Archive for the ‘Tier 2’ Category

After a disastrous 2018, only salvaged by Canada’s last-ditch stand to grab the final spot up for grabs in this year’s World Cup, it was with a sense of hope and optimism that we looked ahead to this year’s Americas Rugby Championship (ARC). Although there was slightly more to cheer about at times this year, Canada still couldn’t progress beyond a fifth place ranking once the dust had settled on the tournament for another year. Fifth last year and fifth again this year, with humiliating losses at home to Argentina and on the road to Uruguay, Brazil and the USA it was hard to see much progress for Canada from 2018. The 56-0 thumping of Chile brought some comfort, along with the fact that at least Canada ran the USA and Uruguay relatively close. But overall it was another cold start for Canada in the lower reaches of Tier 2, and not exactly the kind of confidence booster you want heading into the World Cup in less than six months time. So let’s have a look at how it panned out and what if anything we learnt from the whole process.

Uruguay vs Canada – Uruguay 20/Canada 17 – February 2nd – Montevideo

Remember how Canada seemed to take a commanding lead of games before the last World Cup and then somehow would inexplicably throw away a match in the final quarter? If you do then this match would have provided you with an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Plain and simple this is a match that Canada should have and could have won. To add insult to injury Uruguay played with only 14 men for three-quarters of the match.

Canada you felt had a grudge against Uruguay going into this match as it was the South Americans who robbed them of their first shot at World Cup qualification last year. With half of Canada’s squad now playing professionally either in North America with the newly formed Major League Rugby setup or in Europe, there was a genuine sense of optimism that the new infusion of professionalism would raise the standard of Canadian rugby.

Uruguay looked full of intent and were rewarded with a solid opening try, but then on the 16th minute a nasty tackle from Uruguayan scrum half Santiago Arata on Canadian winger Andrew Coe would see the South Americans a man down for the rest of the match. Canada would score three fine tries that showed some genuine enterprise on attack with the back three and centres looking particularly impressive. Jamie Mackenzie had a solid outing and the Toronto Arrows scrum half was rewarded with an excellent try for his efforts. Ciaran Hearn and Ben LeSage hooked up nicely at centre, though the latter’s yellow card in the last quarter of the match put a blemish on an otherwise positive showing. Andrew Coe and Kainoa Lloyd  put in some blistering pace out wide and expect to see big things from Toronto Arrows winger Lloyd in years to come, along with his fellow Arrows teammate Theo Sauder at fullback.

However, up front Canada for the most part looked clumsy and poorly organised and as the match wore on, discipline started to collapse and execution started to slip. Uruguay even with a man down set up a relentless physical assault on the Canadian defences in the final fifteen minutes and on the final whistle scored the try that would seal the win for the South Americans. Canada were left wondering how they let a match they appeared to be in control of slip away from them at the death. Still it was early days and overall it had been a positive showing for Canada and something to build on as they headed to Brazil.

Brazil vs Canada – Brazil 18/Canada 10 – February 9th – San Jose dos Campos

This in theory should have been a comfortable win for Canada after having summarily dismissed the Brazilians last year. However, apart from a superb opening ten minutes from Canada and Ciaran Hearn in particular as a last-minute change to fullback, Canada simply never looked like they were in this match. Whether it was the Brazilian heat and humidity and gruelling travelling that wore the Canadian players down is still up for debate, but it was a poor and lacklustre performance from Canada whichever way you cut it. Their discipline was atrocious as Brazil slotted six unanswered penalty goals. The Canadian defence was solid enough to prevent Brazil from crossing the whitewash but in so doing it gave away its fair share of penalties. In short there were no positives for Canada from this match, and it must have been a rather subdued flight home.

Canada vs Chile – Canada 56/Chile 0 – February 22nd – Langford

Canada’s first home game, gave them an emphatic victory over a courageous but completely outclassed Chilean outfit. Once again Canada’s wingers, Andrew Coe and Kainoa Lloyd had an absolute field day, with Lloyd scoring a hat trick. It was also a good day out for the forwards, and lock Kyle Baillie in particular had a superb outing and was rewarded with a fine try of his own. In short it was a performance all about Canada and one which they dominated from start to finish. However, there was no getting away from the fact that Chile were weak opponents, and thus it was hard to judge just what the 56-0 thumping really meant in terms of where Canada was really at.

