Archive for the ‘Six Nations 2020’ Category

Last weekend’s climax to one of the most drawn out Six Nations campaigns in living memory provided us with much to talk about. There was the rebirth, genuine this time, of French rugby. England as expected showed that while perhaps not as flash as everyone else there are few teams that have such an effective workman like ethic to getting the job done. Scotland demonstrated that they are a force (albeit inconsistent) to be reckoned with. Ireland showed lots of promise in their new talent, but an old guard that is rapidly starting to lose its shine. Wales fell from the dizzying heights of Grand Slam champions last year to competing with Italy to avoid holding the wooden spoon. Lastly Italy, twenty years into the competition, failed to really show much progress yet again and lifted the wooden spoon for the fifteenth time, and fifth year in a row – causing the debate about whether or not they deserve their place in the competition to raise its ugly head once more.

Meanwhile in a land down under the Wallabies imploded on home soil in a rather spectacular fashion, as the brave new dawn we saw for them in Wellington at the start of the Bledisloe rapidly turned into the onset of a long, dark and gloomy winter. New Zealand meanwhile tuned up their engine another few notches and made an absolute mockery of claims made post the World Cup that they were losing their edge, as they completely outplayed and outclassed a Wallaby side that simply didn’t know what had hit them. In the process the All Blacks have identified the new spine of a team that looks set to make everyone else continue to challenge them for world domination. The Webb Ellis trophy may currently have taken up residence in South Africa, but a certain group of individuals in black jerseys clearly want it back.

Six Nations 2020

It only took four times as long to complete this year as a result of COVID 19, but as our first proper look at the Northern Hemisphere teams since the World Cup, it certainly provided lots of insight on progress made and progress lost. England look set to carry on from a positive World Cup experience despite their major hiccough at the last hurdle. France have at long last risen from the ashes of some very lean years. Wales have gone backwards at a rate of knots since their heady successes of 2019 and a Coaching change. Ireland have also experienced a Coaching update but so far the jury is still out on whether it’s a success or not as Ireland seem to have more questions than answers at the moment. Scotland look set to be everyone’s dark horse for the next four years, but rarely consistent and at a clear disadvantage once injuries set in in terms of depth which will continuously hold them back. Lastly Italy’s head is once more on the chopping block in terms of global respect as they sift through the ashes of yet another disastrous Six Nations campaign.

England

England’s dismantling of Italy last weekend in Rome, 34-5, was a solid if unspectacular performance. England are effective make no mistake, and have emerged from this Six Nations as both deserved Champions and a side that is clearly building on the momentum built at the last World Cup despite the disappointment of a serious schooling by South Africa in the final. England in this Six Nations have shown that they have a wealth of exceptional talent, much of which has a good two World Cup cycles ahead of them.

Our overall impression of England is of a team that has a workmanlike approach to what they are trying to do through a well thought out game plan. However we didn’t get a real understanding of England’s creativity, especially when their game plan simply doesn’t go according to plan, or the opposition figures them out. Under Coach Eddie Jones’ tenure, our feeling is that England is brutally effective at executing the game plan they develop during the week leading up to a Test, but should the opposition figure it out during the course of a match and start undoing it, England still seem to lack the ability to adapt said game plans to changing circumstances on the field. As a result they look great with a rehearsed script and know their lines probably better than any team out there at the moment, but the minute that script no longer fits the plot, their improvisation skills seem somewhat lacking.

Before the match we said that we thought that England would be unhappy with anything less than a haul of 50 points. The fact they were only able to score 34, against a spirited but often ineffective Italian side should set alarm bells ringing. You can’t really blame it on the away factor, as sure it was in Rome, but no teams at the moment are benefitting from home advantages and supporting crowds. Empty stadiums are the norm for rugby in the Northern Hemisphere and players could be playing anywhere and not really know the difference until they actually walk out of the grounds after the final whistle.

Ireland the weekend before were able to get 50 points on the Italians, and Ireland at the moment lack the cohesion or effectiveness of England. In short, England did enough in Rome but failed to impress in a match which given their quality they should have simply run away with. Ben Youngs should feel relatively pleased with his 100th cap, especially as he bagged England’s first try and would start the second half with another. However, he won’t feel so happy with his defensive lapses that resulted in Italy’s one and only try ten minutes later. England’s defensive structures in broken play still look a bit suspect in our opinion. The Men in White look great with ball in hand and defensively in their own 22, but in broken play outside of the 22 England often look vulnerable and unable to reset themselves as quickly as countries like France or New Zealand. If England get wrong footed in this part of the park, then it’s a fairly sage bet that the opposition will be crossing the whitewash.

While England got the job done, there were only three players who really made us sit up and take notice. Ben Youngs at scrum half was outstanding and has clearly silenced his critics (ourselves included), who felt that heading into the World Cup, the Leicester man was well past his sell by date and England desperately needed to find an effective replacement – which Willi Heinz was not. Our concerns still hold that England do need to develop their resources at nine and the next 12 months will be critical in this regard, but during this next World Cup cycle they couldn’t ask for a better mentor than Youngs.

Powerful back rower Tom Curry once more demonstrated what a vital cog he is to England’s ambitions over the next four years. It may not have been his best game but his one try once again highlighted what a powerful player he is with ball in hand. Throughout the match his work in defense and generally making life difficult for Italy in the set pieces and the loose showed what a valuable player he is to England’s cause and a core part of the team’s spine.

Alongside Curry is England’s second row menace in the shape of Maro Itoje. A player who puts in a huge shift every match, and whether you like it or not gets completely under the skin of every team he’s up against. Itoje just rattles the opposition plain and simple and throws them off their stride at every opportunity. It’s an old forward tactic, and often skirts around the edges of the laws, but Itoje has clearly mastered it and England benefit as a result.

As for the great Owen Farrell Captaincy debate – we’re still not convinced. Not convinced he is the right man for the job but unsure of who you’d put in his place. Fortunately he wasn’t required to tackle much in the game against Italy, so at least England didn’t have to wonder if he’s managed ot get to grips with his technique in that department. Itoje is a possible option, but in many ways as the team’s chief enforcer he may not be best suited to the role. Tom Curry in our opinion would be a solid bet leading into the World Cup, but not just yet. Consequently, it’s likely that Farrell will remain steering the England ship for at least the next year or two, but England do need to look with an eye to the long term at his replacement both in terms of leadership and his position on the field.

As for the rest of the England Six Nations squad, it’s an impressive unit make no mistake but as creative as say France or New Zealand, sadly not. There is some genuine talent in its ranks and it is likely to only get better, but for now it’s a side that gets the job done but rarely captures the imaginaiton. England are wisely perhaps not laying all their cards on the table just yet, and the next twelve months will no doubt see continued refinements and the development of new talent. The Men in White are clearly not the finished product just yet, but there are some pretty impressive blueprints already laid out on the drawing table.

France

England may have won the Championship, but France won the contest for the hearts and minds of spectators by a country mile. They simply played some sublime rugby this tournament. They wouldn’t be France if they didn’t find the odd banana skin to slip on, and Scotland kindly supplied that for them in Edinburgh just before the pandemic lockdown. But apart from that they were the team to watch and then some. The superlatives came thick and fast for this French squad, and although the cliche term “French flair” came back into fashion, this time it was backed up less by luck and more by sound decision making and organisation. Instead of laissez faire loosely structured moments of brilliance, France now look exceptionally well organised with a clear idea of what they are trying to do and how to do it. In short, France are back and it’s no flash in the pan this time. They mean to do business in three years time at their own World Cup and have given themselves the structures and resources to do so. Well coached, well drilled and blessed with some genuine world class talent that is only just starting to hit its stride – France look sharp and very dangerous once more.

