Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 – The final

Although the final of the Women’s Rugby World Cup didn’t quite produce the spectacle and sense of elation from a Canadian perspective that last weekend’s game did, a huge step forward was taken by a very courageous and talented Canadian women’s team at Sunday’s final.

England emerged victorious 21-9 and lifted the trophy but Canada was by no means a pushover.  England were devastatingly effective in denying Canada quick ball, knowing that if Canada’s backline were given room to run there would be no stopping them. Ultimately it comes down to planning and knowing your opponent and denying them their strengths. In this the English women’s team gave all of us a lesson in how to prepare for a World Cup final and come out the winners.

Canada can still feel proud of their second place finish and how they lit up the tournament at times with some breathtaking displays of rugby. This was recognised by Canada’s winger Magali Harvey being voted Women’s Player of the Year by the IRB, with Canada’s Captain Kelly Russell also getting favourable mention.

As Canadians we should all feel proud of the efforts of this remarkable and inspirational group of women, and I hope that the enthusiasm for the game of rugby in general that this tournament generated as well as interest in our Women’s and Men’s teams will only continue to grow and result in more success in the future.

Rugby Championship 2014 – opening rounds

Australia vs New Zealand:  Final Score – Aus 12/NZ 12
Sydney

As mentioned above the weather dominated both initial rounds of the Rugby Championship this past weekend, and although conditions in Sydney were not as horrendous as in Pretoria, they nevertheless played a significant part in reducing the spectacle that so many felt this game had the potential to offer.  That the match ended in a draw and given the fact that Australia played a good second half in which they had the majority of possession, alarm bells will be ringing for Australian management despite the weather conditions. I was surprised to see how well the Australian forward pack, which has been a serious Achilles heel for them in the last few years, held up against a tried and tested All Black forward pack. It will certainly be something to build on for this weekend’s clash in Auckland, and provided they can sort out the halfback issues could make this Australian side one to be reckoned with. They certainly have youth and talent on their side and are growing in confidence and experience with every outing.

My scepticism over choosing Kurtley Beale at number 10 was not removed during the course of the game and I was amazed to see that the Wallabies management has kept him in this crucial position in what will be much more challenging game this weekend.

New Zealand on the other hand finally had their winning streak broken, but still remain undefeated in a record 18 matches. However, they hardly looked the finished product despite the weather. South African referee Jaco Peyper was criticised for some questionable blows of the whistle and I agree that this reflects his lack of experience at this level of intensity of Test Rugby. Nevertheless he was particularly vigilant around the areas where New Zealand likes to play the game to the limits of the law. The result was New Zealand gave away far more penalties than they usually get, especially when under pressure. Richie McCaw was notable in getting extra attention from the officials at the ruck and breakdowns. Although many in New Zealand felt this was unwarranted I felt it is long overdue and also exposed several weaknesses in the New Zealand game plan. As I said in last week’s issue, New Zealand are no longer the all-conquering side of last year, and put them under sustained pressure and they start to lack discipline and their decision making starts to weaken. The All Blacks side on display in Sydney was not the composed team of 2013 who were able to stay calm and keep their patience till the right opportunities became available. New Zealand’s defence under an increasingly relentless Australian attack started to look frayed and tired in the last twenty minutes of the game.

Still at the end of the day, Australia failed to finish off New Zealand and take the win and thus the All Blacks still remain the team to beat not just in this competition but on any stage in the global game. Australia will have to work on their finishing and the All Blacks at home will have to find that missing ingredient to reward the belief that a home crowd expects them to honor.

South Africa vs Argentina: Final score – SA 13/Arg 6
Pretoria

In a game marred by apocalyptic weather of biblical proportions which in turn made the pitch almost reminiscent of a water polo field than a rugby ground, South Africa received yet another wakeup call from a very impressive Argentinian side.  As mentioned above the weather was truly atrocious featuring hail and a downpour that forced many of the determined spectators looking for the nearest ark and all but the most hardy to eventually leave the stands and seek shelter. Despite this we witnessed a thrilling encounter at times and one which although the Springboks won, I would argue showcased the talent and skills of the Pumas much more.

