We’re pretty sure that most neutrals had this match as the dream end to this year’s Super Rugby competition. It’s been a long hard road for the Jaguares since their entry into the competition in 2016, but four years on they thoroughly deserve their shot at glory this weekend. For the Crusaders it’s business as usual as they seek to become champions for a third consecutive year. While the New Zealanders have essentially been the form team in the tournament for as long as most of us can remember, the Jaguares rise to prominence in the short space of four years has been the kind of success story that Super Rugby needed, and a marvelous advertisement for the value of a competition that has lost some of its sheen and appeal in recent years.

The Crusaders are the well seasoned establishment of the competition, while the Jaguares are the plucky upstart and clearly relish the role of the underdog. They have got better and better as the season progressed, and come into this match on an unbeaten streak of seven matches, three of which were on the road, including a victory in Wellington over the Crusaders semi-final opponents last week the Hurricanes. Ironically the Crusaders come into the match with a slightly less impressive winning streak, having only won three games on the trot recently. However, all of those last three games were in Christchurch, and despite that of 18 games played they have only lost two. On paper these teams do look remarkably even in terms of their campaigns this year, and the Jaguares seem to be able to travel well. Nevertheless perhaps the most telling statistic of all is that the Crusaders have not lost at home this season, and as a result it is the Jaguares who have everything to prove on Saturday if they are to break down a side that is more than just a little comfortable on their own turf.

Whatever happens on Saturday, we think we can safely say that a highly entertaining contest is on the cards for both Jaguares and Crusaders supporters and neutrals alike. We for one can’t wait and here’s what got us chewing the fat about this match over a few pints this week.

Crusaders vs Jaguares – Saturday, July 6th – Christchurch

There is no denying that the Jaguares have been the feel good factor of this year’s Super Rugby competition, and have injected some much needed variety and excitement into a tournament that has seemed to lose its way in the last few years. The rows and rows of empty seats in the grounds of many of the big teams has been juxtaposed against healthy and highly vocal crowds in Buenos Aires. For neutrals in the competition the Jaguares have become firm favorites. While some Australian commentators seem to feel aggrieved about the fact that you could mirror a Pumas starting XV from a Jaguares one, that simply can’t be helped given the small player base in Argentina and the fact there is only one Argentinian team in the competition. What they have given us is some truly brilliant attacking rugby and a style all of their own, which has become remarkably successful. In doing so they have also unearthed some young talent that will serve the national cause exceptionally well in the coming months.

The Crusaders on the other hand need no introduction whatsoever, having one the tournament nine times, more than any other team. Back to back champions since 2017, they will be exceptionally hard to beat on their home ground. In addition they too boast a host of All Black internationals. Well coached and well drilled they are the masters of their craft and it will take a rather extraordinary team to break them down. Are the Jaguares that side? We’re not sure but of any of the teams we’ve seen this year, they perhaps are the one that the Crusaders might find hardest to predict, especially as this will be the first time the two sides meet this year.

Where’s the beef?

Argentinian sides have always been renown for their scrummaging ability, but in an otherwise emphatic performance over the Brumbies last week, the Jaguares often struggled at scrum time. The Crusaders on the other hand had no such issues, and their front row alone oozes quality and ability, especially as it is for all intents and purposes and All Black front row. Even with the talismanic Agustin Creevy packing down at Hooker, this is one area where the Jaguares just haven’t looked convincing. The Crusaders will be fully aware of this and will look to make their tag as favorites in this area of the game work to their full advantage. If they get the upper hand and really start pushing the Jaguares around, then frustration and ill discipline is likely to get the better of the South Americans, and with fly half Richie Mo’unga not missing with the boot they could pay dearly for it. Therefore we have a hunch that the Jaguares will be trying to play with as little reliance on the scrum as possible, and ensure that their handling skills don’t give away costly knock ons. Fortunately the weather gods are predicting a dry day and clear skies in the evening, so fortune favors the Jaguares in that respect.

One area where the Jagaures will really look to rain on the Crusaders parade is the lineout

While they may struggle at scrum time, the Argentinians are likely to cause the Crusaders all kinds of problems here on Saturday. Jaguares second rower Guido Petti has been an absolute menace all tournament, having won 122 lineouts this season, which is more than the Crusaders Sam Whitelock and Mitchell Dunshea put together. As a result while the Jaguares may try and avoid the scrum, we imagine that the Crusaders will be cautious about kicking to touch, even for penalties, as the Jaguares defensive lineout abilities with Petti in the mix are second to none. Throw Tomas Lavanini into the mix as well for the Jaguares, and that is a potent unit that the Crusaders are really going to have to manage and hope that Hooker Codie Taylor is clinical in his lineout throwing accuracy, even though it is unlikely to stop Petti having a say.

The battle of the back rows is the Jaguares to lose

When the Crusaders have the likes of All Black Captain Keiran Reid and Matt Todd in their back row, you are justified in thinking why we could even make such a statement in the first place. However, when you look at that Jaguares back row it is fast, mobile and highly destructive. Captain and flanker Pablo Matera has been off the charts this year and has become the new talisman for his team that Agustin Creevy once was. Seemingly indestructible, expect the Jaguares back rower to be a constant thorn in the Crusaders defensive arrangements. As regular readers of this blog know, we rate Matera’s partner in crime Marcos Kremer as one of the best in the world of up and coming back row internationals. With Javier Ortega Desio completing the picture, the Jaguares have a devastating strike weapon here which will take its toll on the Crusaders if they are constantly having to keep these three in check. With a bench boasting veteran Manuel Leguizamon and powerful youngster Tomas Lezana, the Crusaders Keiran Read and Matt Todd will have to draw on every last drop of their combined wealth of experience to keep the Crusaders on a level footing in this part of the park.

There are two things the Jaguares should be afraid of – very afraid!

What we saw last weekend in the Crusaders/Hurricanes semi-final convinced us that fly half Richie Mo’unga and winger Sevu Reece are going to be making a lot of headlines in Japan in a few months. Put the two together on a rugby pitch and any opposition side could suddenly get tunnel vision. Mo’unga is a live wire with an extraordinary eye for opportunity and the accuracy in his kicking and passing abilities that make them stick. He knows what winger Reece can do and how to put him in space. The Jaguares may be so busy just trying to figure out what these two are doing, that they could very easily end up at sixes and sevens defensively. If too much focus is placed on trying to contain these two Crusaders X-factors then far too many gaps will open up in the Jaguares back line defences, which the likes of centre Jack Goodhue, Reece’s partner George Bridge and fullback David Havili will ruthlessly exploit. How this gets managed by the Jaguares on Saturday will be key, and if not done properly will make the South Americans’ phenomenal attacking prowess null and void.