Although France’s 35-27 victory over Ireland last weekend destroyed Ireland’s Championship hopes, France may be slightly disappointed that they weren’t able to make the points difference higher, as they were by far the better team on Saturday. Although they had less of the possession and territory than Ireland, in some cases by a considerable margin, the difference was they used it so much more effectively. Some of their attacks were thwarted by Irish defences, but France’s ability to spot the gaps and holes was outstanding, and for the most part once found Les Bleus made them count which translated into points on the board.

There is no denying that a lot of this is down to their brilliant and youthful halfback pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. These two geniuses barely out of Test Rugby kindergarten are two very special players indeed. We’ll be seeing and talking a lot of and about these two characters over the coming years and rightly so – they have put the zing back into international rugby. If they are this good now imagine how good they’ll be come 2023.

However, it’s not just all about France’s dynamic duo, there are many other aspects of their game that also work incredibly well. They have a competitive front five once more, even if it still could use a bit of tweaking in the discipline stakes. Their back row is simply magnificent. Captain Charles Ollivon leads by example and is an inspirational leader on the pitch. Gregory Aldritt just gets better with every outing in the number eight jersey and his work rate and tackle count was off the charts last weekend in Paris.

France have always had pacy backs, but now allied to a pack that is constantly going forward and creating opportunities from broken play, France’s try scoring abilities out wide look less opportunistic and much more planned. Virimi Vakatawa is a force of nature, even if Ireland managed for the most part to keep him in check last Saturday. Gael Fickou is back to his best and there is no shortage of quality wingers and centres in France these days.

In short, we can’t find too much to critique in the 2020 French vintage. It’s still finding it’s feet and needs to develop some longer legs, but looks likely to mature and age well so that in three years time it could be at its very best!

Ireland

Ireland could have ended last weekend as Six Nations Champions. We never thought they were going to and sadly were proven right. They needed four tries in Paris and try scoring is and hasn’t been Ireland’s strong suit. We rarely see Ireland getting past the three try marker on average in Test matches, hence us thinking the ask of four tries and on the road to boot, was just not something Ireland have much collective knowledge of doing. It’s been one of the weak links in an otherwise very good team for a number of years now, even under the exceptional Joe Schmidt as Coach. If you want a team that knows how to score tries and lots of them, then don’t look at Ireland. Ireland are good at controlling games and chipping away at the scoreline through the boot, but getting the big points is just not their forte. Unfortunately if Ireland really are to progress beyond the quarter finals at a World Cup for the first time then this needs to change. New Coach Andy Farrell seems to want his charges to play a more open and less structured brand of rugby than that favored by his predecessor, but at the end of the day it’s still not bringing in the points.

Ireland has more than enough talent to get to where it needs to be, but seems to lack the Coaching direction to enable it to get there. The ball skills just aren’t there with any degree of consistency, and all too often a promising run of play ends in a messy pile of bodies close to the 22 but with nothing to show for it. In short, plenty of talent but often undercooked in the execution phase and rarely able to turn possession into points. Ireland dominated the territory and possession statistics last weekend in Paris, but their phase play degenerated into attritional assaults on a well organised French defensive setup. Frustration and tempers rose and all too often Ireland found themselves back deep inside their own half, having to start all over again. That’s just exhausting and increases the error count once you get the ball back exponentially.

While there were lots of surprises from France on Saturday there were none from Ireland. Throw into the mix some sloppy defensive work, a seemingly endless run of simple handling errors and a kicking game that was all too predictable and poorly executed at times, and it was inevitable it was only going to end badly for Ireland on Saturday.

One of the big talking points of the weekend was Jacob Stockdale’s performance at fullback. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – he simply isn’t a Test fullback, despite his success in the position at provincial level. He had a shocker of a game on Saturday, and to be brutally honest, his defence at times looked almost lazy to add insult to injury. He may well evolve into the position at Test level, but at the moment he is more than just a few cards short in that deck. Ireland sorely missed Jordan Larmour in the role on Saturday, and despite some of Larmour’s critics, we felt he was gelling very nicely into the job before injury put it on hold.

Captain Jonathan Sexton came under a considerable amount of fire from the press and public after his facial expressions got telecast around the world when he was taken off the pitch, especially as Ireland were showing signs of coming to terms with the enormity of the task ahead of them. As much as he is a leader who wears his heart on his sleeve, there is a time and place for everything and Sexton does at times get carried away with a sense of self-importance inappropriate to the role. As much as we think he is one of Ireland’s greatest players, some of that aura is starting to look like ancient history as some of his more recent appearances have not matched up to it. While he boldly proclaims that he wants to keep playing till he’s 40 – with all due respect Johnny we hope that’s just the Guinness talking. The remarkable Sexton of 2016-2018 is seen less and less often these days, and a replacement simply has to be groomed and fast. As far as we’re concerned the sooner second rower James Ryan gets groomed for the Captaincy role the better. Despite his tender years he’s been Ireland’s one consistent performer in the lean period of the last 18 months and has demonstrated a calm head under pressure that has had a positive influence on his teammates.

Much the same could be said of Sexton’s half back partner Conor Murray. These two were arguably two of the world’s finest from 2016 – 2018 but increasingly have become more and more predictable. Murray had a better game than he has in a while last Saturday, but his trademark box kicking has now become so well read by opposition sides, that much of its effectiveness has been lost. He was slightly quicker off the back of the rucks and scrums last weekend, but was nowhere near the lighting quick reflexes and decision making of his French opposite number. Once again just like Sexton, Ireland need a long-term solution here and we don’t think Kiwi import Jamison Gibson-Park is it.

The jury is still out for us on new Coach Andy Farrell. He certainly seems to favour a more unstructured approach to Ireland’s game plan after the rigidity of the Schmidt era. Unfortunately though it’s execution all too often seems lacking. A lot of the basics needed seem to be missing, perhaps not helped by a raft of newcomers getting a deserved start in Ireland’s two final Six Nations matches. The game time for newer players is something we wholeheartedly applaud and felt Schmidt was far too cautious in this regard. As a result it’s perhaps early days to judge Farrell’s tenure, so we’ll reserve judgement till the end of the year, as Ireland have two matches that will tell us a lot about how the changeover is progressing, as they take on Wales and England.

Despite the question marks surrounding Ireland, there is some promising talent emerging and perhaps the Emerald Isle can consider itself blessed with remarkable stocks in the back row department. These last two matches have seen some excellent shifts from newcomers Caelan Doris and Will Conors. When you consider that Ireland also has at its disposal Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, Max Deegan, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, it is in ridiculously rude health here heading into 2021.

The front row is capably served though they met their match in France with les Bleus tending to call the shots. The second row while not having as much depth as the back row still looks healthy. The halfback pairing needs some work and development as does cover for the fullback position, though on the wings Ireland does look respectable with a good balance of youth and experience. It’s in the centres where Ireland need some imagination. In their defence we thought Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki had one of their best games in quite a while, so there is nothing to fault here overall. However, Ireland clearly missed the spark and ingenuity of the injured Gary Ringrose in France who offers a great deal more variety and unpredictability in attack in the centre channels than the straight through the middle option preferred by Henshaw, Aki and Chris Farrell.