South Africa struggled at times and I for one do not accept that it was down to the weather messing up their plans. If that is the case then they might as well not bother showing up for games this November in Europe and ultimately the World Cup in England next year. Argentina created far more opportunities than the Springboks and if it were not for conditions making for near impossible ball handling at times, the score line would very much have been in the Pumas favour. Nicolas Sanchez at Number 10 was simply outstanding and showed the other three teams what they were lacking in this crucial halfback position – the man was quite simply everywhere on the pitch and making excellent decisions to boot.  The Argentinian forward pack completely outplayed their South African counterparts and despite the conditions managed unlike the Springboks to consistently maintain their footing and overpower the vaunted front row of the Boks. Sorry Heineke Meyer there is no excuse for that especially given the depth of experience in South Africa’s front three. Argentina showed their ability to adapt to the atrocious conditions whereas South Africa looked frustrated throughout the entire 80 minutes and looked surprised every time they kicked away possession to the hungry Argentinian backs who consistently punched huge holes in the South African defence despite the slippery surface.

South Africa have huge experience in their squad and should have been able to mold their game plan to the situation they were faced with. Yes there were brief flashes of brilliance, the one try that was scored through the increasingly impressive Cornal Hendricks linking up with Ruan Pienaar, showed their pedigree and ultimately clinched the game, but for the rest of the game it was sadly absent.

In contrast it was the Pumas who were the exciting and inspirational team to watch – which to be honest they so often are even if this is not translated into a winning record.

In short, an uninspiring South African victory set against an impressive Argentinian display which will only add enormous confidence and motivation to the Pumas when they take on the Springboks in much more favourable conditions in Argentina in front of a passionate and vocal home crowd.

Fixtures this weekend

New Zealand vs Australia – Auckland

This hopefully will be the cracker everyone predicted last weekend, provided the weather holds which in New Zealand at this time of the year is never a certainty. However if we do get a dry ground, then this will probably be one of if not THE game of the tournament.

After last weekend both teams have everything to prove. For the All Blacks in front of a home crowd it is proof that last weekend was a mere hiccough, while for Australia it is that the All Blacks are vulnerable and Australia is on the rise at the expense of their Tasman Strait rivals.

As mentioned in the analysis of the game, I am amazed that the Wallaby coaching staff have chosen to stick with Kurtley Beale at Number 10, instead of the much more reliable Bernard Foley. The All Blacks will be missing Jerome Kaino and Ma’a Nonu and no doubt this will have an influence, however there is still so much depth in New Zealand’s reserves, Australia are unlikely to take comfort from this. Although many are predicting a narrow Australian win for the first time at Eden Park for a very long time, I still think at home the All Blacks will ultimately come out on top and be slightly better and more clinical in learning the lessons both teams needed to learn after this weekend.

Argentina vs South Africa – Salta

I can’t help feeling that this fixture is of equal stature and significance to the one taking place in Auckland this weekend and also offers potential excitement by the bucket load.  We have a Springbok team that has everything to prove to their critics and a Pumas side that is brimming with confidence and the motivation to give their passionate supporters something to cheer
about.

With a dry and fast ground for running rugby and two teams with strong running backlines this could be a potentially thrilling encounter. South Africa will have to find a way of countering last weekend’s dominance of forward play by the Argentinians as well as being much quicker at the breakdown. These were two areas that Argentina were exemplary in last weekend and even with the inclusion of Juan Smith in the Springbok forward pack this weekend, I still see Argentina overpowering South Africa in this area. In addition I think Argentina still boasts on the basis of form a stronger halfback pairing than South Africa, especially given Nicolas Sanchez’s current form. The one area where South Africa can outpace the Pumas is in the backs. Although I was not overly impressed with newcomer De Allende for South Africa, De Villiers, Habana, Hendricks and Le Roux are electric. Argentina has fast and talented backs but overall they lack the experience and game vision of South Africa’s backs. They will be competitive no doubt about it, but given the right ball South Africa’s backline should have the edge. That however all depends on South Africa’s forwards and halfbacks being able to deliver it and you can be sure that Argentina will be very effective in denying them this.