We all know what the Jaguares backs can do – but will the Crusaders allow them the space to do it?

Here lies the rub, players like Reece and Mo’unga need space to operate in but too much space also allows the Jaguares back three opportunists to counterattack from any part of the park if the execution isn’t spot on. The Jaguares have five backs who have shown time and again that they can create something out of nothing. The Crusaders have traditionally relied on the calm head and experience of veteran centre Ryan Crotty and the electric youngster Jack Goodhue to keep things tidy in the centre of the park. However, with Crotty out injured, it will be the raw power and youth of Goodhue and the impressive Braydon Enor having to keep an experienced Jaguares and Pumas centre partnership of Matias Orlando and Jeronimo De La Fuente in check. Given the unpredictability of the Jagaures backs in open play, we imagine that the Crusaders will keep it much tighter than perhaps their own backs are used to playing. With fullback David Havili safe at the back for them and also able to run and kick it from deep, expect to see Reece and his fellow Crusaders winger George Bridge have a slightly quieter game than they are used to, and a lot more of the ball played up the middle of the field and through the forwards as opposed to out wide.

Verdict

We are really looking forward to this contest as we imagine are most neutrals, with England and France also probably taking a keen interest in Saturday’s match given that they will be up against most of the Jaguares when they meet Argentina in Japan in a few months time. The weather should favor a fast running game, but given what is at stake it remains to be seen if either team favors such a strategy. The Crusaders are likely to keep it close and slowly wear down a potentially travel fatigued Jaguares side. That’s what we think is likely to happen, although in terms of a spectacle that we know both these teams can put on display, we hope it doesn’t. The next time a lot of these players meet it will be back in Buenos Aires in a fortnight for the opening game of the Rugby Championship between Argentina and New Zealand. So with that being said and given what’s on the line, form and home advantage clearly favor the Crusaders. It would probably be too much of a fairy tale ending for the Jaguares dream season to end with the silverware, so we’re handing it after much heated debate to Super Rugby’s seasoned finalists the Crusaders by 10 points as they seek to tire out the visitors in the final quarter.

Having said that, should the Jaguares make history on Saturday, then we unashamedly admit that we’ll be raising the roof. We have enormous respect for the Crusaders and their proud legacy in the tournament, but there is no denying that a Jaguares win on Saturday would be great for Super Rugby as a whole, the game and add a fine element of spice to the build up to the World Cup. Also it would be nice to see the Jaguares Coach Gonzalo Quesada have something to celebrate after a long season stuck in his lonely coaching box. We have to confess to feeling a bit sorry for him all on his lonesome up there this season, when all the other teams have a coaching staff of at least three, but all the more credit to him pulling off such a memorable season with such limited resources. So in short all the very best of luck to two superb sides and their supporters and give us a game to remember!

 

 

 

 

With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted apart from the French Top 14 final this weekend, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten. As the six teams take a much needed break before the August warm ups in preparation for September’s World Cup in Japan, the 2018/19 season has been a pivotal one for all six teams involved.

We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the World Cup. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams, and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season, as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in Japan three months from now. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in part 1 where we take a look at how Italy fared.

Italy – 6/10

Italy got their season off to a difficult start as they made their way across the Atlantic for an exhibition game against Ireland at the beginning of November. The game was played in Chicago’s iconic Soldier Field and which in many ways has become Ireland’s home away from home, after their historic win there over New Zealand’s All Blacks in 2017. Italy were able to hold their own in a scrappy first half, but which saw Ireland ahead by only 14-7. However, in the second half the floodgates opened as a disorganized Italian defense struggled to contain a rampant Irish side who would run in 6 unanswered tries. Ireland would end the match as comfortable winners 54-7, and Italy would return home with a less than auspicious start to their season.

A week later however, Italy regrouped and were able to put together a performance that was able to silence the critics that have increasingly called for their relegation from the Six Nations in favor of Georgia. Georgia traveled to Florence and ensured that it was a highly entertaining match, but Italy would ultimately prevail but were made to sweat right to the end. Both sides had everything to prove, Italy would kick themselves for some poor discipline at times which allowed Georgia to constantly keep in touch with two fine tries. However, Georgia would let their concentration slip with five minutes to go and Italy ensured that they were able to hang onto possession and close out the match.

Next up Italy would take on an Australian side that was under performing almost as dramatically as they were, and as a result some felt this could be Italy’s chance to cause an upset and build on the momentum of their win over Georgia. Once again, as in the contest with Ireland at the beginning of the month, the first half was a closely fought affair, but Australia were still able to run in two unanswered tries and take a 14-0 lead into the break as in the final ten minutes of the half, Italy’s defence once again proved porous. The Wallabies would continue to build on this out of the gates in the second half with yet another try, but Italy were able to strike back with a fine try of their own. Australia’s discipline began to slip as Scott Sio was the recipient of a yellow card, but Italy were unable to capitalize on their man advantage. Australia’s defence held firm against some opportunistic but ultimately poorly executed Italian attacks and ultimately the visitors would once more get control of the match and seal it with their fourth try at the death. After such promise only a week earlier, Italy would limp off the field suffering an agonizing 26-7 loss.

A clearly demoralized Italian side then had the singular misfortune of having to face an angry and wounded New Zealand, after the All Blacks’ historic loss to Ireland the week before. The All Blacks fury knew no bounds and Italy were sadly lambs to the slaughter and never really looked like they were in the match from the get go, as New Zealand ran out an emphatic 66-3 victory.

Italy would take a much needed break to lick their wounds, but in the interim would take heart from club side Benetton Treviso’s healthy exploits in the PRO 14 league and the European Challenge Cup.

The Six Nations promised a fresh start, and their opener in Edinburgh against Scotland did not disappoint, even if Italy were to ultimately walk away on the wrong side of the scoreline. Italy were under the hammer for much of the match, but a yellow card picked up by the hosts with just over ten minutes to go would transform the Azurri. In one of the best passages of play we’ve seen from an Italian side in a long time, Italy would run in three tries in the space of ten minutes. It showed what Italy can do if they put their minds to it, and what’s more do it at the end of a game, instead of doing as they usually do, and fade away by the final quarter. Still it was all too little too late and Scotland would ultimately come away with a bonus point 33-20 win.

Italy’s next opponents were ultimate Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales in Rome. It was not exactly a spectacle that most of us will choose to remember. Wales did enough but didn’t really impress in the process and Italy were just badly organised and scrappy. However, it was starting to ring alarm bells as Italy registered their 4th straight loss in a row 26-15.