It’s going to be an interesting six months for Ireland as they seek to carve out a new identity under Farrell, and we await the judgement by results to see whether he and his charges have developed an effective approach to the challenges that lie ahead. We sincerely hope that Ireland is not heading back into a period of lean times after the successes of the last few years – with the talent at its disposal barring some depth issues it would be a tragedy if it did.

Scotland

Despite only finishing fourth, it was a pretty tidy Six Nations for the Scots and in the process they played some captivating rugby. Although falling out of favor with Coach Gregor Townsend, whiz kid fly half Finn Russell was returned to the squad in October for the final round against Wales and immediately made an impact. However, it should also be pointed out that without him Scotland managed to topple the mighty French earlier in the year. Scotland managed a healthy win over Italy and last weekend a much needed away victory against the Welsh – something they hadn’t achieved in 18 years. Their two losses to England and Ireland were only by a seven point margin, so in all Scotland have been contenders this year from start to finish.

During the course of the tournament, back rower stalwart Hamish Watson impressed throughout while his younger cohort Jamie Ritchie was outstanding and must have surely booked a place on the Lions flight to Johannesburg next year. Their front row looked highly reliable and often provided Scotland a stable platform, while Jonny Gray was a consistent performer in the second row.

Scotland will be concerned as they head into the Autumn Nations Cup without the services of either Finn Russell or Adam Hastings at fly half, with Hastings set to miss next year’s Six Nations as well. We just don’t see any depth here for Scotland and the lack of a fly half of Russell or Hastings’ caliber for the remainder of 2020 may undo some otherwise stellar progress made by Scotland this year.

In the backs though Scotland does not appear to be missing either Sean Maitland or Tommy Seymour. Wonder kid Graham Darcy is electric any time he gets his hands on the ball on the wing, fullback Stuart Hogg is a legend in his own time and Blair Kinghorn can easily cover both positions with a very useful boot to contribute to proceedings as well. There is some promising emerging talent to the point where Scotland has become for the most part, like France, a highly entertaining side to watch.

Scotland’s Achilles Heel is depth. They can field a quality match day 23 without question, but the minute the medics appear Scotland suddenly starts to look distinctly lightweight. This Autumn Nations Cup will tell us a great deal about Scotland’s stocks in this department, and we hope for their sake that a dynamic team that shows a high level of skill coupled to some good old fashioned grit can continue to build on what has been a rather promising year so far.

Wales

How the mighty have fallen! From Grand Slam Champions to facing stirring their morning porridge with a Wooden Spoon, Wales will want to brush the memory of 2020 under the carpet as soon as possible. Their only positive this year was thumping Italy at home 42-0. However their final loss to Scotland 14-10 this past weekend at home, for the first time in 18 years, hit hard. Life under new Coach Wayne Pivac, despite the New Zealander’s remarkable success with Welsh provincial side Scarlets, has got off to the worst possible start. Life looks unlikely to get any easier with a tough away trip to Ireland, followed by hosting England in the Autumn Nations Cup. Their only respite may be Georgia, but the feisty Tier 2 nation has a history of causing trouble for their Celtic hosts.

Captain and legendary second rower Alun Wyn-Jones cemented his place in history last weekend against the Scots by becoming the most capped player in Test Rugby. A remarkable acheivement by a remarkable player, but one he no doubt would have chosen to celebrate in a more propitious year for Wales than 2020 has so far turned out to be. Even the great man has often been quieter than expected this year, though more likely because the frustration of leading a side consistently misfiring is getting to him.

However, it hasn’t just been Alun Wyn-Jones who has had a quieter year at the office. Regular Lineout favorites like back rower Justin Tipuric have often failed to make the news in 2020. Welsh scrums and a lot of their set piece work was weak, and more often than not it was the opposition calling the shots. In the midfield Wales look utterly lifeless, while out wide and at fullback, they seem unsure of themselves even with the return to service of aerial master Liam Williams. In short Wales have just looked well off the boil this year, and let’s be honest rather quiet and far removed from their usually boisterous selves.

Does that mean Wales are in decline? We’d argue slightly adrift, but in decline no. There were enough flashes of individual brilliance to reassure us that Wales can still put together a strong squad. The problem is that none of these individual talents are working together as a unit. In five Six Nations performances there were only a few times where we could genuinely get a sense that Wales had some sort of game plan and the players actually knew their lines. We don’t think it’s going to be an easy autumn for the Welsh, but some valuable lessons are likely to be learnt to get them back to the point where they can once more approach a Six Nations Championship with a sense of optimism. In short, more pain is likely in store but hopefully with some long term gain.

Italy

Italy made this year the fifteenth time in twenty years that they held the Wooden Spoon in the Six Nations. Like we and everyone else does at the start of every new season for Italy, there was a sense of optimism and a belief that with yet another new Coach this would be the year that Italian rugby would show signs that a third or even higher place finish would help silence their critics. Even more importantly it would be year that would put an end to the cries of those baying for their demotion from the Six Nations in favor or an emerging European nation such as Georgia. At the end of the year we all end up writing the same platitudes – enthusiastic, courageous and some promising talent. Ultimately though the results are depressingly similar year after year and end on the note – ‘there’s always next year’ – as Italy once more fall well short of the mark.

It’s all become sadly too familiar and getting harder and harder to find the positives, let alone answers. Replacing Italy with Georgia won’t necessarily make the Six Nations more competitive. Georgia are likely to get just as much if not more of a hiding than the hapless Italians, so what good demotion for Italy and promotion for Georgia would do either side is debatable, as the rest of the teams simply see them as mere cannon fodder and an easy points haul.

What Italy does have going for them and what England Coach Eddie Jones must be wondering how the England selectors let him get away, is back rower Jake Polledri. In Italy’s 34-5 loss to England, Polledri was inspirational and his outstanding try was just reward for a world class performance. The sad thing is that Polledri is for the most part in a league of his own in the Italian team, and just like his predecessor Sergio Parisse, he is in danger of becoming the sole focal point of Italy’s efforts on the pitch, In desperation a mind set of “just give it to Parisse” and expect him to perform miracles often took hold forcing the legendary Italian Captain to fulfill mutiple roles on the pitch. We fear if not managed quickly Polledri is in danger of heading down the same slippery slope. His talents are there for all to see but the team can’t expect him to continuously operate for the Italian team as a whole – rugby perhaps more than any other is a team sport.

During the course of this Six Nations, as always there were some impressive youngsters bursting onto the scene, perhaps none more so than fly half Paolo Garbisi. Garbisi is a genuine world class talent in the making, however as happens all too often in Italian rugby, a series of crushing defeats could snuff out this bright light sooner rather than later as confidence and morale in the team as a whole spiral downwards. It’s not all bad news. We often liked what we saw in the second row, and Italy has a competent and competitive back row, led by the aforementioned Jake Polledri who could easily get into a Six Nations representative match day 23. Scrum half Marcello Violi has quick if inaccurate hands, and Italy’s backs are not afraid to chance their hand in space but often their execution lets them down. Matteo Minozzi is genuinely world class at fullback but far too injury prone for Italy to be able to bank on his talents with any degree of consistency. The will is there but the skill set coupled to some regular lapses of discipline and technique continue to plague the Italians.

New Coach Franco Smith has his work cut out for him between now and the next World Cup to pull Italy up by their bootstraps and ensure that they can challenge for a mid table in the Six Nations and the ultimate fantasy of a quarter final date at the next World Cup. Lofty but not impossible ambitions, and Italy although failing to impress yet again will require our patience for another three years. We will continue to hope for that moment when the lights finally come on for the Azurri and this time stay on – but sadly have to admit we’re not holding our breath as much as we admire their constant fighting spirit in the face of almost permanent adversity.