Therefore I think, although both of this weekend’s games will be hard to call, this one in particular is a conundrum. I am going to stick my neck out and say that Argentina might just take this one. If South African coach Heineke Meyer loses his cool under the significant pressure the Pumas are going to put on his charges, then it is possible that we will start to see panic in the Boks decision making. Once that happens they are ripe for the taking and this Pumas side are beyond eager to prove to the world that they deserve their place in rugby’s top echelons.

Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014

A HUGE congratulations to Canada’s Women’s Rugby team on beating the French in Paris in front of a very vocal French crowd and qualifying for the final against England on Saturday. The Men’s team should take note. Canada were electric against the French and this is one very talented, highly disciplined and motivated group.

England however will be hard to beat, but Canada have the advantage of already having played them and holding them to an impressive draw in the pool stages. If Canada stay focused and keep their discipline and grind England down at the breakdown then it is highly probable that they could walk away with the spoils, especially if the ball lands in the hands of their turbocharged back three.

Having watched some of Canada’s games in the Women’s World Cup, I would like to salute the Women’s team on being a great advertisement for the game in this country. Canada plays a very fast and expansive game and some of their performances in the tournament have been quite breathtaking.

This is exciting rugby to watch and one can only hope it serves to showpiece the exciting potential of the game in Canada. I am also delighted to see that the final is getting full prime time coverage on television on TSN2. So make sure you take time to cheer on our ladies on Sunday!

Rugby Championship 2014 – let the games begin!

Australia vs New Zealand – Sydney

There is no doubt that this is the game of the weekend. After a dismal season last year that only got better at the last gasp on their European tour, Australia are finally, under coach Ewen McKenzie, starting to look like a serious contender for the Webb Ellis trophy next year in England. There is often talk of a side starting to click at just the right time leading into the World Cup. In Australia’s case this definitely seems to be true. With Australian sides doing exceptionally well in this year’s Super Rugby competition, and a clinical demolition of a disorganised, fractious and weary French side in June, the omens look good for Australia. With Australia boasting one of the quickest and most exciting backlines out there at the moment, if New Zealand give away possession they could potentially pay dearly for it.

However it’s not all roses for Australia, as the one problem they are faced with is the continuing lack of a dominant forward pack to liberate their backline geniuses. It seemed that this problem had been addressed through the talent available in the recent Super Rugby competition. However the brutal and gruelling nature of this competition has left too many injuries for Australia to really be able to take on New Zealand and South Africa up front, and therefore the Australian scrum goes into the competition slightly untested and looking rather vulnerable. If Australia cannot compete up front against New Zealand then their woes will only get worse when they come to face the powerhouse forward packs of South Africa and Argentina.

Lastly the decision to play Kurtley Beale at fly-half is another one of those coaching decisions that we see so often in Test Rugby that seems to defy logic. Given Australia’s weakness up front, the number Ten position will be key in covering for the lack of ability in the forwards and linking it to the obvious strengths in the backs. In watching Kurtley Beale since the last World Cup, I am sorry he is simply not consistent enough particularly in the kicking aspect of his game especially when under pressure from an aggressive forward opposition.

New Zealand are no longer the invincible juggernaut they were last year. Sure they are still holding the world record for being unbeaten, but have had far too many narrow escapes (i.e. by 2 or 3 points) in their recent outings and who can forget that epic game against Ireland last November in which the Men in Green came closest to derailing the All Black express. However, New Zealand despite some chinks in their armor are still the ultimate finishers in the world game. Richie McCaw whether you like him or not is still intensely annoying but devastatingly effective especially if the referee’s attentions are elsewhere.

However McCaw is getting towards the end of his inspirational career and it remains to be seen whether this bedrock of the All Black side can be replaced effectively before the World Cup. Rugby is a game of fifteen men and there is little room for individual superstars as there is in football but there is no doubt that some individual players provide a degree of motivation and inspiration to their teammates that is hard to replace – talk to any Irish fan on how they are going to deal without an O’Driscoll on the field and you will understand.

New Zealand unlike Australia are blessed with such depth in their talent pool that unlike Australia the loss of players like Dan Carter is really a non-event. New Zealand have an incredible backline, strong centres and a set of halfbacks the envy of the world. Link that to a forward pack boasting the likes of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Owen Franks, and if I was Australian I would be feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

In conclusion, if Australia can overcome their question marks up front, rely on Beale to make the right decisions and release their backline and hang on to possession, in front of a vocal home crowd this could be their game. However there are slightly too many questions to be asked of them at this stage and therefore I still can’t help feeling that New Zealand will take the spoils on Saturday albeit after one hell of a struggle. Hang on to your seats folks it’s going to be a cracker!!