Italy would then take on an Irish side who would look distinctly average in Rome. Italy took the fight to Ireland and looked the part, frustrating their Celtic visitors beyond belief. Italy made Ireland work exceptionally hard and the sight of a clearly rattled and out of sorts Johnny Sexton leaving the field summed up just how effective Italy had been at getting under Ireland’s skin. Ireland would ultimately come out on top and take the match 26-16 but courtesy of constant Italian pressure, it was one of the worst Irish performances we saw all year and sweet revenge for Italy after their 54 point thumping by Ireland just a few months earlier in Chicago.

A difficult trip to Twickenham was next on the agenda, and once more Italy appeared to have little if anything to add to a very one-sided contest. A porous Italian defense would see England run in 8 tries to Italy’s two, and yet another thumping was dished out to an Italian side that by now most had written off, as England ran away the winners 57-14.

Italy’s last match of a depressing season overall, given the fact that with the upcoming World Cup there would be no June tour, would be against France back in Rome. France were also suffering from poor form and many felt this would be Italy’s last shot at redemption ahead of preparations for the World Cup. Italy would at times play some sparkling attacking rugby, but ultimately just fall short of finishing off some excellent opportunities. There were times in the match were the margins would close up and you felt it could go either way, with Italian scrum half Tito Tebaldi continuing to be one of Italy’s genuine play makers. However, France somehow managed to regroup and even under pressure with a man in the sin bin, it would be les Bleus who would have the final say through a brilliant Damian Penaud try in a match that Italy should have won. Italy would once again have to settle for yet another loss and a Six Nations wooden spoon.

In short, not a good year for Italy. One victory from nine attempts simply doesn’t look good. Once more given the fact that they didn’t exactly put Georgia to the sword, the call for a relegation system in the Six Nations raised its head once more. However, let’s put it in perspective for a moment. What Italy did show off this year was some very promising young talent that is making a name for itself on the club scene in Europe. At times this year they looked genuinely exciting on attack and they are able to defend when they get their structures right. Yes Italy are still the work in progress that everyone has been saying they are since their inclusion in the Six Nations in 2000, but we felt a lot more optimistic about them after this year.

They have a World Cup pool that will sadly do them no favors in terms of advancing beyond the pool stages as that would necessitate them getting past the New Zealand juggernaut and a revitalized South Africa. However, a strong third place finish in their pool is surely on the cards as Namibia and Canada should prove relatively soft targets for them. If Italy can emerge from the World Cup having won the games they will be clearly targeting and putting up a good fight against the heavyweights in their pool, then we’d argue that the next four year cycle for Italy between World Cups could just turn out to be those golden years they have been waiting for for so long. For their sake we certainly hope so!

Match of the year – Italy vs Georgia – Florence – November 10th – Italy 28/Georgia 17

It was definitely their best performance of the year, and it needed to be. With the rest of the rugby world asking questions regarding Italy’s merit and right to a place in the Six Nations, they simply had to beat their arch rivals for European ascendancy – Georgia. While they may not have done so emphatically, they nevertheless carved out a gritty and important win and showed that there is no lack of passion in the Azurri jersey. They had the lion’s share of possession and territory and outscored Georgia four tries to two. Georgia was forced to make twice as many tackles and Italy even got the upper hand over the much vaunted Georgian scrum. It may not have been pretty at times but Italy looked the part when it mattered most.

Player of the year – Tito Tebaldi

At the heart of everything that Benetton and Italy did well this year, the 31 year old scrum half really has had a year to remember even if he was only on a winning Italian side once. His speed of passing and eye for opportunity was a joy to watch this year, and his tackling proved ferocious. In short, he may not have many years left in an Azurri jersey but he has clearly reached the top of his game and certainly looks to be a big part of whatever successes Italy may have in the next few years. A player that Italy can be genuinely excited by every time he takes to the field and one who leads by example.

Player to watch in 2019 – Federico Ruzza

Italy had quite a few this year, but Ruzza really stood out for us. A constant menace in the lineout and a very handy and pacy wing forward when needed, the second rower has impressed for both club Benetton and the Azurri. His tackling has been solid, and his ability to turn loose ball into opportunity for club and country has been exciting to watch. With head of steam up, he’s a hard man to bring down and has a pretty nifty sidestep to boot. Ruzza is definitely a player we feel can translate Benetton’s success onto the international stage for Italy. Expect him to feature heavily in press releases for the Azurri come the World Cup.

We’ll end this report card with some highlights of Italy’s best Test of the year against Georgia during the November Internationals, and the type of performance they will need and then some for a very difficult World Cup challenge that lies ahead!

Up next – Scotland!

If you didn’t catch the Super Rugby quarter-finals last weekend, you missed a treat, but fear not this weekend’s semi-final action is likely to be edge of the seat stuff and then some. A New Zealand derby sees two powerhouse sides go up against each other, and in the process give the All Black selectors a tantalizing look at how their Rugby Championship and World Cup plans may unfold. In Argentina, a flash looking Brumbies side makes the long journey to take on the Jaguares in a venue that is proving to be a bit of a fortress for the South American side.

There are lots of questions to be answered, especially for the All Blacks in a couple of key positions as a result of how events turn out in Christchurch on Saturday, while in Buenos Aires Australian fans will hope that the Brumbies can deliver a much needed renaissance for Australian rugby. For the Jaguares it’s been a dream season that has gone from strength to strength, and in the process injected some much needed life into the Super Rugby tournament.

In short it’s a weekend you won’t want to miss, so here’s what got us talking as we look forward to two games that should keep us guessing to the final whistles.

Jaguares vs Brumbies – Friday, June 28th – Buenos Aires

While the rest of Australian rugby may be in a bit of a shambles, the Brumbies have been a ray of hope for the game in the land down under this season. Consistency may not have been their strong point in the first half of the season, but they still managed to comfortably top the Australian conference and at times have played some brilliant rugby, with last weekend’s quarter final a case in point and which saw them complete a seven game winning streak. However, it’s a long journey from Canberra to Buenos Aires, and given the rather short turnaround it remains to be seen how well the Australian outfit has coped with the travel issue.

No such issues are faced by the Jaguares who are coming off the back of  their own six game winning streak as well as a three week residency at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani which has become a fortress for them this year. Unlike a lot of Super Rugby venues this year, the Buenos Aires stadium has packed exceptionally healthy and enthusiastic crowds and Friday’s encounter should be no different. The Jaguares have played some of the most entertaining rugby of the competition and on home soil will be a very daunting prospect for their Australian visitors.

So how much will the Brumbies short turnaround and long journey play a factor?