Canada vs Argentina – Canada 23/Argentina 39 – March 1st – Langford

Argentina have always been a problem side for Canada in the tournament and this year would prove to be no exception. Argentina would ultimately emerge as undefeated champions in this year’s Championship so Canada were always going to be up against some serious opposition in this match. Argentina play a fast and brutally physical game and Canada’s inexperienced youngsters could not have asked for a better Test.

Despite the loss Canada for the most part acquitted themselves well against such quality opposition. Argentina came out of the blocks firing and, as they would throughout the match, exposed some of the defensive frailties of Canada’s back line. Argentina dominated the first half and Canada was clearly struggling to keep pace with them.

A halftime chat clearly did Canada some good and they struck back with a vengeance, and once again it was that man Kyle Baillie who led the charge through the forwards. The first quarter of the match was all about Canada and saw them play some of their best rugby of the tournament, with winger Andrew Coe following up Baillie’s try scoring efforts six minutes later. Thereafter though it was once more all about Argentina as their physical prowess came to the fore, leaving Canada exhausted and literally on their knees in the final quarter. Discipline started to slip and saw yet another costly yellow card against Canada with four minutes to go. By that point it was all over bar the shouting and Canada would end the contest 16 points behind, with Argentina hoisting the trophy after four rounds. There had been some positives in Canada’s performance, and to score 23 points against such a potent side is no mean achievement, but from a discipline and defensive point of view Canada just looked far too vulnerable.

USA vs Canada – USA 30/Canada 25 – March 8th – Seattle

In one of the Americas greatest rivalries, it is getting hard to remember the last time Canada beat the USA. However, the intensity of this fixture was there for all to see in this final match of Canada’s ARC campaign for 2019. It was a solid effort from Canada and one that should have got them the win as they had a slender lead at the seventy minute mark. Once more it simply wasn’t good enough as the USA put the chokehold on a clearly exhausted Canadian side in the final 10 minutes. Yet again Canada looked naive defensively when it mattered most.

In a game that saw plenty of ebb and flow and the lead changing hands several times, Canada put in one of their better performances. They got an early lead through the first try of the match and both sides would then engage in a tit for tat scoring fest for the rest of the game. It was a fast paced encounter with plenty of punishing physical contact which to Canada’s credit they handled well. However, perhaps one of the saddest moments of Canada’s whole 2019 ARC campaign was seeing lock Kyle Baillie sent off in the 76th minute with a yellow card for an unfortunate high tackle. Baillie had been one of Canada’s star performers all tournament, and to see such a quality player end the Championship in such circumstances seemed harsh medicine. However, once again Canada caved under pressure in the final ten minutes and it cost them – a trend which has become all too familiar in the last few years and something they seem no closer to fixing. Nevertheless it had been an exceptionally equal contest and Canada can feel pleased that they were able to hold the Americans so close for most of the game. The forwards did some outstanding work, perhaps best epitomised by newcomer number eight Luke Campbell who really caught our eye in this match.

So where to from here?

After eighteen months in charge Canada’s fortunes have sadly not improved under Coach Kingsley Jones, and if anything they have got worse. Nevertheless, we feel that despite the results this year’s ARC showed Canada in a slightly better light. They were competitive against the USA and Uruguay and fought hard against ultimate champions Argentina. There is a group of exciting and talented young backs who simply need to lose their defensive naivety, but with their increasing exposure to professional rugby at club level in the MLR and elsewhere this will come. The forward pack is impressive, but perhaps needs to lose some of the veteran stalwarts, while retaining a core group of younger experienced heads such as Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie to mentor the likes of promising youngsters like Luke Campbell. Canada have finally identified a scrum half with pace and vision in the shape of Jamie Mackenzie, but the fly half berth still remains a conundrum. Gordon McRorie has often been drafted in at fly half from his usual position of scrum half, but it has not worked well, and as regular readers know we don’t really favor his rather pedestrian and conservative playing style in either position. Canada’s front row also would appear to be a liability with no real sign of who might take up the mantle of veterans like Ray Barkwill and Hubert Buydens, although we thought prop Jordan Olsen showed some real promise in the USA match.

