As a foretaste to the Rugby Championship, the first Bledisloe Cup match is always one of the most anticipated fixtures of the year

As we move away from the controversy ridden Lions tour to South Africa, it’s hopefully time to get back to the good old fashioned basics of International Test Rugby. The first game of the annual Bledisloe Cup three match series between Australia and New Zealand is one that their supporters and neutrals alike eagerly look forward to. It sets the tone for the upcoming Rugby Championship as well as renewing one of International Rugby’s oldest and most fiercely contested rivalries.

Like everything this year, the global pandemic has managed to get its sticky fingers into proceedings, but fortunately some fast thinking was the order of the day and barring a few adjustments the Tournament looks set to proceed for the most part as planned, with the added benefit of crowds in attendance. New Zealand head into this match as favorites on paper, but after a thrilling three Test series with France in which Australia emerged triumphant, albeit only just, the Wallabies are perhaps more match hardened against tougher opposition. New Zealand’s summer series saw them annihilate Tonga, and ultimately put Fiji away twice, admittedly after a stern challenge from the Flying Fijians.

So as International Test Rugby gets back to business as usual, here’s what got us talking about a potentially fascinating Bledisloe Cup opener.

Fortress Eden Park – the All Blacks sacred ground!

Visiting teams can always be sure of a hearty but daunting welcome at a ground the All Blacks never seem to lose on

The signs may say “Welcome to Eden Park”, but they probably should also add the qualifier “but it’s all going to end in tears”. In almost a hundred Test matches at the ground since 1921 the All Blacks have only lost ten. To say that the ground would appear to be cursed for opposition sides, may not be that far from the truth. Imagine then the sense of achievement for sides who have managed to topple the mighty All Black juggernaut. Australia haven’t done it since 1986, so it would seem that the odds are stacked against them. However, it can be done even if the last side to do it was France in 1994 – let’s just ignore the rather inconvenient fact that this last parting of the Red Sea happened a mere 27 years ago. Australia though may be feeling more confident than perhaps they should, coming off the back of an epic series win against France – the most recent team to successfully assault and breach the walls of Fortress Eden. It will be no easy task, and New Zealand know they simply have to notch up the gears slightly to build on their complete dominance of Australian teams in the recently concluded Super Rugby Trans Tasman competition.

Things go better with a dash of Retallick and Whitelock

Brodie Retallick’s eagerly awaited return from Japan sees him paired up with All Black centurion Sam Whitelock

New Zealand’s second row partnership of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock is one of the best in the business – end of argument. Fresh from a stint in Japan with the Kobe Steelers, Retallick brings an edge to the All Blacks that they are never quite the same without. His partner Sam Whitelock is a Test veteran and between the two of them it’s hard to see Australian newcomers Darcy Swain and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto gain any kind of traction in the set pieces or the loose. Retallick at speed and with ball in hand is a rather frightening prospect, and for some reason we always seemed to be reminded of what Bond villain Jaws would have looked like if he’d played rugby. Whitelock meanwhile is just one of those exceptionally solid players, and his leadership on the field as he takes the Captaincy provides his charges with a sense of assurance and confidence in the task at hand. Expect to see these two dominate proceedings come lineout time, as well as make life hell for Australian defenses (which aren’t their strong point to begin with) in the loose.

Time for Valetini to bring his barn door Super Rugby physicality to the Test arena

Australia need a bit more of this when it comes to defence

Australia seem to have a fairly porous defence, especially in the midfield so all the more reason to have someone like Valetini stopping New Zealand’s army of gain line breakers dead in their tracks. We felt given his stellar performances in Super Rugby, Valetini had a relatively quiet series against France by comparison. We’re fairly confident that the back rower is going to be one of Australia’s next big things, provided his work rate stays consistent, which in the French matches it was not. New Zealand and Blues player Dalton Papalii will be a handful to contain along with Ardie Savea and Akira Ioane, so the above kind of show stopping tackles which seem to be Valetini’s trademark will be the order of the day.