If you missed last weekend’s action here are the highlights:

Bledisloe 4 (Tri Nations 2)

Australia is in the casualty ward and it would appear, that after three increasingly punishing dates with New Zealand, the patient may not respond to being revived after tomorrow’s match is done and dusted. The Bledisloe Cup is clearly lost for Australia for yet another year, as is the Tri Nations. All that is left in 2020 is a shot at redemption with Argentina, and given their rather shaky start to the year even that could be at risk.

What has gone wrong after such a hopeful start in the rain in Wellington and ended in such abject failure in Sydney in a brutal 43-5 loss to New Zealand? Yes injuries haven’t helped their cause with both fly half James O’Connor and centre Matt Toomua, with the latter unlikely to see action until next year. However, the problem seems to run deeper than that. Scrum half Nic White’s comments at the half time break raised more than a few eyebrows as he seemed unable to grasp how poorly the Wallabies were playing and how well by comparison New Zealand were. He seemed to think all New Zealand’s opportunities had come from Australian errors as opposed to the All Blacks own game plan. While the All Blacks did seize the day several times off the back of Wallaby errors, they also ran rings around the Wallabies in terms of organization and execution. Australia were beyond poor, even if they were slightly more competitive in the second half.

There were two different games going on in Sydney last Saturday. One in which a polished coherent unit in black jerseys with a finely tuned balance of youth and experience tried out a variety of game plans and practiced and honed basic techniques. In the other match a group of individuals in green jerseys undertook an intensive endurance training session. In the first game the players ended on a high and hardly looked out of breath. In the second a team left the field exhausted, confused, clearly humiliated and grappling with the basic concept that one of the key objectives of any sporting contest is to try and put points on the board. In the Coaching box Dave Rennie and his assistants looked in a state of shock at what they were witnessing, and Rennie must surely now be wondering if all the rumors that the Wallaby Coaching job really is the most thankless job in Test Rugby are true.

New Zealand simply built on the momentum gained in Bledisloe 2 and looked like they were genuinely enjoying themselves unlike their opponents. In Australia’s defense they did manage to keep the All Blacks’ latest portable tactical nuclear device, Caleb Clarke, relatively in check, but fly half Richie Mo’unga exploded back onto the Test Rugby scene in one of his best performances to date. New Zealand’s forwards completely dominated the Wallabies pack, while the backs simply ran riot through a defense that seemingly only had eyes for Caleb Clarke. New Zealand are now humming at full throttle and this weekend they look to blood some more terrifying new talent. Without the benefit of trans Tasman competition in Super Rugby this year since March, many of these talents are likely to come as yet another nasty surprise for the Wallabies this Saturday.

Australia’s new bloods while having moments of brilliance simply look wildly out of their depth compared to their All Black counterparts. Your heart had to go out to Wallaby debutant Noah Lolesio, as Richie Mo’unga showed him what a world class fly half looks like, while Wallaby center Ira Simone was left wondering what the role of a center exactly was as New Zealand’s Anton Liennert-Brown and Jack Goodhue alternately weaved and bludgeoned their way through the center channels. Dane Haylett-Petty really had nothing to say at fullback, had a poor kicking game and paled into insignificance as Beauden Barrett placed the ball at will in the Australian half.

Wallaby Captain Michael Hooper, as he always does, attempted to lead from the front but even that seemed ineffective, while Australia’s best prospect of 2020 so far, Harry Wilson in the back row, failed to make an the kind of impact that made us take such notice in Bledisloe 1 and 2. Fellow back rower Ned Hanigan proved to be his usual self as a liability in discipline and execution and the Wallabies incurred penalty after penalty at the breakdowns and in the set pieces.

In short, New Zealand ran the show with almost effortless ease while Australia looked like the marsupials they are named after caught in a road train’s headlights. We struggled to find any positives in this Wallaby performance and it genuinely pains us to say it, and fear that another beating is on the cards this weekend, even if complacency gets the better of New Zealand in the first half. If you’re an Australian supporter you must be beyond frustrated. Australia should not be this woeful and while they may struggle to beat an All Black team clearly gaining a second wind after the World Cup, they should still at least be competitive.

As a result, we imagine that Rennie is likely to focus less on the result and more on the performance of his charges this weekend. Beating New Zealand is unlikely but refining structures and processes that may at least hold their own against a similarly challenged Argentinian side will be the priority on Saturday. The Bledisloe and Tri Nations is a lost cause for Australia in 2020 but two matches to seek redemption against the Pumas is now clearly the end game for this year. If they get their basics right on Saturday, and don’t suffer the same kind of annihilation as they did in Bledisloe 3, then the Wallabies may make the first steps towards a comprehensive rebuild. New Zealand in the meantime will simply show us all that they are still the team to beat, unless their nemesis in blue who are currently rising from the ashes at a rate of knots, decide to once more upset the apple cart in France in 2023.

Enjoy and we’ll be back for the buildup to the Autumn Nations Cup next weekend!

It’s been a long time coming but it’s finally here – the 2020 Six Nations Super Saturday. Despite France going into a second lockdown as a result of COVID-19, the French Minister of Sport has confirmed that elite sport will be exempted. As a result the final and all important match of the day in Paris, which will confirm who is going to be lifting the silverware, will be taking place.

Wales and Scotland get us started on Saturday in Llanelli and while neither side is in the hunt for any silverware a win is critical, especially for Wales who are in desperate need of a victory and a halt to four straight defeats. Scotland will look to finish well and settle themselves for the upcoming Autumn Nations Cup in November. England need a massive points haul and a bonus point against Italy, something which a team of their caliber should have no trouble achieving, even if it means travelling to Rome. If England get the job done the silverware is theirs pending the outcome of the France/Ireland game. So ultimately England will have to wait and see if either France or Ireland can secure a bonus point in their struggles. If neither get that elusive bonus point then it’s England’s tournament, but if they do then either Ireland or France will be hoisting the trophy on Saturday night. If you want a tournament that is going to go to the final whistle of the final match, then make sure you are in your own lockdown in front of the TV on Saturday!

Let’s not forget about Bledisloe 3 if all the above excitement is not enough for you. New Zealand travel to Australia to take on a Wallaby side smarting from a comprehensive schooling by the All Blacks at Auckland’s Eden Park two weeks ago. It’s an experimental Wallaby side that will know that home advantage is simply not going to be enough on Saturday. The All Blacks are once again reverting to traditional form. After a slow start, by the time the second half of Bledisloe Cup 2 got underway, New Zealand were operating at full throttle again while still managing to blood some new talent of their own. It should still be a highly entertaining match, but we can’t help feeling a little anxious for the Wallabies given the strength of the visitors lineup, and this will be a definite test to see what tricks new Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie really does have up his sleeve. New All Black Coach Ian Foster after a shaky start in Wellington seems to have taken a firm hand to steering New Zealand’s ship and Saturday’s match will be the litmus test of how well his methods can adapt to life on the road, as the Kiwis take up residence in Australia for the next six weeks for the Rugby Championship.

Six Nations

Wales vs Scotland – Saturday, October 31st – Llanelli

There is no silverware up for grabs for either side on Saturday, but Wales will want to right their ship after four straight defeats. Scotland on the other hand, will be feeling confident after beating title favorites France earlier this year. Furthermore the Scots haven’t exactly been thrashed by their opponents and both their losses in this year’s championships to England and Ireland were only by 7 point margins. The Scots seem to be clicking nicely while Wales look slightly at sea despite some obvious talent.