Canada now has only three games before the World Cup, and all of them take place away from home, as they face first the USA and then Fiji and Tonga. All three are very tough opponents who could also leave Canada with an injury list from hell as they head to Japan. Given that Canada’s depth is exceptionally limited, this must surely be a concern. Canada’s draw at the World Cup is the stuff of nightmares with both New Zealand and South Africa in their pool. Their first match against Italy is surely one they are targeting but then so will the Azurri as they know that their only real chances of victory in the World Cup are against Canada and Namibia. Consequently, Canada’s only real shot at World Cup glory is against Namibia, but sadly this will be Canada’s last match of the tournament and one can only hope that the injury gods will have been kind to them up to that stage.

It wasn’t a great ARC for Canada but we felt that as it wore on Canada got better to the point where there is some hope for the future. That future is unlikely to materialise at this year’s World Cup. However, come 2020 and beyond Canada is starting to look like they have the kind of talent that could help them claw their way out of the international rugby wilderness that they have found themselves in since the last World Cup. With the growth of the game at a professional level in North America now through Major League Rugby, we’d argue that the future looks a lot brighter than it did a year ago. Time will tell but we hold that the results will come even though we may not necessarily see them in Japan in September.







Whichever way you cut it – 2018 was a long and painful year for Canada and one which they will no doubt want to forget. It was salvaged at the death by a solid performance in the World Cup repechage tournament, which saw them snatch the last place up for grabs in this year’s global showdown in Japan. However, apart from that Canada’s track record in 2018 makes for depressing reading. 11 matches played, 6 lost and 5 won doesn’t seem so bad on paper but of the six they lost 2 were critical and almost lost Canada a place in the World Cup. A summer series saw Canada whitewashed, and the team appear rudderless in both shape and direction. They acquitted themselves well in their bid to secure a place in the World Cup in November in three matches played in France, but this was tempered by the fact that at one point this year Canada sank in the world rankings to 23. At the time of writing they still only sit at 20. This is a side that now finds itself sitting in a Pool with two of Test Rugby’s genuine contenders for World Cup glory this year – New Zealand and South Africa. The World Cup always seems to produce something special from Canada despite the odds, but there is no denying that after 2018, Canada and Coach Kingsley Jones have a phenomenal amount of work to get through in only nine months to make Canada genuinely competitive once more.

Canada – 4/10

Like we say it was hard to find positives this year for Canada, and we’re hoping that the spark we saw in November in France carries through into Canada’s opening games of a World Cup year, as they head into the Americas Rugby Championship in two weeks time.

Canada’s opening shots of 2018 in the Americas Rugby Championship however, did little to inspire confidence. Their first game of the year at home against Uruguay saw them at sixes and sevens as an exciting and powerful Uruguayan side ran rings around them. In the return fixture a week later in Uruguay, which also happened to be a World Cup qualifier, things appeared to be looking up as Canada ran Uruguay close and ultimately only lost by one point, but poor decision-making and discipline cost them a match they could and should have won. Their misery on the road continued as they were given a schooling by the USA. Returning home they managed to put Brazil to the sword, but then returning to South America were made to look like amateurs once more by Argentina. Pride was restored through beating Chile by a comfortable margin but they returned home at the end of the tournament having to settle for a mediocre fourth place on the table.

June saw Canada play a summer series of three home tests which Canada will want to forget. Being comprehensively thrashed by Scotland, Russia and the USA at home left the side completely demoralised, and Canadian fans with very little to cheer about. Furthermore Canada lost their second chance at World Cup qualification in the heavy defeat to the USA. Furthermore, to add insult to injury Canada’s place in the world rankings slipped to a desultory 23, the lowest it’s been in as long as we can remember. Canada simply looked bereft of ideas in all three matches coupled to a discipline problem that left you wondering if any of the players had ever seen a rule book. There were a few standout performances, but all too often it was left to the likes of players such as DTH van der Merwe to single-handedly pull Canada out of the fire. As good as such players are, without a team behind them it simply left with them with too much to do.

Consequently, it was with a sense of trepidation that Canadian supporters looked ahead to Canada’s last chance to qualify for this year’s World Cup in a repechage tournament to be held in France in November of 2018, between Kenya, Canada and Hong Kong. All games were played in Marseille and Canada was fortunate that, as the tournament fell into the official November Test window, it was able to bring in the services of its big guns who regularly ply their trade with major European club teams. As a result the likes of Taylor Paris, Tyler Ardron and DTH van der Merwe amongst a notable few were on hand.