Aaron Smith makes it a century

New Zealand scrum half Aaron Smith marks his 100th Test Cap this Saturday

On the occassion of his 100th Test Cap and in front of the All Black faithful at Eden Park, expect to see the All Black scrum half at his very best. Arguably the best nine for quite some time now in Test Rugby, albeit with France’s Antoine Dupont increasingly snapping at his heels, Smith is a vital, tried and trusted commodity for the All Blacks. Able to adapt his game at the drop of a hat Smith is always a pleasure to watch. His ability to set New Zealand’s tempo off the set pieces is legendary and Australian rookie Tate McDermot will be hard pressed to match let alone better the All Black maestro.

New Zealand’s Rieko Ioane and Australia’s Jordan Petaia should provide one of the contests of the afternoon

Out on the wings will be one of the most intriguing and exciting matchups of this Bledisloe Cup series. New Zealand and Blues superstar Rieko Ioane meets up with Reds sensation Jordan Petaia. For us Petaia was one of the few things to get excited about in Australia’s recent dismal Super Rugby efforts. Ioane has in the last year struggled to replicate his stellar Super Rugby form at Test level, especially since the last World Cup. We all know it’s there but somehow his execution at Test Level seems a little off the pace. Petaia on the other hand seems to go from strength to strength whatever level he is playing at. Ioane’s tackle success rate can be hit and miss at times but the Australian is a ferocious and physical tackler, and can often be seen to be punching way above his weight. We can’t help feeling that in a tussle of two world class wingers, it’s the Australian who could well have the edge on Saturday, despite having considerably less Test experience than his Kiwi counterpart. Petaia just plays with a ruthlessness and confidence that Ioane doesn’t always produce week in week out. We’re fascinated to see if the Wallaby youngster can steal the headlines from the All Black veteran come Saturday.

On paper and at Eden Park, this is New Zealand’s game to lose plain and simple. They look the vastly more experienced and capable side juxtaposed against an eager and capable but relatively inexperienced Wallaby outfit. Australia could well pack a surprise, and a good showing on Saturday will dramatically boost their confidence in preparation for their final showdown with New Zealand in Perth at the end of the month. They’re slightly more battle hardened than the All Blacks after having had to use all their tricks to win the recent series with France.

Australia will improve make no mistake, but as a first outing against New Zealand this year, Eden Park simply makes them too much of a long shot. It’s likely to be a gusty and windy day in Auckland on Saturday, conditions which suit the more experienced heads in the All Black camp. Nothing is ever a given though, and Australia have often shown a healthy disregard for the form book and come up trumps. After the frustrations of the Lions/South Africa series it’s time for International Test Rugby to get down to business in a competition that often showcases its best attributes and leaves us hungry for more.

Enjoy everyone and we’ll be having a look at the lineups for this and the Lions match in our podcast tomorrow. Till then stay safe and enjoy what should be a great weekend of Test rugby!

Hopefully it’s finally time to let the rugby do the talking and give us a Lions/Springboks series decider to remember!

If you’re like us, you are perhaps close to breathing a sigh of relief once the final whistle for this emotionally fraught series gets blown on Saturday. Mired in controversy from the outset, which has only grown as the series has progressed, this Lions Tour has hardly been one for the archives. The rugby has been a fascinating slugfest, but as a spectacle it has been short on entertainment, and the empty stadiums have contributed to its rather lifeless feel. The two sides seem to have little respect for each other and in general it’s been a rather ill-tempered and nasty affair. It’s been uncomfortable to watch at times from both sides, and the quality of the rugby on display has been average at best. In short, it’s a Tour that we are likely to forget rather than remember.

All that aside though, there’s the hope that Saturday’s series decider will revert to the kind of rugby we all know and love and in the process the spirit of our great game will be restored. Ignoring all the off field shenanigans there is no denying that all the players from both sides have put their heart and soul into a Tour that for all intents and purposes seemed fated not to happen at all. South Africa will want to prove to the world ahead of a challenging Rugby Championship, that despite their two year absence from Test rugby, the reasons that they are World Champions are there for all to see. For the Lions, they will want to prove that despite the adversity, this Tour can still showcase the proud history and traditions associated with the Lions, and that wearing the treasured red jersey is still a once in a lifetime experience.

