything you can do, we can do better” in back play.

Verdict

Australia may be at home, and on paper have a very good looking spreadsheet from 9-15, but up front we feel they just don’t have parity with Argentina. Add to that the fact that the Pumas are no slouchers from 9-15 themselves, and we’d argue that Argentina look much more like the finished product. With the exception of their two overseas based players this is a very settled and familiar unit, that has already proved that it can rise to the occasion. Australia may have home advantage but we feel that Argentina have a better understanding of what game they want to play. Consequently in what should be an absolutely fascinating contest we’re handing it to the Pumas by 2!

USA vs Canada – Saturday, July 27th – Denver

We’ll be completely honest, after two months of cheering on the Toronto Arrows close to home, we were a little disappointed to see less players from the successful MLR side than we were expecting for such a crunch match, unless Coach Kingsley Jones is saving his best for arguably one of Canada’s most challenging encounters this year – the game with Fiji. Canada is boasting some very big names for this match, most notably the incomparable winger DTH van der Merwe who is truly world-class. However, we felt that Toronto Arrows scrum half Jamie Mackenzie was certainly worth inclusion over the remarkably pedestrian Gordon McRorie.

Furthermore the fact that neither second rower Mike Sheppard or winger Dan Moor even made it to the bench left us puzzled. One thing we were delighted to see though was the return of number eight Tyler Ardron, who always brings such shape and presence to a Canadian side, while newcomer Ben LeSage gets a worthy call up to the centers.

The Americans are also open to experimentation, but having watched the last half of the MLR season with interest, there are a lot of very familiar looking and exceptionally capable American players in this starting XV. Based on what we saw this year, Canada are really going to have to work hard to contain the threat posed by second rower Nick Civetta, flanker John Quill, and number eight Cam Dolan.

After a very successful season with English Premiership side Sale Sharks, Eagles Irish import fly half AJ MacGinty returns to service for the USA, and his game management skills are going to really put Canadian newcomer and fellow Irish import Paul Nelson to the test.

Verdict

Canada need a big performance on Saturday, but their away form has for quite some time now been poor. However, the one saving grace is that they did manage to run the United States close in their last encounter which was also on the road. If the likes of DTH van der Merwe can find the gaps in what would appear to be a fairly solid US defense, then Canada could come out of this on a positive note in their build up to the World Cup. However, we can’t help feeling that it’s still a tall order especially for some of the less experienced players in the squad, as well as those whose continued selection leaves us slightly puzzled. Consequently, in front of a home crowd, and with some serious talent in the mix, the USA should ultimately pull ahead and get the job done by eight points!