As some have already said in other forums, the Brumbies may well have studied the Jaguares playbook on how to cope with travel on the road, as the South American team pulled off some memorable wins on the road this season, and furthermore were consistent in the way they did it. The Brumbies played only last Saturday night in Canberra in their quarter-final against South Africa’s Sharks, and the next morning were on the bus to Sydney airport. With only a few days to acclimatize, there is no doubt they have the bigger challenge of the two sides running out tomorrow night.

Is the transfer of leadership in the Jaguares complete and will this translate to the Pumas next month?

There is no doubt that Pablo Matera has risen to the call of leadership this year and is the spark and talisman to the team that Agustin Creevy has been up to now. Although the powerful flanker departs for France after the World Cup, he has led from the front from the opening whistle of the Jaguares 2019 season. Creevy is clearly the talisman he always has been, but Matera has been the catalyst for the Jaguares success this year. We should get a good idea on Friday of how the two will share the role in the Pumas forthcoming Rugby Championship and World Cup campaign – but so far it seems a natural chemistry and ascendancy.

The Jaguares have one of the best lock partnerships in the competition plain and simple

Big, powerful and exceptionally mobile the Jaguares second row is a thing to be feared. The Brumbies pack a real threat in Rory Arnold and he is no doubt clearly on the radar for Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika. However, despite Arnold’s presence we fear that the Brumbies are going to be put to the test here on Friday. Petti in particular has been outstanding for the Jaguares and Argentina since last year, and his mobility and spoiler factor at lineout time, will be something the Brumbies and Arnold in particular will have to really get to grips with.

Nicolas who?

Yes we know we’ll see him again come the Rugby Championship and the World Cup, but it would seem the Jaguares really haven’t missed their star fly half of last year Nicolas Sanchez. Joaquin Diaz Bonilla and Domingo Miotti have been revelations at 10 for the Jaguares and are likely to get some serious international exposure in the forthcoming Rugby Championship. If that goes well then Argentina travel to the World Cup with three solid playmaker options in the number 10 jersey.

Plenty of positives for both sides that will pay dividends come the World Cup in terms of new talent coming of age

You know all about the Jaguares backs and we’ve talked about the dynamic duo the Jaguares have at fly half. However, there has been plenty of new talent that has emerged for both sides. The Brumbies scrum half Joe Powell was absolutely outstanding last weekend and for Wallaby selectors a genuinely refreshing option in terms of looking at life after Will Genia. Brumbies fullback Tom Banks has been on fire this season, and makes the current Israel Folau fiasco rather meaningless to the Wallabies long term plans. The Jaguares have found a gem in winger Sebastian Cancelliere, though he’d already caught our eye in the Americas Rugby Championship two years ago when he represented the Argentina XV side that destroyed Canada in the snow. These are just a few of the names you will want to watch on Friday among a refreshing crop of young talent on both sides likely to make a statement in Japan.

Verdict

Much has been made of the travel factor weighing against the Brumbies, and the fact that the last time these two sides met in Buenos Aires it went the Argentinians’ way. However as the flagship side of a country whose rugby scene is in turmoil, expect the Brumbies to be Australia’s ambassadors of good cheer on Friday night with a point to prove both to their nation and themselves.

Nevertheless, it’s the Jaguares home ground and they are on a definite roll at the moment. Furthermore for most neutral supporters they are the firm favorites of the tournament, as their success has added a genuine frisson of excitement and unpredictability to a competition that was starting to lack both qualities. New Zealand sides have dominated Super Rugby for the most part since the last World Cup, and the Jaguares have in the four years since they joined proved that they were worth their admission and then some. We think they will be very hard to beat on Friday in Buenos Aires and with an almost delirious crowd egging them on, it may be rather lonely in Estadio Jose Amalfitani for the Brumbies. If the Australians can overcome the jet lag and the noise then what’s to say they can’t go all the way this year. Nevertheless we think it’s too much of a tall order, and consequently hand it to the Jaguares by four points!

Crusaders vs Hurricanes – Saturday, June 29th – Christchurch

As an exhibition of our great game you couldn’t ask for two more clinical and exciting sides in New Zealand’s Crusaders and Hurricanes. With both teams having the competition sewn up between them since the last World Cup, it is hard to not see the same happening again this year. However, Saturday’s clash will ensure that only one is left in the hunt as opposed to a final split between the two of them. It’s hard to conceive of the Crusaders not lifting the trophy for the third consecutive time next Saturday, but the Hurricanes as their name so aptly says are a force that can lay to waste the best laid plans.

The Crusaders have been the form team of the tournament this year having only lost 2 games. Saturday’s match should be a Clash of Titans and while the Crusaders are almost impossible to bet against on form, the Hurricanes have shown that they can knock anyone off their lofty perch on their day.

There are lots of talking points in this game but the one on everybody’s lips is the battle for the All Black 10 jersey

While we agree that it’s still hard not to see the Hurricanes’ Beauden Barrett remaining as All Black Coach Steve Hansen’s number one choice, the Crusaders Richie Mo’unga’s claim on the jersey is undeniable. He has been the form 10 of the tournament in New Zealand, and his repertoire of skills is in some ways superior to Barrett’s. Barrett may be the better game manager but Mo’unga’s eye for opportunity, kicking and ball handling skills have been off the charts this season. One of the most fascinating contests of the weekend by a country mile and one which will tell us much about New Zealand and the World Cup.

Next contest for an All Black starting jersey – Dane Coles vs Codie Taylor 

After being on the sidelines with injury, Hurricanes Hooker Dane Coles is back to his absolute best and despite the Crusaders’ Codie Taylor stepping into his enormous boots with steadfast reliability and a skillset all his own, it’s hard not to see the Wellington man continue to be Steve Hansen’s first choice. Reliable and probably the only Hooker who can genuinely play as a winger, Coles’ abilities are the stuff of legend. Taylor however has really stood up in Coles’ absence and while perhaps not as flash as his Hurricanes counterpart is the slightly more reliable of the two in the set pieces. Tough choice and another fascinating battle to watch.

Ardie Savea – the Hurricanes own force of nature

We just love watching this guy play – plain and simple. He is the only player we know who appears to play with an almost frantic abandon, accentuated by his hairstyle, yet at the same time appears to know exactly what he is doing and ends up being devastatingly effective at it. He arrives at a ruck causes complete chaos and in the blink of an eye the Hurricanes or New Zealand are suddenly on the front foot and moving forward. In short a defence coach’s worst containment nightmare. Expect to see him causing complete havoc on Saturday.