Despite all the difficulties and much of the negativity surrounding the Tour, we got what we wanted a series decider – so hopefully it’s time to shut down the media circus and let the real business begin. Here’s what got us talking about the final showdown in Cape Town.

Hardly Pitch Perfect!!!!

Cape Town Stadium’s pitch was never designed for rugby, and the first two Tests between South Africa and the Lions have made that painfully obvious

Cape Town’s Stadium was intended for fleet footed and less heavyweight competitors than rugby players. It was never designed to have 1800 kgs of human flesh trying to anchor itself to the surface in a scrum. If you watched the pitch being endlessly turned up in both Tests you have to wonder how much the pitch itself is contributing to some of the more lackluster aspects of the rugby we’ve seen so far. We lost count last weekend as to how many times scrums collapsed as players couldn’t secure their footing or players slipping just as they accelerated on breaking the gain line as another piece of turf gave way under them.

This Tour has had enough challenges to begin with but to have to contend with the pitch as a sixteenth man adds insult to injury for both sides and wreaks havoc with a team’s momentum. It would appear that the pitch will have had two full days to dry out prior to Saturday’s penultimate match, as Cape Town’s normally wet winter climate gives the ground a breather. It is a great shame that it couldn’t have been played at the legendary former home of Test Rugby in Cape Town – the hallowed grounds at Newlands. It will be fascinating to see if given the ground’s influence on the first two Tests, both sides will try and play a game that allows for its failings.

One of South Africa’s most underrated players shows us why he is such a force to be reckoned with

Lood de Jager made a truly MASSIVE impact when he came on in the second Test against the Lions

We’ve always felt the giant Springbok second rower has been under appreciated by his country. Sure he’s had his injury problems which has by necessity kept him out of the spotlight and at times made it difficult for him to have the kind of impact he is clearly so capable of. However, as he showed in the second Test against the Lions, when he is on song he truly is a force to be reckoned with. He made the departure of Pieter-Steph du Toit one of the Boks most influential forwards seem almost a non-event. He slotted into the second row as Franco Mostert moved out to the flanks to cover for du Toit. With fellow second rower Eben Etzebeth, the two giant Springbok locks dominated lineout proceedings in the second half and de Jager carried and tackled like a man possessed. Paired once again with Eben “take no prisoners” Etzebeth we fully expect to see the Lions Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones struggle to come to terms with the havoc the two South Africans are so effective at creating.

The “Beast” Mk 2?

Trevor Nyakane was a monster when he came off the bench for South Africa in the second Test and expect more of the same

In the legendary footsteps of Springbok prop Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, Trevor Nyakane was a force to behold in the second Test against the Lions when he came off the bench. He didn’t have his best game when he started for the Boks in the opening Test, but went on to prove that a week is a very long time in Test Rugby. The Trevor Nyakane of the first Test was indistinguishable from the raging bull that went by the same name in the Second Test. After he replaced Steven Kitshoff in the last quarter the Blue Bulls tighthead prop made life an absolute misery for the Lions Kyle Sinckler and Rory Sutherland. He finds himself once more on the bench for this match, but being equally comfortable at loosehead or tighthead, the Lions are likely to remember his presence no matter how short-lived on Saturday.

Righteous Fire and Brimstone

Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi truly led from the front last Saturday and in doing so put in one of the best performances of his career

While he may have had a rather quiet first Test, Springbok Captain and flanker Siya Kolisi came out guns blazing in the second. It was an inspirational performance and one which clearly provided his charges with the motivation they needed, not that it really seemed to be lacking to begin with. His presence of mind to prevent the Lions Robbie Henshaw from scoring a potentially game changing try was outstanding, but was one of a multitude of big game moments from the Springbok Captain. Whatever confidence he seemed to lack in the first Test, is clearly behind him as he was everywhere last Saturday. He was confident, assertive and utterly tireless in his efforts while his execution was flawless. It was a master class performance and one which his opposite number Alun Wyn Jones struggled to emulate. With history on the line he’ll likely be even more fired up this weekend.