Canada got proceedings under way with a convincing win over Kenya. Next up were Germany and despite the match being much closer Canada still walked away comfortable winners. Their final challenge saw them handle a spirited challenge from Hong Kong, but two superb tries from Van der Merwe helped Canada emerge the victors and thus secure their tickets to Japan and the World Cup. It was an uplifting performance from Canada but which also highlighted the critical importance of Canada’s European based players, without whom results seem rather few and far between. Furthermore, although Canada’s three opponents in the repechage were worthy challengers they are teams that in the past Canada would have dispatched with ease, and run in much larger scorelines. Canada find themselves arguably in one of the World Cup’s Pools of death. South Africa and New Zealand are simply out of reach while Canada has never beaten Italy. Their only Tier 2 opponent Namibia is a feisty opponent and Canada just emerged the victors in a tight tussle the last time these two countries met in 2014.

In short, Canada have their work cut out for them in 2019 in order to get things right for the World Cup. Ahead of them lies the opportunity to get some good mileage under their belt in the Americas Rugby Championship, with some real quality opposition in the shape of Argentina and the USA. The summer sees them travel to the US and then the Pacific Islands in this year’s edition of the Pacific Nations Cup, where they meet the Eagles, Fiji and Tonga. If they can get through this daunting challenge in good shape, then they will have had some solid preparation for both their target match in the World Cup against Namibia as well as hopefully a credible challenge to Italy.

There is some clear and obvious talent in Canadian rugby, both in terms of seasoned veterans and promising youngsters. While the coaching setup appears to have struggled, November showed that with the right mix of players things did seem to come together in that department. However, management of the sport as a whole in Canada and of the national team seems to be a disaster, as evidenced by the ongoing disputes with reimbursement for the sevens team, as well as very little effort at structuring the XV a side game in a way that makes Canada a Tier 2 force to be reckoned with as in years gone by.

2019 will be one of the most important years in Canadian rugby history. With the sport seemingly in free fall at a national level, continued failure this year is likely to kill off what remaining interest there is in the sport in Canada. As evidenced by the growth in popularity of sports such as rugby league, most notably the success of Toronto’s Wolfpack team, Rugby Canada really has to seize the opportunity provided by this World Cup with both hands. Should Canada fail to show up and catch the eye like they did at the last tournament in 2015, then it could well be the beginning of a very long and lonely period in the wilderness of the lower rungs of Tier 2 International Rugby for Canada. Despite the success in France last November, it would still appear that Canada will be up against it again this year. However, we reserve judgement till the results of the forthcoming Americas Rugby Championship are in. If Canada can at least finish in a strong second or third place in this tournament over the course of the next two months, then we like most supporters in this country will breathe a much-needed sigh of relief!

Player of the year – DTH Van Der Merwe

Every time he plays he seems to singlehandedly reverse the rot that has set into Canadian rugby. Blessed with some exceptional pace and skill, he is without doubt Canada’s finest player and one who consistently delivers results for a beleaguered national side – something he has been doing for quite some time now. At 32 this will probably be his last World Cup, but expect the veteran winger to sign off with a bang!

Player to watch in 2019 – Brock Staller

Blessed with a handy boot and an exceptional turn of speed when counterattacking from deep, the powerful utility back caught our eye every time he turned out for Canada this year. With his defence improving with each outing, we expect to see him play a very big part in Canada’s World Cup plans, and his reliability from the kicking tee help ensure that Canada makes a healthy return to being a solid Tier 2 opponent. If Canada can get their coaching structures right, Staller is a player who is likely to really come on song in 2019.

Match of the year – Canada vs Hong Kong – Marseille – November 24th – Canada 27/Hong Kong 10

Canada’s last game of the year finally gave us something to cheer about as they put in a solid performance to beat Hong Kong. It was a fitting end to a run of three straight victories in November and best of all ensured that after all the heartache of 2018, the last spot up for grabs at the World Cup belonged to Canada. The smiles on the players’ faces at the final whistle were a mixture of relief and happiness that a tough year was able to end so positively. From here it’s hopefully onwards and upwards for a team that in the past has been able to consistently punch way above its weight!

Next up – Argentina!