The Jack Goodhue/Ryan Crotty partnership – the perfect blend of youth and experience

In our opinion this is one of the best centre combinations in world rugby right now and expect to see these two gentlemen in action together a lot in a black jersey over the coming months. Goodhue the youngster has been such a complement to his mentor the veteran Ryan Crotty, that these two alone can swing a game in the Crusaders’ favor, especially allied to the talents of the exceptional Richie Mo’unga. The Hurricanes’ Ngani Laumape has been one of the tournament’s standout players, but the Crusaders pair have ruled the centre of the park.

David Havili vs Jordie Barrett – another fascinating dilemma for the All Black selectors at fullback

With Damian Mackenzie out of the World Cup due to injury, these two are clearly the front runners for the 15 jersey if Ben Smith is switched to the wing. Barrett has the more useful boot and is better in the defensive contests, but Havili’s ball skills are exceptional coupled to an ability to read the run of play and leave defenders in his wake. A real threat with ball in hand, Havili will make sure that the selectors will be faced with a real conundrum after Saturday, especially if both players put in noteworthy performances.

Verdict

In a clash of giants, it’s always hard to pick a winner. But home advantage and an incredible run of form tip the odds fairly heavily in the Crusaders’ favor. There is slightly more of an All Black look and feel to the Crusaders lineup, and while it is likely to be a pulsating contest from both sides, our money is on the men from Christchurch wrapping up proceedings by five points. It should be one hell of a ride and while it may be a domestic derby, it will be at Test level intensity!

 

 

 

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In a titanic struggle with fellow playoff hopefuls Rugby United New York, the Toronto Arrows kept fans on the edge of their seats until a 77th minute drop goal from fly half Sam Malcolm would secure a 22-20 victory for the Arrows, and that coveted spot in the finals. Toronto will kick themselves for not getting the bonus point try which could have secured them a home semi-final as well as allowing their rivals a losing bonus point. However, for a team’s first season in Major League Rugby they and their fans can still feel pleased and proud of a remarkable regular season that has shown that the sport of rugby union is in rather rude health in Toronto.

This was a punishing match from the outset with both sides evenly matched and literally throwing the kitchen sink at each other, as the game seesawed from end to end in the opening 15 minutes. New York would get the first points on the board through a relatively soft try as winger Mike St. Claire found himself in plenty of open space down the blind side.

Toronto would strike back ten minutes later through a lovely passage of play from their own lineout. Spreading the ball right across the field in some silky running and deft passing, winger Leandro Leivas would put his fellow winger and Captain Dan Moor in space through a brilliant one-handed offload after beating two defenders. Moor would touch down and although Sam Malcolm would miss the conversion Toronto were back in the hunt trailing 7-5.

Toronto would continue piling the pressure on New York and four minutes later after a prolonged period in New York’s 22, center Spencer Jones would spot a comfortable gap just outside the posts and dot it down for Toronto’s second five pointer. Malcolm would get the easy conversion and Toronto would draw ahead 12-7. Some heroic defending from Toronto would see them close out the half with their lead intact.

New York came out of the blocks firing after the break, and Toronto by comparison had what could only be described as a purple patch for the opening quarter of the second half. They seemed to lack focus and shape and New York took full advantage of the home side’s lapses in concentration. Once more Toronto’s habit of passing dreadfully flat against a rush defense cost them dearly, as a pass that was so obvious it was probably in the previous week’s papers, was intercepted by the visitors’ blindside flanker John Quill. The New Yorker ran completely unopposed for almost half the length of the field to jot it down between the sticks for a straightforward conversion.

Toronto continued to struggle to find their shape and with it their discipline, allowing New York’s fly half Cathal Marsh two relatively simple penalty kicks and enabling the visitors to pull ahead 20-12.

A shot of espresso in the Arrows water bottles was clearly called for and seemed to have the desired effect as the team regained their composure in the 65th minute. Toronto would exert some genuine pressure on the visitors as they set up camp in New York’s 22. It had the desired effect as New York began to lose their discipline. A quick tap penalty from replacement scrum half Andrew Ferguson would see the number nine dive across for Toronto’s third try. Malcolm would not miss with the boot and all of a sudden the game was on a knife edge at 20-19 for New York and 14 minutes left on the clock.

The next ten minutes would see a pitched battle between two evenly matched sides, with neither able to gain the advantage. Then in the 76th minute with Toronto applying another period of sustained pressure in New York’s 22, fly half Sam Malcolm would drop into the pocket and slot the perfect drop goal. The stands erupted as one, and Toronto had that all important lead, albeit by a mere two points with three minutes left on the clock.

Toronto would maintain their composure in the dying minutes of the game, despite New York piling on the pressure. Toronto held firm and after a dominant scrum by the home side in the 80th minute, Andrew Ferguson would kick it into touch knowing that Toronto’s big adventure would continue beyond this, the final match of the regular season.

While Toronto will kick themselves for going off the boil for that crucial opening quarter in the second half, as well as not getting a bonus point try and at the same time allowing their rivals a losing bonus point, it was a historic win. The jubilation on players and fans’ faces alike was there for all to see. The party is not over yet and while there is still plenty of work to do and things to fix, there is no denying that this has been a dream start for Canada’s first team to compete in Major League Rugby.

Toronto now face a tough trip out to the Pacific Northwest to face Seattle’s Seawolves in the semi-finals. Toronto comfortably beat Seattle when they came to York University’s Alumni field in April, but in Seattle it was a tight contest back in February which saw the Seawolves who are defending MLR champions come out on top.

Whatever happens next Sunday in Seattle, Toronto rugby union fans have been treated to 8 glorious games of rugby, and the Arrows have made some real inroads into the city’s sporting landscape this spring. We have thoroughly enjoyed turning out every Sunday since April and wish the boys all the very best in Seattle this coming Sunday. Furthermore given the fact that so many of the team are from Ontario, it has done wonders for the profile of the sport in the province. In addition, many of the players who have made their presence felt over the last few months, are likely to be on the plane to Japan in three months time to represent Canada in the World Cup. They’ve made us proud and we have a hunch they’re not done yet! And as for next season…….WE CAN’T WAIT!!!!!