The missing link

Welshmen Josh Adams and Liam Williams’ absences from the first Two Tests, especially given their skills under the high ball left most people dumbfounded

The fact that master of the air Liam Williams has only got ten minutes off the bench in the first two Tests, and try scoring machine Josh Adams has not even made the matchday 23 for either, seems to defy all logic. Given the Boks propensity to send things skywards, the omission of two players who are perhaps your most comfortable in the aerial battles has seemed a strange choice indeed. Admittedly Liam Williams didn’t look his sharpest in the warm up games, and got rather schooled in the game against South Africa A (aka an almost full strength Springbok side), so perhaps Lions Coach Gatland’s reservations were justified. However, the time has come to throw caution to the wind a bit (pun aside) and let two players who shine in the aerial contests, as well as Adams ability to find the try line have their final say on proceedings. South Africa’s Willie le Roux can have an off day, and given the calmness under pressure that Williams is known for, this could be an area where the Lions get some much needed traction and composure. Adams meanwhile can on his day match anything South Africa’s Makazole Mapimpi can throw at him and allied to the magic of the Lions Finn Russell at fly half, it could be the right counter to the enterprise shown by the Springbok winger last week. Either way we can’t wait to see if Gatland’s gamble pays off.

It should be a terrific contest, and like we say, hopefully the jibes and off field antics from both sides are done and it’s time to let the rugby do the talking. It may not have been a classic Lions series, but it still clearly means a great deal to both sides. In Saturday’s do or die, winner takes all contest we think that the Series may finally find its groove and give us all something to cheer about, whoever lifts the silverware at the end of it. It’s hard to argue against South Africa clinching the Series after their performance last week, but let’s not forget, both games were won by the team who put in the better second half. So as both sides roll the dice, we’re sure there’ll be plenty to talk about on Saturday night and hopefully for all the right reasons!

The First Test between the Springboks and the Lions brings us plenty of controversy but questionable quality from both sides – so a big step up is needed from all parties this weekend!

We like everyone else couldn’t wait for the highly anticipated start to the three Test series between South Africa’s Springboks and the British and Irish Lions to get underway. As excited as we were for Australian referee Nic Berry to blow the whistle for kickoff, like many we breathed a sigh of relief when he blew for full time. Not so much because we’d been on the edge of our seats for 80 minutes, but more due to the fact that it was an unbalanced game from both sides, with a ton of inconsistencies in how it was managed (more on that later) and didn’t really make for the spectacle we’d hoped for. It was scrappy and although the Lions were the victors, it wasn’t by much and they were only marginally the better side. This week’s contest should hopefully be an infinitely more balanced affair across the park and from all parties concerned, allowing us to focus more on the rugby on the pitch than its after effects off it!

Either way, take the off field media circus away and the Springboks will be up for this one and then some. Put the mind games to one side, and South Africa will be better than they were last weekend. The rust will have been blown off, players will be fitter, the squad will have gelled and become stronger as a unit and lastly pride is likely to motivate this group of individuals to step up their game rather dramatically. In short, the Lions will need to be wary plain and simple. In many ways the First Test was more an exercise for both sides to get the measure of each other. The Lions with more game time under their belts as a unit, ultimately made the better fist of it, but not by much and as a result the gloves are clearly off this weekend so assume the brace position. It’s do or die stuff for both teams this Saturday and as a result should make for quite the Test match.

We could probably write a book on last weekend’s action and what it means for this Saturday, but instead we’ll stick to the five key points that got us thinking the most in relation to this weekend.

Don’t shoot the water boy

Director of South African Rugby Rassie Erasmus has found plenty of ways to air his opinions this week

World Cup winning Coach for the Springboks Rassie Erasmus has found many ways to get his message across this week, both to his players and the world at large. The problem is that it hasn’t really sat all that well with a lot of people, and we are no longer sure of exactly what his role is with the Team. The official Head Coach Jacques Nienaber seems to have very little say in what happens both on and off the pitch. While there were plenty of images of Erasmus pacing the pitch and giving lots of advice on rehydration (even if he wasn’t actually supplying any) to his former charges, Nienaber appeared like a caged animal pacing the Coaching box looking rather lost and ineffectual. While we have no issue with Erasmus’ water boy role (even if he could legitimize it a bit more by actually handing out the odd bottle of water just for appearances), you have to wonder whether the Lions Coaching staff would be offered the same freedoms? Will we see Gregor Townsend masquerading as a physio this Saturday on the pitch and if we did would the officials or public at large say anything about it? As long as it’s balanced and both sides are allowed to do so, even if it looks rather footballesque, then we don’t really have an issue with it.