Wales recent friendly against France last weekend in Paris saw the Welsh eclipsed by 38-21 as France played all the rugby and the Welsh by comparison looked rather flat and lifeless. Even traditional stalwarts like Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric seemed to have alarmingly quiet games by their standards. The French ran rings around Wales in the set pieces and in attack proceeded to make a mockery of the Welsh defenses. Wales did get on the scoreboard first with a nicely worked try from fullback Leigh Halfpenny in the opening minute, but that was about the only time there was any genuine spark or flow to the Welsh attack, apart from a gritty well worked forwards try in the final ten minutes. France on the other hand were all flair and excitement after that initial wake up call from Wales. Add to that some exceptionally well organized defenses and there was no denying that this is a very well put together and thought out French team.

Scotland had Georgia as their warm up last weekend and fared considerably better in their contest, demolishing a brave but ultimately seriously undercooked Georgian side 48-7 at Murrayfield. Scotland’s favourite problem child Finn Russell returned to the fold and immediately set about proving why Scotland simply can’t do without his services when he came off the bench. Meanwhile an aggressive and quick forward pack negated the traditional physical threat posed by the Georgians. Scotland’s pacy backline showed they will need to be watched with caution next month in the Autumn Nations Cup. Scotland look like a side able to provide us with plenty of entertainment in November and we look forward to seeing them in some very tasty encounters in the Autumn Nations Cup.

This weekend’s Six Nations encounter sees Scotland make relatively few changes to the side that made life such a misery for the Georgians last Friday. The injured Matt Fagerson is replaced by Blade Thomson at number eight and in the second row Jonny Gray returns. Finn Russell gets a deserved start at fly half and in the backs Scotland welcome back Stuart Hogg after the fullback returns from a string of competitive successes with English club Exeter. As we saw last weekend, it’s a Scottish side that oozes quality. Their front row proved steady under fire from Georgia in the set pieces. Scotland’s second row, especially with Jonny Gray in the mix will be highly competitive come lineout time. At the breakdowns that back row has generated a healthy respect from opponents throughout the Six Nations with Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie in particular proving to be the bedrock of Scotland’s ability to really mix things up in the loose. Lastly that set of backs is class through and through and winger Darcy Graham didn’t disappoint last week. Expect more of the same this week, made more potent by the addition of Stuart Hogg.

Wales are a conundrum, after the highs of the latter Gatland years, they definitely seem to be trending downward. We don’t think it’s permanent, there is too much talent in this team for that to be the case, but they are clearly struggling to adapt to new Coach Wayne Pivac’s style or he to them. For this match Pivac makes some wholesale changes and we would argue that after last week they are merited. We still feel that Wales are going to get bossed around in the front row and there are relatively few changes for Saturday’s match, as they struggled with France last week whereas Scotland contained Georgia’s supposed scrummaging prowess. What will be interesting to see is the second row partnership betweeen Will Rowlands and Alun Wyn-Jones. Wyn-Jones is a known commodity even if he had a relatively quiet game by his standards last weekend, but Rowlands has been an outstanding performer for English premiership side Wasps. The Welsh back row needs to make much more of a statement than they did against France. Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau did put in a shift but somehow it just didn’t match up to the power being generated by their French opponents. They are not going to get much more of a break from Scotland’s Watson and Ritchie.

In the backs, Rhys Webb misses out at scrum half due to injury in favor of Gareth Davies, but in our opinion this is to Wales’ benefit. Wales looked more energetic and organised when Davies came on in the French game, and for us is the better option. We’re still not convinced that fullback Leigh Halfpenny is as comfortable under the high ball as he used to be, but Saturday’s match sees the return of Liam Williams to the wing opposite Josh Adams, and this back three could spell trouble for Scotland. Williams ability to create opportunities and handle whatever kind of aerial assault Scotland will fire at Wales is something the Men in Red have lacked of late. Lastly that center pairing in Wales really needs to be counted as last weekend it clearly wasn’t, with both Jonathan Davies and Nick Tompkins struggling to find any sort of cohesion. With Owen Watkin replacing Tompkins this weekend Wales really need to click here.

It should be a good match for spectators with a lively Scottish side wanting to build on some positive momentum and a Welsh team desperately seeking something to cheer about on home soil. For us though it’s the more dynamic and opportunistic Scots who the scoreboard will likely favor most.

Italy vs England – Saturday, October 31st – Rome

After watching Italy get dismantled yet again in the Six Nations, it’s hard 20 years on from Italy’s initial entry into the tournament to still find positive things to write about them. Sure there is lots of individual talent in Italy but none of it seems to get harnessed into a cohesive plan for really putting Italy on the map in terms of International Rugby. Instead, the other Six Nations sadly view matches with Italy as points haul opportunities. This is certainly the case with England this weekend as they travel to Rome looking to get maximum points on the board including a bonus point, whilst hoping at the same time that neither Ireland or France are able to do the same, and thus allow England to claim the title. You’d have to argue the odds are in their favor, and the defensive slip ups that caused Ireland to throw away seven points in the overall points difference between them and England, are unlikely to be present in the English camp on Saturday. You’d think – but then we thought that about the World Cup final.

However, Italy are not South Africa, even if they are being coached by one. They bring a slightly punchier side to this encounter, with the big ticket item being the inclusion of Wasps all star fullback and try scoring machine Matteo Minozzi. The Italian back is world class and to be fair so are some of his teammates. Despite being on the back end of an Irish hiding last weekend, fly half Paolo Garbisi’s try at the death, that could end up being Ireland’s undoing in the points race this weekend, was absolutely top flight. In short, this guy is good and could be the spark that really lets Italy create some special moments. Considering that was his first outing in an Italian jersey, that’s a pretty impressive debut. Italy has a solid back row even if they failed to make much of an impression against a very impressive Irish trio last weekend. However, we anticipate them struggling in the set pieces and apart from Minozzi, there just isn’t the pedigree in their backs to be able to compete with the likes of England’s offerings, especially Jonny May.

As for England, given the strength of their star studded match day 23 it’s really hard to find any weaknesses and see anything other than Italy being completely and utterly steamrollered into submission. The only possible weak links being George Furbank at fullback, who may be Coach Eddie Jones’ wonder child but so far has singularly failed to impress at Test Level in an English jersey, and Owen Farrell’s difficulties with tackling technique. Apart from that though we just can’t see any chinks in England’s armor other than possibly scrum half Ben Youngs having one of his increasingly frequent off days or Billy Vunipola discovering yet another part of his physique that is an injury liability.

It’s really difficult to see a scoreline that doesn’t have England sitting on at least 55-60 points, most of which could well be unanswered. Expect at least six tries by the Men in White securing the much needed bonus point, and a points difference that will have both France and Ireland sweating bullets heading into the last game of the tournament on Saturday night in Paris.

France vs Ireland – Saturday, October 31st – Paris

Super Saturday will reach its nailbiting finish for fans in Paris. France and Ireland will know what they need to do after watching England and Italy. Consequently the pressure will be on as English, French and Irish fans huddle nervously around their television screens. Fortunately the match is going ahead despite the nationwide lockdown in France, and thank heavens, as after the most protracted and unusual Six Nations campaign in history, we doubt most of us could handle any more suspense.