As we like to do once the year is done and dusted, we look back at a handful of Tier 2 countries who caught our eye this past year using our usual report card system. Furthermore, with the added frisson of a World Cup in prospect at the end of this year, we’ve chosen the four Tier 2 countries who are most likely to cause problems for the bigger teams in the Pool stages of this year’s global showdown in Japan. Our candidates for top troublemakers in the Pool stages of the World Cup this year are Japan, USA, Georgia and Fiji.

So without further ado, here are our four teams to watch.

Japan – 8/10

Japan only played five Tests in 2018, we’re not including their November match against a World XV, which for a country that is hosting the World Cup this year seemed slightly amiss. However, in all five outings Japan acquitted themselves well and left us in no doubt that at home and in front of an ecstatic crowd they will need to be taken very seriously indeed by their pool rivals in this year’s global showdown in the Brave Blossoms own backyard. Expect Ireland and Scotland as pool favourites to field their strongest sides against Japan to avoid a potentially embarrassing hiccough on their way to the knockout stages – all and sundry being painfully aware of South Africa’s wake up call at the last World Cup courtesy of the Japanese.

Japan got their 2018 campaign underway in a Two Test home series against Italy. The first match saw them comprehensively dispatch a strong Italian effort in the final quarter, with fly half Yu Tamura putting in some exquisite place kicking which showed just how dangerous Japan can be on attack and in space. The second fixture a week later saw Italy just manage to settle the score, as they got the better of another spirited Japanese challenge. Japan scored two brilliant tries in quick succession in the final quarter to get themselves right back in the match and set up a thrilling finale. Japan’s discipline let them down at times in the match which ultimately cost them. However, what both Tests showed is that Japan are perhaps at their strongest and most dangerous in the final quarter. As a result their pool opponents this year in the World Cup will need their wits about them for the full eighty minutes, as any lapses in concentration could prove fatal against a team that is able to produce some spectacular attacking rugby.

Next up for Japan was their final Test of the June series against fellow Tier Two heavyweights Georgia. Once more it was a sublime second half performance which saw Japan leave Georgia in their dust, as the brave Blossoms ran in three superb tries and totally eclipsed their visitors at the final whistle by 28-0.

Japan’s next encounter was a tall order as they played host to the world’s number 1 side New Zealand. While it may not have been a full strength All Black side it was still a signficant achievement for Japan to run in five tries against the world’s best.

Next it was off to England for November and a match at Twickenham. Japan may have ultimately come short against England, and sadly were unable to replicate their second half prowess of earlier in the year, but their dominance of England in the first half and their resulting well-earned lead at half time, went to show what a threat Japan will pose this year at the World Cup. Japan managed to hold onto that lead until just short of the final quarter, but there is no doubt they had one of Rugby’s superpowers on the ropes for a good hour. Furthermore to achieve that kind of dominance on the road can only make you wonder what they will be able to do at home come the World Cup. However, Japan will need to find that final quarter big match temperament, as there is no denying that once England clicked into gear in the final twenty minutes they ran away with the match and Japan was clearly bereft of ideas in response.

Japan’s last match of the year was an entertaining romp against fellow World Cup Pool A rivals Russia in Gloucester. It was a tight affair in the first half but there is no denying that Japan rediscovered their second half form and ran in three tries to Russia’s one, sealing the match and providing a fitting end to a remarkable year for Japanese rugby, and one which will surely put them in great shape as hosts of this year’s World Cup. Ireland, and Scotland in particular, will need to be wary of the Brave Blossoms. Ireland have the fortune of dealing with the Japanese threat after their opening game against Scotland. The Scots however, have to wait till the end of the pool stages and their final match before they are able to confront Japan. If injuries have not been kind to Scotland in the pool stages, Japan are in with a definite chance of reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time in their history. Will fortune favor the Brave Blossoms? We can’t wait to find out!

Player of the year – Michael Leitch

Japan’s Captain extraordinaire was the stuff of legends in 2018. Constantly in the thick of the action and leading by example, Leitch put in some massive and inspirational performances for his team this year. As an example of a Captain who leads from the front there are few better examples than Michael Leitch. His efforts in the England game alone were enough to make him one of the standout players of 2018. He is clearly a talisman for his team, and provided he can steer clear of injury between now and that all important fixture with Scotland, he could well make history for his adopted country in 2019.