The scorers:

For Toronto:

Tries: D. Moor, S. Jones, A. Ferguson

Conversions:  S. Malcolm 2

For New York:

Tries:  M. St. Claire, J Quill

Conversions:  C Marsh 2

Penalties:  C Marsh 2

Toronto:  1 Rob Brouwer, 2 Andrew Quattrin, 3 Morgan Mitchell, 4 Mike Sheppard, 5 Paul Ciulini, 6 Peter Milazzo, 7 John Moonlight, 8 Luke Campbell, 9 Jamie Mackenzie, 10 Sam Malcolm, 11 Leandro Leivas, 12 Guiseppe du Toit, 13 Spencer Jones, 14 Dan Moor, 15 Gaston Mieres. Replacements:  16 Steven Ng, 17 Pat Lynott, 18 Cole Keith, 19 Tom Van Horne, 20 Marcello Wainwright, 21 Andrew Ferguson, 22 Pat Parfrey, 23 Kainoa Lloyd

New York:  1 James Rochford, 2 Dylan Fawsitt, 3 Patrick Ryan, 4 Trevor Cassidy, 5 Nathaniel Brakeley, 6 John Quill, 7 Matthew Hughston, 8 Ross Deacon, 9 Michael Petri, 10 Cathal Marsh, 11 Michael St. Claire, 12 William Leonard, 13 Mark O’Keefe, 14 Connor Wallace-Sims, 14 Ben Foden. Replacements: 16 Callum Mackintosh, 17 Chance Wenglewski, 18 Anthony Parry, 19 Alexander MacDonald, 20 James Denise, 21 Harry Bennett, 22 Christopher Mattina, 23 Marcus Satavu

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In an emphatic 40-12 win over the Glendale Raptors at Lamport Stadium, the Toronto Arrows secure third spot in the league heading into the final game of the regular season this coming Sunday. It was a dominant performance which saw the home side make few if any mistakes, and secure a win that will give them huge confidence going into their final match with Rugby United New York this weekend.

As they have in most of their matches to date, Toronto got proceedings off to a flying start, with prop Morgan Mitchell bludgeoning his way through the Raptors defenses after a superb rolling maul which showed off Toronto’s complete dominance in the set pieces. Five minutes in and it was Toronto leading by five points after fly half Sam Malcolm missed a tricky conversion.

Glendale would hit back five minutes later after some sustained pressure in Toronto’s 22, and a rare lapse in concentration by the Arrows, saw Glendale scrum half Carlo de Nysschen dart across the line off a quick tap penalty. Glendale’s Fly half Will Magie would get the conversion and Glendale would enjoy their only lead of the match at 7-5.

Thereafter it was all Toronto, as the home side focused on getting not only the win but an all important bonus point as well. Toronto seemed to have given up on some of the slightly risky flat passing that had characterized some of their earlier performances and their lineouts showed some marked improvement. With a dominant scrum and better handling skills than the visitors, Toronto looked the more comfortable of the two sides especially under pressure.

A brilliant dummy from fullback Gaston Mieres would see Toronto regain the lead on the 16th minute, and this time Sam Malcolm would make no mistake with the conversion, putting the home side into a 12-7 lead.

Toronto continued to pile the pressure on the Raptors and ten minutes later number eight Luke Campbell would crash across the line after a prolonged period of possession and the home side’s scrum continuing to cause headaches for the visitors from Colorado. Toronto knew they were in with a shot at the bonus point, with just under an hour still to play, as they led 19-7.

And so it was as on the 33rd minute fullback Gaston Mieres once again put in a brilliant sniping run, that saw him weave his way past four defenders and secure Toronto their bonus point. Sam Malcolm was successful with the boot once more and Toronto went into half time with a commanding 26-7 lead.

Glendale would open the scoring early in the second half, as on the 45th minute centre Mika Kruse would take a superb pass floated out wide to find Toronto wanting on defense. Unfortunately Glendale were unable to secure the two points for the conversion and Toronto still found themselves with a comfortable 26-12 lead.

On the 53rd minutes Toronto scrum half Andrew Ferguson would spot an opportunistic gap in Glendale’s defenses in the visitors’ 22 and dive across for the home side’s fifth try. With fly half Sam Malcolm really finding his rhythm with the boot, Toronto further increased their lead to 33-12.

Just over ten minutes later another bout of sustained pressure from Toronto in the Raptors’ half, saw some dominant forward play allow replacement lock Tom van Horne to crash over for Toronto’s sixth try. Another successful conversion and with the score 40-12 for the home side and only 15 minutes left on the clock, Toronto knew they had got the job done.

Glendale would still try and take the fight to Toronto and looked close to getting a consolation try on the the stroke of full time, but centre Ata Malifa overcooked a chip through and the ball went out of bounds.

It had been a clinical and solid display from Toronto, and helped put them firmly in playoff contention. Barring a major slip up against Rugby United New York this coming Sunday in their final game of the regular season, Toronto should easily secure a place in the knockout stages. Furthermore a home playoff is now an an achievable ambition, if they can bring the same kind of intensity to Sunday’s match we saw against Glendale. New York sit in second place on the table just ahead of Toronto but three teams in the top four in the MLR sit on 53 points, so it really is right royal scrap for the knockout stages placings.

It was great to see over 2700 highly vocal fans in attendance last Sunday on a glorious spring afternoon. The stakes couldn’t be higher for our home town heroes this coming Sunday so if you’re in the Toronto area make sure you get out to Lamport and make some noise!

 

Although we don’t necessarily cover the PRO14 in any detail, this year’s final has a real international flavor to it. With a good proportion of their respective World Cup squads involved in Saturday’s club final, Irish and Scottish eyes will be keenly focused on events in Glasgow. In their last big game before the World Cup warm ups start in August, this is a chance for key Irish and Scottish players to really standout in front of the selectors in a match that mirrors the opening encounter for both sides in Japan in September. Irish Coach Joe Schmidt and his Scottish counterpart Gregor Townsend will be watching proceedings closely.

Title holders Leinster come into this match off the back of an agonizing loss to Saracens in the European Champions Cup final a fortnight ago. Meanwhile the Warriors failed to get past Saracens in the quarter final stages of the same competition. Despite that loss one could argue that Glasgow are the form team going into tomorrow’s fixture, and continue to be the masters of a frenetic attacking style of rugby.

Leinster on the other hand have done enough to get them to this point, but simply haven’t been the all conquering side of last year. Relying on a possession dominated game that starves opposition sides of quality ball, Leinster have been effective but it remains to be seen if they can handle Glasgow’s fast paced and highly opportunistic brand of rugby. The two sides have only met once this year, and Glasgow were the dominant side, winning that encounter by a comfortable 15 point margin. Glasgow were able to pull off that victory away from home, and Saturday’s final sees them enjoy the luxury of playing in front of their supporters at Glasgow’s famous Celtic Park.

So without any further ado, here’s what got us talking over our pints this week in relation to Saturday’s eagerly anticipated match.

Glasgow Warriors vs Leinster – Saturday, May 25th – Glasgow

How many of the players wearing their club jerseys on Saturday will end up wearing their national colors on September 22nd in Yokohama remains to be seen, but there is no denying that the match tomorrow has more than just a few overtones of Ireland and Scotland’s opening encounter in the World Cup later this year. Although Leinster come into the match as defending champions, one could almost argue that they have more to prove. With their form, that served them so well last year, seeming to have deserted them at key moments this season, Leinster know they have it all to prove to their supporters on Saturday. While Glasgow are unlikely to have underestimated the threat posed by one of Europe’s best club teams – home advantage, the return of key players and a team in scintillating form in the PRO14 will make them hard to beat on the day.