Both sides make very few changes to the lineups that worked so well for them last weekend, and for the most part where those changes do take place they are enforced due to injury. Ireland bring in prop Cian Healy to the front row for his 100th cap, while France keep the same unit that bossed Wales around. We’re backing France on this one as they just seem slightly steadier in the discipline stakes compared to the Irish. The second rows stay the same for both sides, but for us Ireland have got this hands down, especially in terms of keeping on the right side of referee Wayne Barnes’ whistle. French second rower Bernard le Roux must surely consider himself lucky to be running out on the pitch Saturday after trying to rearrange Welsh Captain Alun Wyn-Jones face last weekend. Le Roux’s colleague Willemse is also not known for his disciplinary reliability.

The match up of the weekend surely has to be the battle of the back rows. Ireland’s CJ Stander as the undisputed veteran shepherds his two young charges Caelan Doris and Will Connors with the green trio being devastatingly effective last weekend against Italy. By the same token the French trio led by Captain Charles Ollivon, a role he appears to be excelling at, were also taking no prisoners last weekend against Wales and clearly got the better of some notable Welsh talent.

The huge smoking gun on the field is the great contest of young versus the old in the halfbacks. France’s dynamic duo are truly world class, and in our opinion are already outshining their Irish counterparts who were until very recently considered one of the world’s most dangerous pairings. Ireland’s Murray and Sexton still take some beating, but there is no question that they are not nearly as shiny as the two young French mavericks who have set Six Nations pitches alight this year. At the moment Murray simply cannot match France’s Antoine Dupont’s lightning fast reflexes and decision making, and Ntamack’s ability to control the ebb and flow of a game coupled to a very useful boot is perhaps more consistent than Ireland’s legendary Sexton. However, the Irish pair have a wealth of Test experience between them and on such a big occasion as Saturday’s encounter, it will be interesting to see how much of a difference this makes when the chips are down for both sides.

The contest between France’s Virimi Vakatawa and Ireland’s Bundee Aki on Saturday is one we can’t wait to see unfold. The dynamic French centre is a handful to bring down, but provided Aki can read his dance moves he certainly packs the punch to stop a freight train dead in its tracks. The loss of Ireland’s Garry Ringrose to injury is a genuine blow for the Irish as his inventiveness and speed in the centre channels creates far more opportunity than the rather predictable smash and grab up the middle routine favored by Aki and Henshaw.

Hugo Keenan had a dream debut for Ireland on the wing against Italy scoring two fine tries, but his defensive capabilities were rarely tested by the Azurri. Jacob Stockdale at fullback continues to be a worry in that department as evidenced by fly half Paolo Garbisi completely wrong footing him for a try that may be critical if matters are to be decided on points differences alone. Andrew Conway had a good run of it last weekend, but sadly although featuring heavily in the run of play was unlucky not to cross the whitewash for Ireland and is a player who we feel is one of the Men in Green’s most underrated talents. However, that French back three is a potent unit in its own right and Ireland can simply not allow their guard down for a second.

Both sides pack quality benches and ultimately this match is set to be a barnstormer in the making with the weather favoring an exciting running game – something France in particular just love to do at the moment. We have to admit to being slightly surprised at the pundits voting so heavily in favor for Ireland on this one. Consequently we’re going to play devil’s advocate and say that we think Ireland are going to have their work cut out against a French side that, apart from that hiccough on the road against Scotland, have looked the most exciting and dangerous side in the tournament by a country mile. To make these qualities all the more convincing the French finally look like they have systems in place that can utilize some rather extraordinary talent to its fullest potential. The Irish are an impressive and equally talented unit, but when it comes to the unexpected and how to capitalize on it, we’d argue that quality has a distinctly French flavor to it this year. In a country heading into another dark couple of weeks, France perhaps more than Ireland need something to cheer about, and we feel that a certain group of men in blue jerseys might just have the motivation and skill set to give it to them on Saturday night in Paris!

Bledisloe 3

Australia vs New Zealand – Saturday, October 31st – Sydney

Australia have to win this one – plain and simple. If they don’t then that’s it for the Bledisloe Cup for another year in the All Blacks favor, and also puts New Zealand well on the way to sweeping all before them in the Rugby Championship over the next six weeks. Australia take the bold move of blooding some very impressive but untested talent at this level, and you have to wonder if results this year are less important than the first tentative steps of building a new team and vision for the 2023 World Cup. While we’re sure that’s a large part of it, we don’t doubt for a moment, that a key priority of new Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie’s first year is a win over Australia’s biggest rivals.

New Zealand also bring some untried talent to the table, but much less so than Australia, and there are fewer changes to the side that so effectively dismantled Australia in the second half of Bledisloe 2. Hoskins Sotutu gets a start at number eight, in place of Ardie Savea who is on family leave this weekend, after having a game where he was back to his manic writhing best. Sotutu caught a lot of attention with the Auckland Blues in this years Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, and his debut for the All Blacks has been eagerly anticipated. Sam Whitelock returns to the second row, and his experience and work rate will be of enormous benefit ahead of a tough six weeks on the road. Jack Goodhue returned to his best a fortnight ago and expect more of the same now he has adjusted to his new hairstyle. We couldn’t say enough good things about winger Caleb Clarke’s debut in Bledisloe 2 and as impressive as Filipo Daugunu’s debut has been for the Wallabies he simply could not contain the All Blacks newest wrecking ball, causing him to probably need a stiff drink before bed this entire week.

For us this encounter’s most interesting aspect is a chance to really get a look at some of Australia’s emerging new talent under the most intense pressure. There has been a great deal of hype about fly half Noah Lolesio, scrum half Tate McDermott and Irae Simone at centre with all three being standout performers in this year’s Super Rugby AU. The trio get their chance to prove their worth on Saturday, with Lolesio and Simone in particular getting starting berths.

Australia’s biggest weakness still seems to be in terms of discipline and in Bledisloe 2 it continued to put them on the back foot. Back rower Ned Hanigan, despite our reservations about him in this department, did put in a solid performance at key moments in Bledisloe 2 but you have to temper that with the fact that for every positive thing he did he would follow it up with a costly mistake. One gentleman who continues to prove his worth for Australia in his first campaign in a Wallaby jersey is Harry Wilson at number eight. A genuine find for Australia and in the two matches we’ve seen him play in for the Wallabies he hasn’t put a foot wrong – a genuine talent that is destined to be one of the greats. Saturday’s match also sees the return of Dane Haylett-Petty who on a good day can be one of Australia’s most dynamic players, it’s just that he hasn’t had too many of those good days recently – here’s hoping Saturday sees him back to his best.

It’s an outstanding All Black lineup against a relatively unproven but talented Australian team. The pressure on Dave Rennie’s predominantly young charges will be massive on Saturday, and it may be just a bit too soon for them to be handle the pitfalls of such a big stage and at home to boot. New Zealand still know how to win, regardless of the change in management and as a group have tasted victory more often than defeat. The World Cup is no doubt a distant memory and a team that is still better at reinventing itself than any other will take some beating on Saturday in Sydney. Beaten they can be but probably not by a Wallaby side packing plenty of energy but still lacking the cohesion needed for the big occasions under pressure.

Enjoy what should be the kind of weekend that perhaps some of us thought would be the stuff of fantasy only this year. Our hearts go out to everyone in France this weekend as they face a gloomy autumn under lockdown – let’s hope that whatever the outcomes this Saturday, it’s one everyone will remember for a long time to come as time well spent!

In case you missed the two friendlies last week here are the highlights with the Ireland/Italy game highlights over on the TV/Internet listings page along with the Bledisloe story so far.