As for the more controversial aspect of Rassie’s hour long rant about officiating standards in the first Test – well that’s a hard nut to crack. Erasmus is a charismatic figure and we don’t doubt for a moment that his commitment to the Springboks is without question, especially as the vast majority of the current Bok squad are the players he brought to World Cup glory. There is a deep bond there between the players and their former Coach that is a truly ‘special relationship’. As a result though there is a danger that the merits of his overriding plea for consistency in officiating, which he feels was so lacking last Saturday, may be tinged with a slightly less than objective bias. He made some valid points that we can all agree with, but a one hour monologue is sadly not the most effective or appropriate vehicle to state your case.

On the one hand we salute him for having the courage to stand up and put himself in the spotlight by demanding something from Rugby’s governing body that we have all complained about for at least the last ten years. The game’s rules need to be applied consistently and fairly across the board. Make your point by highlighting one or two clear cut examples and leave it at that. However, to go at length for over an hour on picking out every call you felt didn’t go your way runs the risk of making you out to be a sore loser. Some of the calls he highlights are extremely marginal and in the heat of the action on the pitch, it’s unreasonable to expect the referee to see every nuance that you see after analyzing the tapes for several hours. If you do that then sure you will always find inconsistencies but sometimes referees have to call them as they see them in the moment. If not then an eighty minute game becomes a process akin to North American football where play is stopped every few seconds, momentum is lost and we spend more time watching TMO replays than the actual game. Nic Berry and his officiating team made a few howlers make no mistake, but given the nature of the game unfortunately it is almost impossible to avoid. Teams sometimes just have to pick themselves up and move on and now sadly so do you Rassie.

Deer in the headlights?

Australia’s Nic Berry, New Zealand’s Ben O’Keeffe and France’s Mathieu Raynal are finding Cape Town’s winter unusually hot

Well you’ve all seen Director of South African Rugby Rassie Erasmus’ thoughts on the performance of these three individuals last Saturday. Nic Berry who oversaw the first Test found his performance put under the brightest of lights by the former Springbok Coach this week, and his associates didn’t fare much better. Consequently New Zealand’s Ben O’Keeffe must surely be feeling more than a little anxious about taking charge of this week’s crucial Second Test. While we don’t necessarily feel that Nic Berry’s shortcomings, of which there were a few, needed an hour long diatribe – his and his team’s skills in applying the rules of the game in a fair and consistent manner equitable to both teams definitely need some work. These are points that came out of Rassie’s video that need addressing and which in our opinion are the most important.

Player welfare and safety must be paramount and across the board. First and foremost, Scotland and the Lions Hamish Watson should have been given a yellow, possibly a red, for his spear tackle on Willie le Roux. Watson is a terrific player and fan favorite here at the Lineout. He is not a dirty or ill disciplined player who has a history of foul play. That tackle on le Roux however, was clear for all to see and sadly inexcusable. It was reckless and dangerous and players need to know that whatever their track record, that is a punishable offence. As a parent of a boy who desperately wants to play, I and many like me simply don’t want to see that. It has to be sanctioned every time – no ifs, buts or maybes. Mako Vunipola’s impatient yanking of Kolbe off the floor after a hefty tackle was also out of order and disrespectful, especially if the Springbok winger had suffered an injury. Lastly, Lions winger Duhan van der Merwe lifting Springbok winger Makazole Mapimpi’s legs off the ground in the tackle was also questionable, although the impact of South African centre Damian de Allende hitting both of them at speed caused the lift to go higher, making it seem a lot worse. Nevertheless it showed a lack of care in putting the tackled player to the ground safely.