Glasgow have to concern themselves with not only being competitive against Leinster’s powerhouse front row but also keeping try seeking missile Sean Cronin in check

Most teams would fear the prospect of keeping up with Leinster’s front row, but making sure that one of the competition’s top try scorers is kept at bay is an added complication they would probably rather do without. Leinster’s Hooker Sean Cronin has been a constant thorn in the side of opposition teams this year both in the European Champions Cup and PRO14. While Cronin’s dart throwing at lineout time has not been the most reliable at times, Leinster’s overall prowess in the front row is the stuff of legends with Irish props Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy adding some real grunt and go forward ability at the coal face. Glasgow will be highly competitive here, and a good showing by them is likely to give Scotland Coach Gregor Townsend great heart heading into the World Cup, but there is no getting away from the fact that they are going to have their work cut out for them.

Glasgow simply have to make sure that Leinster don’t overpower them up front and must try and disrupt the lineout as much as possible

We feel Glasgow will struggle to get parity with Leinster in the forward battles, but if they can disrupt the lineout to the point where Sean Cronin’s dart throwing starts to unravel, there is the potential for loose and scrappy ball which Glasgow seem to thrive on. However, Leinster’s Scott Fardy and James Ryan are two of the most reliable assets in European Club rugby and providing Cronin finds his targets, they are unlikely to cough up much opportunistic loose ball. With Jack Conan lighting up the back row for Leinster and Josh van der Flier back to his best on the open side, Glasgow really need to dig deep here to prevent Leinster having the lion’s share of possession. Scottish eyes will all be on van der Flier’s opposite number Rob Harley who is on fire this season and is likely to feature heavily in Scotland’s World Cup plans, while youngster Matt Fagerson is definitely a raw talent in the making for both Glasgow and Scotland at number eight. Fagerson and Harley could not ask for a better warm up for the World Cup and a big performance on Saturday will be a massive confidence booster for them.

Johnny Sexton seems to have found the composure once more that has eluded him this season, but Glasgow’s half back duo packs plenty of speed and the element of surprise

Sexton is such a benchmark for both Leinster and Ireland, that his loss of composure at key moments in 2019 has been worrying for Irish supporters in the run up to a World Cup that has so much riding on it for Ireland. In the PRO14 semi-final against Munster, Sexton seemed to finally settle back into his groove and Ireland Coach Joe Schmidt will hope that his star playmaker’s last performance before the August warm-ups exhibits the same qualities. Glasgow’s halfback duo of fly half Adam Hastings and scrum half Ali Price are more than capable of catching Sexton off guard. With Hastings rapidly rising through the ranks as a more than capable understudy to Scotland’s first choice number 10 Finn Russell, Leinster and Sexton will have to keep an eye on the wily youngster. Meanwhile Ali Price is renown for his frenetic energy and pace off the back of the scrum. His opposite number Leinster’s Luke McGrath will really need to keep the energetic Scottish youngster in check, and in doing so make his claim for Irish colors come September over a raft of up and coming contenders for the no 2 spot on Irish Coach Joe Schmidt’s scrum half list for Japan.

Gary Ringrose has impressed all season for Ireland and Leinster so expect him to finish the year with a bang on Saturday

While his centre field partner Rob Henshaw may be the more established name, in our opinion it’s Ringrose who has been the most consistent player for both club and country this season. Though many have compared him to the great Brian O’Driscoll, we feel Ringrose brings his own unique character and skill set to the game. Increasingly though he is making those kind of breaks that his predecessor was famous for. If a try is to be scored you can almost bet your next paycheck that Ringrose will feature heavily in its execution. With his defensive abilities improving with every outing, he is well on his way to becoming the kind of unique well rounded centre that the Emerald Isle seems to excel at producing. Glasgow and Scotland’s Sam Johnson has also caught the eye all year, most notably in Scotland’s recent thriller at Twickenham in the final match of the Six Nations. A key talent for Scotland and definitely someone likely to have a big say in Scotland’s quest for glory in Japan in a few months time.

Plenty of Canadian interest on the left wing for Glasgow

Canadian fans will be keen to see arguably their country’s best player in action for Glasgow on Saturday. Winger DTH van der Merwe is back to some of his best form for Glasgow after returning to the club this season after three years in England and Wales. Glasgow appear delighted to have him back, and the Canadian is clearly relishing being back at the club that got his international career off to such a promising start. DTH will feature heavily in Canada’s exceptionally difficult World Cup challenge this September, and expect the winger to put on a show to give his international opponents something to think about later in the year.

A swansong in their respective colors for two of Europe’s finest fullbacks?

In the case of Stuart Hogg, that is definitely the case as the Scottish fullback parts company with a club that he played such a vital role in over the last eight years. The final on Saturday sees the Scottish International head south of the border to take up with English premiership side Exeter. Glasgow will miss the extraordinary talents of a player who seems able to strike from anywhere on the pitch. Rob Kearney’s future post Saturday’s match is still undecided, but could well see him heading to France after the World Cup, and as a result tomorrow’s game could be the last time the veteran fullback wears the colors of his beloved Leinster. Much like Hogg, Kearney has played a huge role in the Dublin club’s successes in Europe and Ireland’s triumphs on the world stage for the last fourteen years. Expect these two to put on a vintage display for their fans to remember them by.

Verdict

We have to admit that we are really looking forward to what should be a thrilling contest, between two teams desperate to make a statement, with perhaps the need to do so being more pressing for Leinster. Glasgow at home will be exceptionally difficult to overcome and the crowd will do their bit as the sixteenth man, despite a healthy and numerous contingent of visiting Leinster supporters. A very hard contest to call, but despite some rather heated debate, we have ultimately decided to nod our heads across the Irish sea. Glasgow have home advantage and some truly dazzling attacking rugby up their sleeve in their favor but we side with the Irish team’s experience and big match temperament. It will be close of that we’re fairly certain and the lead may swing back and forth with some real heart in the mouth moments, but ultimately we feel Leinster will batten down the hatches and squeak out a tight win by four points! Either way make sure you don’t miss it as it is likely to have some influence on proceedings on a certain Sunday in September this year!

A match that has perhaps been as eagerly anticipated as the opening fixture of this year’s Six Nations between Ireland and England in February, kicks off on Saturday, as the final that most people wanted in the European Champions Cup takes place between Ireland’s Leinster and England’s Saracens. The two best club sides in Europe do battle in Newcastle in a match that should be one for the ages. It may be club rugby but it has the aura of a classic Test match in the making.