If you’ve caught your breath after one of the most memorable Heineken Cup Finals we can remember for a while, you’ll be pleased to know that the fun has just begun. The Bledisloe Cup is in full swing soon to be followed by the Rugby Championship, although no action there this weekend. However, for Six Nations fans there is a lot to be excited about this weekend. Italy and Ireland’s postponed Round 4 match finally takes place in Dublin, while in preparation for the Autumn Nations Cup and next weekend’s full round of final Six Nations matches, Scotland take on an always boisterous Georgia and France and Wales get to know each other again in Paris. If that’s not enough for you, the new European Kings Exeter Chiefs see if they can do the double in the English Premiership as well as some exciting PRO14 matchups.

For us though all eyes are on Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris this weekend as the groundwork gets laid for an exciting few weeks of Test Rugby ahead. Scotland field an exceptionally strong team against Georgia tomorrow, which is clearly intended to lay down a marker for their final Six Nations clash with Wales the following weekend. Meanwhile Ireland host Italy in Dublin with an equally strong lineup in preparation for what should be a titanic struggle with France the following Saturday. Lastly, a daunting looking Welsh side meet a rather capable looking French squad in Paris.

Lots to look forward to and lots to look back on from last weekend.

First up quick recap of last weekend’s excitement and then a look ahead to this weekend’s action.

Bledisloe 2

Australia after a promising start reverted back to form, and that form is definitely not positive. Sure they held their own in the first half, but once centre Matt Toomua left the field due to injury towards the end of the half, Australia rapidly started to lose composure and structure particularly in the key pivot between 10 and 12. Meanwhile New Zealand clearly started to shake off the cobwebs from their previous encounter and unleashed some terrifying new talent in the process – be afraid of Caleb Clarke (VERY AFRAID!!!).

Sadly though we were to be disappointed as we were hoping for an even contest. In the second half New Zealand reverted to type and came out of the blocks at breakneck speed. When the All Blacks score in the opening 2 minutes of a second half the writing is usually on the wall for the opposition and last Sunday in Auckland was no exception. Australia sadly reverted to their form of old under the Cheika era and started to panic. They proceeded to chuck the ball around wildly with little sense of purpose or control and their discipline went out the window. New Zealand went on a try scoring blitz for the first 13 minutes of the second half and effectively sealed the lid on an inevitable Wallaby defeat. The All Blacks dominated proceedings even though the final quarter of the match saw no further points for either side. There was a spirited if at times shambolic fightback from Australia, but New Zealand had rattled Australia so badly in the opening stanzas of the second half, that they could afford to take their foot off the pedal for the remainder of the match and simply shore up their defenses. The Wallabies made several hopeless charges over the top but the All Blacks were content to man their trenches and let the Australians run around to no avail in no-man’s land.

As depressingly familiar as Australia’s performance was last Sunday and as clinical as the All Blacks were in comparison, we’d still argue that there is life in this new Wallaby outfit under Coach Dave Rennie. The next two matches on home soil for Australia will need to be approached with caution by New Zealand. There is the potential for a great Wallaby side here if managed and coached properly, something they have lacked with any degree of consistency for the last ten years. New Zealand have set out their stall and despite some question marks about new Coach Ian Foster, he certainly delivered on the hallowed ground of Eden Park (if he hadn’t he might be out of a job right now). He is blessed with some extraordinary raw talent and some very wise heads to guide the ship – Sam Cane has effortlessly stepped into the shoes of the likes of Kieran Reid and Ritchie McCaw. The All Blacks proved last Sunday that any talk of New Zealand losing their edge is complete and utter nonsense, and when you’ve got a guy like this your argument is pretty convincing.

Heineken Cup Final

As mentioned above, we revelled in what was one of the best Heineken Cup finals we can remember in a long time on Saturday.

Exeter capped off a dream run of ten years and in the process showed us just what hard work and graft in our sport can still produce. Racing 92 probably had the worst opening 15 minutes of many a season – but what a comeback to keep the game balanced on a knife edge until the very last whistle. As finals rugby goes it’s going to be hard to beat!

However, all credit has to go to Exeter who showed us what a remarkable squad they have become. That final ten minutes which saw them reduced to fourteen men, was the stuff of legends. Racing proceeded to launch a constant assault on the Exeter defenses which required every player to put their body on the line to a man. It was heroic in no uncertain terms and had all of us on the edge of our seats for nine very long minutes. Their superhuman efforts were rewarded by them being able to work the ball back downfield at the death, and earn a penalty as an exhausted Racing side finally realized that there was just no way of containing a side that seemed to be a walking advertisement for Red Bull. The Frenchmen’s discipline slipped and calm as you may, Exeter slotted the penalty kick, we remembered how to breathe and another epic chapter in the Heineken Cup finals saga was written.

We wish Exeter all the best for their Premiership final exploits this weekend against Wasps and have a hunch they are going to make it the double. Our hearts go out to Racing who in their third Heineken Cup final were once again denied the ultimate prize. How different it could have been if that opening 15 minutes hadn’t been such a shambles for them and from scrum half Teddy Iribaren in particular. Although Finn Russell had a blinder of a game at times, even he committed some schoolboy mistakes which left us dumbfounded – one in particular that led to a superb intercept from Jack Nowell and a try for Exeter. Exeter had clearly done their homework on Russell’s wild card factor, and more often than not knew when he was likely to try something outrageous and were there to take advantage and pressure him into silly errors of judgement.

In short it was riveting stuff and in case you missed it, here it is in a nutshell.

Scotland vs Georgia – Friday, October 23rd – Edinburgh

Either Scotland is suffering from a depth crisis or Coach Gregor Townsend intends to make a statement with a bang in Scotland’s first return to action since COVID-19 brought things to a premature halt. We would have thought that he would have blooded some lesser known talent for this one and saved the really big guns for the Six Nations showdown with Wales next weekend. Instead he has decided to get match fit the team he clearly hopes will give the Men in Red something to think about in Llanelli next weekend. All things considered you can’t really argue with his logic.

As for Georgia, what you see is what you get, a seasoned brutal bunch of forwards, many of whom have last names that would qualify them as extras for the latest Godzilla film, with plenty of game time in France’s top league under their belts. Couple that to a group of mercurial backs who have been known to do remarkable things – ask any Canadian player who may not remember this guy so fondly, and it is safe to say that Georgia as the undisputed kings of Tier 2 European rugby are no pushover. Their exposure to the forthcoming Autumn Nations Cup is something that will do their squad development no end of good. Consequently they will be wanting to make their own statement on Friday and then some.

In short, we don’t know what to expect from this encounter, but interesting is certainly an adjective that comes to mind. We sadly don’t know enough about the current Georgian squad to offer any kind of informed opinion, but suffice to say they have been craving the big stage for a long time now and must be delighted as we are for them about the prospect of the next six weeks, and will put maximum effort into making it count.

As for Scotland, it’s a good squad plain and simple. The biggest talking point is obviously the return to the fold of fly half Finn Russell after the drama of he and Coach Gregor Townsend’s spat during the Six Nations earlier this year. Politics and emotions aside, Scotland know they have a remarkable talent in Russell. Put aside the poorly executed downright recklessness he is prone to at times, and as seen in the recent Heineken Cup final. However, revisit that match and behold some of his brazen audacity and ability to turn a game completely upside down for the opposition in the blink of an eye, and he suddenly becomes every Coach’s favorite problem child. In short, a genuine talent that simply needs to be further refined. Whether Townsend is the man to tame this wild child for the benefit of the Scottish jersey remains to be seen, but Scottish fans will be delighted to see him back in the mix, even if he starts on the bench tomorrow.