Player to watch in 2019 – Rikiya Matsuda

At 24 years of age and only a handful of caps to his name, Matsuda is one of Japan’s rapidly rising stars of the future. A master of the line break, his scintillating club form is likely to explode onto the international stage this year, especially in front of his home crowd at this year’s World Cup. One of those players who is absolutely lethal in any kind of space, as well as possessing a handy boot when it comes time for goal kicking duties, Matsuda is more than likely to get some headline space this year in the Brave Blossoms jersey.

Match of the year – England vs Japan – Twickenham – November 17th – England 35/Japan 15

The thriller at Twickenham really exemplified just how far Japan have come and how much of a threat they are likely to be on home soil come the World Cup. Despite the ultimate loss, it was without doubt the highlight of Japan’s 2018 season as their dominance of  England in the first half and their well-earned lead at the break made all of us sit up and take notice. The fact that Japan were well in the match until the final twenty minutes, will no doubt set alarm bells ringing in the Irish and Scottish camps as they are clearly the two heavyweights’ most dangerous opponent in Pool A should they let their concentration slip. Japan are only going to get better, and at home the miracle against South Africa we saw in the last World Cup is even more of a possibility should Ireland or Scotland not take them seriously.

USA – 9/10

11 games played in 2018, we’re not counting the game against the Maori All Blacks, and only one lost. Whichever way you cut it, that’s a pretty impressive record and one which continues to reinforce the belief that Rugby in the US is clearly developing some unstoppable momentum. The tight win against Scotland was clearly the highpoint of the year for the USA, and although the Scottish team had more of an experimental feel to it, it was still boasting some of the world’s best as a certain Stuart Hogg was wearing the number 15 jersey. Furthermore many of those same Scottish players are causing havoc at club level in Europe this year. The bottom line is that the USA can be competitive and although their final game of the year against Ireland may have been a bridge too far, there is no doubt that their heavyweight Pool C opponents in this year’s World Cup, England, France and Argentina will not be taking the threat they pose lightly.

The USA started their 2018 campaign in fine form as they recorded a clean sweep of the Americas Rugby Championship and were crowned champions for the second time in a row. In a feisty opener with Argentina, the USA were ultimately the better side. From here the Eagles simply got better and better as they summarily dispatched Canada, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay.

June saw the USA host Russia in a completely one-sided contest as the Eagles ran in 9 tries to the Russians one. Next up was the USA’s historic win over Scotland and their first ever win over a Tier 1 nation. Scotland fought them to the very last whistle as evidenced by the scoreline standing at 30-29 in favor of the Americans. The USA kept their composure in a very physical and tense contest and showed the kind of big match temperament they will need this autumn in Japan. Their final match of the month saw them demolish their age-old rivals Canada, and send the Canadians on their way to a repechage tournament for the last spot up for grabs in this year’s World Cup with the USA taking the much coveted Americas 1 spot.

A European tour in November continued to build on the Eagles remarkable run of form in 2018. This was put to the test initially against Samoa, which saw the Americans just edge out the Pacific Islanders by one point in a scoreline which was a mirror image of the Scottish Test earlier in the year. They then proceeded to dispatch Romania with ease before ending their year in Dublin. Sadly for the Americans this was perhaps a sobering way to end an otherwise remarkable year, as they were given a rather rude schooling by the Irish. The Men in Green ran in 8 tries to the Americans two, and sadly the USA never really looked in contention. Ireland ran proceedings from start to finish and the Eagles will know that they will need to step it up several gears, especially defensively, if they are to stand any chance against the strike threats that their Pool opponents England, France and Argentina have at their disposal.

While it has been a remarkable year for the USA, the Irish Test proved that there is still plenty of work for Coach Gary Gold to do to get the Eagles to the point where they can cause upsets on a regular basis. Their World Cup Pool is challenging to say the least, with Argentina starting to peak at just the right time, while England are on the rebound and France are once again the dark horse they invariably tend to be at World Cup time. If the USA were to finish third in such a group then it would be a notable achievement and help to consolidate and build on the growing interest in the game in the US. While we can’t help feeling that a place in the knockout stages is beyond their reach this year, we expect them to make life exceptionally difficult for their opponents in some highly entertaining matches. When the USA is playing in Japan at the end of the year you’re probably not going to want to miss it.