South Africa vs Argentina – Pretoria

While I think that South Africa will comfortably take this game, it will not be without a struggle at times and certainly not along the runaway score lines of this fixture in last year’s competition. I also think that of the two games this weekend it is the most interesting prospect in terms of who’s who in the Rugby world order.

South Africa have a potentially brilliant squad and one that could easily bring home the Webb Ellis trophy next year. I for one don’t believe that the dismal performance of South African teams in this year’s Super Rugby competition will have much if any bearing on the Springboks performance in the Rugby Championship. The provincial and national sides are two very different beasts. I am still sceptical that Heineke Meyer despite his impressive track record with the Bulls is the right man for the coaching job at the Boks. He tends to let his emotions get away with him resulting in almost panicked decisions on the playing field which at this level of rugby can be a recipe for disaster. Note the facial expressions in the coaching boxes of New Zealand and South Africa and it is small coincidence who has the better track record. Meyer is also guilty of often sticking with what he knows and players he likes rather than players on form. Having said that, his current selection for Saturday’s game with Argentina debunks this slightly as there are several names that many outsiders will not be that familiar with.

If South Africa kick away good possession through their inexperienced fly half then Argentina will punish them, especially as the Pumas front pack is strong enough to take South Africa on at their own game of the rolling maul. I am particularly concerned that the bench fly half is Francois Hougaard, who in my mind is an exceptionally overrated player and has not shown that he can cope when fast and calm decision making is required especially in terms of to kick or not to kick. South Africa have a good blend of experience and youth in their forward pack, who given the right decisions from the scrum and fly halves will release a devastating backline. There is no question that Willie le Roux is one of if not

THE most exciting players in Test Rugby right now. I have also been seriously impressed with Cornal Hendricks and coupled with Brian Habana this is the backline of a fantasy league first XV. If the untried De Allende can live up to his potential and a brilliant but slightly war weary Jean de Villiers can remain injury free then the Springboks could tear apart the Pumas defences. The question marks for South Africa in this game will come around the 9 and 10 positions and Meyer’s use of the bench.

As for Argentina, this is very much a mystery side under new coach Daniel Hourcade. Hourcade’s work with Argentina’s junior side has been exemplary but he remains unproven at this level. Argentina are very much a side in development, but blessed with potentially enormous talent. I am always surprised at the media and public’s willingness to write off Argentina’s chances. Lest we forget that Argentina finished the 2007 World Cup in third place. Argentina’s problems centre around their inability since 2007 to finish off big games. There is no doubt they have the passion, motivation and skill to do so, it’s just can they keep it up for 80 minutes?

Argentina has some excellent young players coming through the ranks and the exposure of key players to this tournament and playing at top level clubs in Europe, is continuing to strengthen the Pumas chances at big tournaments like the Rugby Championship. With many of their top players rested for the June internationals against Ireland, a crop of exciting new players were given an ability to show off their skills, and at times an Argentinian B side gave an Irish A side some serious discomfort. Put that experience together with a group of skilled veterans and throw in a dash of heartfelt passion, motivation and hunger for Argentina’s first win in this tournament and the Pumas will be no pushover over the next two months.

As for Argentina’s chances in Pretoria at Loftus which is one of the cathedrals of the world game, I fear it will be too much for them to pull off a win. However it will give them an excellent chance to settle as a side and given a strong backline and a powerful and aggressive forward pack, the Springboks could well have their work cut out for them the following week as they face the Pumas in front of a very vocal home crowd.

So yes, South Africa will win on Saturday, but may well pick up some irreparable injuries in the process of what promises to be a bruising encounter. Argentina will learn a great deal on Saturday and I am convinced they will get stronger and stronger throughout the course of this tournament and one of the big scalps is there for the taking. While the game may ultimately end in a rather one-sided naturein favour of the Springboks, from an analytical point of view this could be a fascinating encounter and leave us all with much food for thought.