As for the rest of the Scottish lineup, there are so many Lineout favorites in there it’s just our fantasy league Scottish 15. In particular, expect that Scottish back row to be one of Georgia’s worst nightmares tomorrow. Hamish Watson is in our current world XV, and Jamie Ritchie and Matt Fagerson are such rapidly rising Scottish stars, expect them to be boarding a flight to South Africa next year with the Lions. It’s a solid and exceptionally workmanlike front five and linking them to the backs is a quick and talented half back pairing in Adam Hastings and Ali Price. South African Duhan van der Merwe gets his first Scottish jersey after impressing the selectors with his performances with Edinburgh. Shoring everything up at the back is Mr. Excitement on the wing Graham Darcy and the always reliable and pacy Blair Kinghorn. In short a formidable starting XV with plenty of X-factor on the bench. Scotland should ultimately win comfortably but if you’re interested in the Autumn Nations Cup then this foretaste is something you won’t want to miss.

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday, October 24th – Dublin

Like Scotland, Ireland field a powerhouse side to hopefully dispatch Italy with ease and come away with a healthy points haul to at least give them some breathing room to compete for a strong finish in the last round of the Six Nations – made more challenging by a trip to Paris next weekend. However, don’t ask us about the exclusion of John Cooney from Ireland’s plans. We are still scratching our heads about the Ulster scrum half’s omission from Ireland’s squad by Coach Andy Farrell. Cooney has been setting pitches alight in Europe, much more so than the increasingly pedestrian Conor Murray. Jamison Gibson-Park who although part of the Leinster power machine, has yet to impress in an Irish jersey and makes his debut Saturday at Cooney’s expense. However, in Farrell’s defence, he has included some very exciting youngsters such as the Leinster power trio of winger Hugo Keenan and back rowers Caelan Doris and Will Connors. We would argue that he has chosen to be a bit Leinster heavy, but in fairness you might as well keep a unit that works together.

Italy also bring a solid squad to Dublin, but we have to confess to being surprised at the omission of Zebre’s Frederico Ruzza from the back row, even if it was from the bench. Instead the Zebre man sees duty tomorrow against Leinster in the PRO14. We haven’t seen enough of Italy since the COVID-19 lockdown, so it’s hard to judge where they really are at. Despite Ruzza’s exclusion it’s an impressive Italian back row with the likes of Jake Polledri, Bram Steyn and Sebastian Negri – a unit not to be taken lightly. Italy’s backs, while not as flash or solid in defense as their Irish counterparts, can still lay on some flair when needed. In short, it’s not a bad Italian team, but one that ultimately Ireland should comfortably get the measure of.

A big question mark for us, is the shift of Jacob Stockdale from the wing to fullback in the absence of the injured Jordan Larmour for Ireland. We are just not convinced by Stockdale’s defensive capabilities whatsoever, add to that the fact that he seems to have taken his foot right off the pedal in terms of his try scoring ability and if we were in Andy Farrell’s shoes we’d be feeling more than a little concerned. Italy bring with them some potent strike threats that could easily throw an out of position Stockdale off his game.

Ireland need to come away with maximum points on Saturday in order to ensure a strong finish to this year’s Six Nations campaign, and go well above and beyond a mere bonus point. However, against Italy they have a bad habit of underestimating their opponents and coming away with the bare minimum – something which just won’t do on Saturday. They simply have to be targeting 50 points plus as their starting point, and we say that in no disrespect to Italy, and the Azurri are more than capable of spoiling Ireland’s designs in that respect. In last year’s campaign, Ireland had the same goal, but instead left Rome with a mere 26 points and at times were made to work especially hard for them as well as fluffing their lines on numerous occasions, which the Italians made sure they paid for and that was with the legendary Joe Schmidt in charge of the Men in Green.

Ireland should do well by a comfortable margin on Saturday, but often they have a bad habit of looking one game beyond them at the expense of what’s in front of them. Italy will surely be hoping that the Men in Green are assuming that Saturday’s encounter is a mere warmup for the big event in Paris a week later. If Ireland do so then Italy could ensure that it will be another Six Nations that the four proud provinces would rather consign to the dustbin of memories.

France vs Wales – Saturday, October 24th – Paris

I was lucky enough to watch the Six Nations clash between these two back in February on the French side of St.Martin in the Caribbean with an exceptionally enthusiastic group of French supporters. The thriller in Cardiff was well worth the price of admission, and Wales will be travelling to Paris with a score or two to settle. France hadn’t won in Cardiff since 2010, and the manner in which they did so in February proved that this is a French team once more on the rise and just in time for the World Cup they will be hosting in three years time. It was an even contest in February and expect more of the same. In case you missed it, here’s a quick refresher course.

The crowds may be absent but we doubt that it will detract from the intensity these two sides are likely to bring to this encounter. Of the two though France have more to lose, with the risk of injury potentially scuppering their front row grid race with England for Six Nations glory a week later. Consequently, France may hold a bit more back than Wales on Saturday, as a loss in this match is not exactly the end of the world, given that their eyes will be clearly on the main prize showdown with Ireland in Paris a week later.

Wales bring a team to Paris that can give France a world of hurt both physically and mentally. The only potential weak link we can see in Welsh armor could be their front row. Otherwise from 4-15 this is not a group of Welsh lads that you would want to meet in a dark alley in Swansea late on a Saturday night. Thor and Superman are represented in the second and back rows by Alun Wyn-Jones and Justin Tipuric respectively. In the backs it’s all pace, power and out and out reliability under pressure with Dan Biggar being the kind of number ten Wales have missed for so long. We thought that fullback Leigh Halfpenny is not quite at his best these days, and seemed to struggle against France last time out, so expect to see France’s Romain Ntamack make sure that the Welsh 15 is under constant pressure on Saturday. Wales have a handy bench, and perhaps with nothing at stake for the Welshmen in this one, it may give rapidly rising new talent, winger Louis Rees-Zammitt, a chance to translate the form that has turned heads at club level into a world class performance.

France, ever since Fabien Galthie took over as Coach, have finally started to look like those glorious French sides of the 90s and early 2000s – hardly surprising since he was one of the players that made those teams so special. French flair is finally back with a vengeance, and as an added bonus is often allied to a clearly defined plan of attack. French defense has continued to improve, and the addition of a certain Welshman by the name of Shaun Edwards has only reinforced it. Ally all of this to a halfback pairing that is barely off its training wheels in terms of age, but is already world class and then some. In short, France is veritably humming right now. If they can build on and carry this momentum all the way to 2023, then defeating them at their own World Cup is going to be problematic to say the least. France finally look like a team again, as opposed to an eclectic group of outlandishly talented but ultimately disorganized individuals.

However, we can’t help feeling that with a significant portion of French minds on next Saturday and potential Six Nations glory, they may not bring their A game to the Stade de France this Saturday. We don’t doubt they will entertain, but may be less focused on the win and more on avoiding injuries and refining structures for the big show with the Irish. Wales on the other hand will be under no such pressure, other than injuries possibly being at the back of their mind ahead of a challenging Autumn Nations Cup fixture list, and a considerably thinner depth pool in terms of talent than some of their counterparts.

If we were to have a bet on this one we’d give it to Wales, even with the Paris factor. France may miss the crowd, but Wales will no doubt be relieved that there aren’t 80,000 Frenchmen having something to say about their every move, allowing them a freedom and confidence they rarely get in the Paris cauldron. Either way make sure you catch the action as it will tell us all a great deal about what to expect about next weekend’s final round of the Six Nations.

Enjoy the weekend everyone, and here’s hoping for some stellar oval ball entertainment!

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.