Player of the year – Cameron Dolan

The big number eight was at the centre of everything the USA did well this year, and in the game against Scotland in particular he put in a massive shift.  Highly mobile and very effective in the loose Dolan is exactly the kind of workhorse and solid back row platform teams need at this level. A reliable and consistent player that the USA will be expecting big things from come the World Cup.

Player to watch in 2019 – Will Hooley

Although the fly half until recently, has had to live in the shadow of AJ MacGinty, he is rapidly becoming an exceptional understudy and lends some real depth to the USA’s stocks at fly half. He is likely to get much more game time in the runup to the World Cup and expect to see him featuring heavily in the USA’s forthcoming Americas Rugby Championship as the Eagles look for a third consecutive title, and a fitting start to a World Cup year.

Match of the year – USA vs Scoltand – Houston – June 16th – USA 30/Scotland 29

Definitely the highlight of the year for a remarkable USA effort. Pushed to the absolute limits by the Scots, the Eagles managed to hang on and claim an historic victory. It’s precisely this kind of grit and determination that they will need against three exceptionally challenging opponents in this year’s World Cup. This is definitely a team on the up and up and the prospect of a big upset at this year’s World Cup is definitely not beyond the realm of possibility for Coach Gary Gold and his Eagles.

Georgia – 7/10

Georgia’s campaign started well with a comprehensive showing in the Rugby Europe Championship. With a solid Grand Slam under their belt they remained undefeated, and were clearly in a league of their own. All of which served to solidify their claim for a shot at inclusion in Europe’s premier tournament the Six Nations. While the debate continues, there is no denying that Georgia’s progress has been commendable, though whether they are ready for inclusion at this stage is likely to remain in doubt until they can beat Italy on a regular basis. However, of one thing we can be certain, while Georgia may still possess a forwards heavy game, there is no denying that they now have a much more balanced game with some equally talented players in the backs.

Next up for Georgia was a trip to the Pacific Islands in June, for a modified version of the annual Pacific Nations Cup, with Georgia being the only participant not from the Islands. Playing in the heat of the Islands is always a challenge and Georgia clearly struggled to find their feet at times. They were able to put up a credible showing against Tonga, and squeaked out a narrow win, but were outclassed by Fiji’s dazzling set of skills across the park. Considering that Fiji are their leading Tier 2 opponents in their World Cup pool this year, they will need to address the deficiencies shown against the Fijians quickly despite enjoying a half time lead over the Islanders. Georgia then travelled to Japan for a match against this year’s World Cup hosts. This was clearly a bridge too far and a match Georgia will most likely want to forget in a hurry as they lost by a score of 28-0. Georgia suffered from a lack of discipline and seemed to have no answers to Japan’s fast paced brand of attacking rugby.

Georgia’s biggest game of the year was without a doubt their November Test against Italy. A big performance here was vital if the calls for Georgia to be included in the tournament, possibly at Italy’s expense, were to be taken seriously. Consequently Georgia made the trip to Italy knowing that the stakes were high. It was an entertaining match from both sides, who were clearly aware of the what was on the line in terms of bragging rights. Both teams played well, but ultimately Italy showed they had the better big game temperament, and in the final ten minutes slowly got a stranglehold on proceedings. However, it was a close tussle for much of the match, and if these two sides were to play each other regularly few would doubt that Georgia could soon be getting the better of their Italian rivals.

Their final two matches of the year saw them take on Samoa and Tonga at home. The fervor with which rugby is supported in Georgia was clearly on display and the home team pulled out all the stops in two brilliant displays. They first dispatched Samoa and then put Tonga to the sword in a much more convincing performance than that displayed in their narrow win over the Islanders earlier in the year in the Pacific Nations Cup.

While clearly continuing to build and with a much more rounded team on display this year, Georgia still have plenty of work to do if they are to be one of the favorite underdogs of this year’s World Cup. Their discipline in the heat of the moment continues to trip them up, and the interchange between their bruising forward pack and their backs is still a work in progress. However, improvement continues and with another strong performance likely in the Europe Rugby Championship this year and some exciting warm up games against Scotland prior to the World Cup, we still hold that they could end up being one of the surprise packages of the tournament. Either way, when Georgia plays you probably don’t want to miss it once the World Cup gets underway.