So here’s what got us talking this week in the buildup to what should be a gripping eighty minutes of top level rugby.

Saracens vs Leinster – Saturday, May 11th – Newcastle

It may only be club rugby but Saturday’s match has all the trappings of a classic Test match. Ireland and England’s finest go head to head in what will be for many of the players involved one of their last big games before the World Cup in September. Consequently, while their primary focus will be on lifting one of rugby’s most coveted cups in Newcastle, a good performance will also lay down some markers of what we can expect to see from Ireland and England come the World Cup. A Cup final in a World Cup year always seems to have double the stakes.

Leinster should have the more dynamic front row, but Saracens are more than capable of negating it.

Leinster’s front office trio of Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and Sean Cronin just oozes class and coherence. It’s a tight unit that functions almost effortlessly as one. Consequently on form you’d have to give Leinster the edge here, but in Hooker Jamie George and Loosehead prop Mako Vunipola Saracens have two of the best in the business, with Vunipola consistently making the headlines for Saracens and England all season. We’d argue that George is the more accurate dart thrower at lineout time, but Cronin the more devastating finisher anywhere near the try line. Throw in Furlong and Healy who is a master of the turnover for Leinster, and Saracens are going to have their work cutout for them, especially with Furlong coming back to his bruising best in the Irish side’s semi-final encounter with Toulouse.

Can Will Skelton keep his discipline in a battle with arguably Europe’s best second row partnership?

Leinster’s James Ryan and Devin Toner are masters of the cool, calm and collected approach to life in the second row, with Ryan’s work rate rapidly becoming the stuff of legends and a player who we have yet to see have a bad game. Saracens George Kruis is a reliable workhorse for both club and England, but Australian import Will Skelton is a wild card. A favorite of the referee’s whistle when wearing the gold of Australia in high pressure matches, Skelton is likely to receive special attention from referee Jerome Garces on Saturday. The big Wallaby second rower, can be devastating when on song, but under pressure is prone to giving away endless and silly penalties. Quick to boil over and lose the plot it remains to be seen if he can keep it together in the face of two of Europe’s most composed and unflappable players.

In a back row battle for the ages one of Europe’s most underrated players meets his kindred spirit

As regular readers of our musings know we regard Leinster and Australia’s Scott Fardy as one of Club and Test rugby’s most underrated players. We’d argue the same from a club perspective for Saracens Jackson Wray, even more so given his seeming oversight by the England selectors. When it comes to reliability you couldn’t ask for two finer players. While Fardy has got the recognition from Wallaby selectors he deserves, Wray’s omission from England selections has always perplexed us. Perhaps Saturday will be the day that Wray finally gets on England Coach Eddie Jones’ radar? However, with four other world class players in the back rows – Ireland and Leinster’s Sean O’Brien and Jack Conan up against England and Saracens Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola, it could be just another day at the office for Wray.

England’s Eddie Jones and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt will be watching the battles at 9 and 10 VERY closely

Both national coaches will be looking for big performances from the scrum halves in tomorrow’s matches. Leinster’s Luke McGrath has the potential to steal some significant limelight from Ireland’s first choice scrum half – the exceptional Conor Murray. A strong performance on Saturday will surely see McGrath secure the backup scrum half berth for Japan. The same could be said for Saracens’ Ben Spencer, who we think should be a shoe in for England’s number two spot for Japan.

Meanwhile two of the world’s best fly halves once more go head to head. Saracens and England number 10 Owen Farrell has been the more in form of the two this season. Ireland and Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton was voted World Player of the year in 2018, but so far this year his form has at times eluded him. Both players though have clearly lost the plot under pressure this year, and while England and Saracens have perhaps felt this less often than Ireland and Leinster, Saracens’ Owen Farrell is prone to losing sight of the big picture once things are not going his way. Sexton’s frustration has been well documented this year, and with it so has Leinster and Ireland’s dip in form at crucial moments. Both these players need to be at their very best on Saturday, and England and Ireland’s coaching staff will be watching anxiously from the sidelines.

With the World Cup just around the corner this is the Leinster centre duo’s biggest game of the year

Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw need to fire for Leinster and with it Ireland tomorrow. Saracens Brad Barritt and Alex Lozowski will need to do the same, but the pressure on them in terms of future international commitments is perhaps slightly less. Ringrose and Henshaw are vital to Ireland’s World Cup plans, so tomorrow’s match sees them needing to be at their best and also avoid any injuries that would sideline them from the trip to Japan, something that in Henshaw’s case is a genuine concern. We think the Irish center pairing is the more dangerous of the two, but if they are playing with a sense of caution with a view to Japan then this could be a real opportunity for Barritt and Lozowski to run riot.

Two World Class back lines should provide plenty of sparks and more than a few moments to remember

In Leinster and Ireland fullback Rob Kearney and Wales and Saracens winger Liam Williams you have two of the best players in the world under the high ball. Saracens fullback Alex Goode has beaten more defenders in the competition this year than any other player taking to the field in Newcastle. Saracens Sean Maitland and Leinster’s James Lowe are two of the tournament’s leading try scorers out wide. Finally Ireland and Leinster’s Jordan Larmour has X-factor written all over him and clearly relishes a big opportunity like tomorrow to put such skills on display and lay down a marker for the World Cup. There is such strength in all aspects of back line play spread across these six gentlemen’s skill sets, that it should all add up to some thrilling running rugby if both teams earn the right to go wide.

Verdict

We are so divided on how to call this one, as in reality we feel there is nothing in it between these two sides, we are almost reluctant to do so. However, the tradition of this blog dictates that we must – so with a deep breath here goes. On form we give Saracens the slightest of nods, even if overall we think Leinster has the more dangerous and accomplished side. If Leinster find their killer form then it could be a scary afternoon for Saracens. With the pressure generated by the imminent World Cup being slightly less for some of Saracens’ players, expect them to be slightly more composed and focused on the immediate task at hand. Leinster know that if they can rattle Saracens’ Owen Farrell then their squad of Irish internationals has the experience to take their game to another level. However, if Sexton gets frustrated early on then this is Saracens game to lose. Despite their erratic form at times this season, we think the desire to put a fifth star on that jersey as well as give Ireland a much needed confidence boost leading up to the World Cup, will see Leinster just edge a titanic struggle by two points! However, none of us are putting a bet on tomorrow’s outcome as that’s how close we really think it is. More than anything we’re just hoping for a game that we’ll all still be talking about years from now whoever wins – and let’s face it both these teams have the ability to fulfill such a wish!