Player of the year – Otar Giorgadze

The big number eight is one of Georgia’s most industrious players and a proven ball carrier who can make the most of the physical exchanges. With some solid experience in France which continues this year at club level, expect Giorgadze to be causing all kinds of problems come the World Cup.

Player to watch in 2019 – Zurab Dzneladze

We really liked seeing the left winger in action this year for Georgia. While not exactly a spring chicken at 27, he seems to have really come into his own this year in the national jersey and exemplifies the new look backs that Georgia are starting to develop. With a good strike rate with ball in hand and some solid defence, this player exemplifies the new versatility that Georgia are seeking in their backs. Definitely one to watch in 2019.

Match of the year – Georgia vs Tonga – Tbilisi – November 24th – Georgia 20/Tonga 9

A match where Georgia got the better of Tonga by a healthy margin, after running them so close in the Pacific Nations Cup, was a fitting end to another solid year of progress for Georgia. Add to that the phenomenal atmosphere clearly on display for home matches in Tbilisi and this had all the hallmarks of a classic Test match, with Georgia putting in a dominant display.

Fiji – 8/10

It has been quite the year for Fiji with the win over France being the crowning achievement. Fiji have shown in the last five years that they have finally made the transition from a pure running game that, although showing off some dazzling skills,usually fell apart against teams with dominant forward packs, to a much more holistic approach. Fiji now have some devastating forwards who possess the handling skills of their sevens stars but also are increasingly more proficient at the nuances of the modern game up front. In short, expect Fiji to be one of the biggest smoking guns come the World Cup for their pool opponents Australia and Wales.

Fiji got their year off to a flying start by beating both Samoa and Georgia in the Pacific Nations Cup. However, their discipline in the Samoan game was poor and it almost cost them the match. Nevertheless they were able to make a comprehensive statement against World Cup Pool D rivals Georgia by beating them by a healthy margin of 37-15. In the final match of the tournament, their discipline let them down once more costing them the game against Tonga. While they still managed to win the tournament, they know their discipline will need to be better by the time they head to Japan.

Fiji finished 2018 with a three Test tour to Europe where they took on Scotland, France and their other Tier 2 Pool D opponents Uruguay. In their opening match against Scotland their discipline was once more their Achilles Heel despite running in two very impressive tries. However, they completely eclipsed Uruguay, running in a 68-7 scoreline. Their last game of the year was their finest as they took on France at the famous Stade de France in Paris. It was a consummate performance from Fiji which ticked all the boxes. A watertight defence, solid discipline and some exceptional handling skills as their backs and forwards interlaced almost effortlessly, ensured that Fiji ran the match from start to finish. It was a textbook effort and one which has clearly fired a warning shot that Australia and Wales will need to heed carefully as they look to play Fiji in Japan this year at the World Cup. If Fiji play like they did in France, then they are more than capable of securing a place in the knockout stages. Whichever way you cut it, we imagine that this is one team that neutral supporters will be watching with great enthusiasm this year in Japan – we know we will!

Player of the year – Peceli Yato

The blindside flanker who plies his trade at club level with French giants Clermont Auvergne, is a force of nature and someone who most defences will be ensuring they work hard at containing come the World Cup. Fast, powerful and possessing some extraordinary handling skills for a big forward, Yato is the complete package and exemplifies the kind of new generation of forwards who are making such a mark for Fiji.

Player to watch in 2019 – Semi Radrada

This extraordinary centre has been making headlines since he made his Test debut for Fiji in 2018. Blindingly quick and almost impossible to bring down, this try seeking missile is set to light the World Cup on fire this year in Japan. If he is in the starting lineup for Fiji you won’t to miss it!

Match of the year – France vs Fiji – Paris – November 24th – France 14/Fiji 21

Controlled, focused and with some breathtaking skills on display, this was one of the highlights of the year Test wise – full stop. Fiji never took their foot off the gas from the opening whistle and it was a spectacular demonstration of running rugby coupled to some resolute defence. Rugby World Cup 2019 – you have been warned!!!


Next up we’ll be looking at a turbulent 2018 for Canada, but which still managed to end with them grabbing the last slot up for grabs at this year’s World Cup. After that we’ll be putting out our 2018 report cards on Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and then into the Six Nations! Watch this space!