The last point is that apparently the officiating team appeared to “brush off” Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi every time he approached them, while at the same time giving the Lions Captain Alun-Wyn Jones their full attention. Although we have a certain degree of sympathy with this argument, and both Captains should have the same amount of attention and respect from the officials, there is also a question of leadership here. Jones is a master of the Test arena and the World’s most capped player. He has a wealth of experience in addressing referees and getting them to listen. Kolisi on the other hand has not, and sadly it showed on Saturday. Jones has mastered the art of talking to referees, something which Kolisi still needs to work on. The Lions Captain is more comfortable with being assertive. He walks right up to the officials, stands his ground, makes sure they hear him, and only then retreats. All too often on Saturday Kolisi made his argument half-heartedly from a distance and rarely pressed his case or looked confident in his assertions. He’s a great and inspirational Captain but playing the referees is sadly just as important a skill as playing the game itself and one which Kolisi still has a lot to learn.

The “Ginger Ninja” meets the “Jukebox”

The South African Bomb Squad’s Stephen Kitshoff was unable to diffuse Ireland and the Lions tactical warhead Tadhg Furlong last Saturday

So enough of the circus surrounding last week’s Test and down to the business at hand this Saturday. Two great players of the modern forwards game get another chance to size up against each other. South African loosehead prop Stephen Kitshoff and Ireland and Lions tighthead Tadhg Furlong do battle once more, but this time Kitshoff starts as opposed to appearing off the bench last weekend where surprisingly he didn’t match up against the Irishman and his subsequent replacement England’s Kyle Sinckler. These are two powerful scrummagers and players who are equally feisty in the loose and renown for their bullocking runs. The contest between the Lion and what should be a much fitter Springbok is likely to be one of the highlights of the afternoon.

Jasper Wiese gets his shot on the BIG stage

The Leicester Tiger gets the biggest audition of his life as it’s do or die for the Boks on Saturday

Firstly, before we sing the praises of a Mr. Wiese, we think we need to qualify his windfall at the expense of Kwagga Smith, who wore the number eight jersey for the Boks last weekend. We had serious reservations about Smith playing as a number eight last Saturday, not because he isn’t a good player, but a number eight he most definitely is not. As the smaller of the two men, he got made mincemeat of by Ireland and the Lions Jack Conan who is and always has been a natural number eight. Smith excels as a flanker and wing forward, a role he simply wasn’t allowed to play last Saturday. This weekend sees him on the bench, and expect to see him brought in when his impact with the kind of skills he has are needed most.

Consequently Weise, who plays more of his time at number eight, and is known as a dynamic and powerful ball carrier much in the mold of the much missed Duane Vermeulen for the Springboks, deserves his shot at glory on Saturday. He’ll be hard pressed to better the Lions Jack Conan who was one of the tourists standout players last weekend. However, much like the battle between Furlong and Kitshoff – Weise vs Conan will be one of the title fights of the weekend.

Harris’ defensive skills will be needed against de Allende who has learnt the value of ball security

They are both dynamic ball carriers but de Allende, now he has mastered hanging on to a ball, will require some real stopping and the Lions Harris is the man to do it

It seems that England Coach Eddie Jones is not the only one who seems to want keep experimenting with utility back Elliot Daly. Warren Gatland continues to try and find where to put the Englishman and his monster boot. However, if you ask us Daly is simply an impact player and not a Test starter. His boot is seriously useful, but he just doesn’t seem to fit a role in any kind of consistent manner. Harris on the other hand, while not being the most flashy player on the park has been steadfastly solid in defense for both Scotland and the Lions so far on tour. He’ll need it against De Allende, who he struggled with when they met in the South Africa A match. In the past, you could almost guarantee that giving the ball to the one dimensional battering ram Springbok center would result in a knock on. Those days seem to be behind him. Not only has he mastered hanging on to the ball especially under pressure, he’s become quite adept at executing some handy offloads as well as receiving them. Big, powerful and fast he’s become a lot more imaginative in how he plays the game and partnered with live wire Lukhanyo Am, the Springboks now have a genuinely exciting center partnership. The Lions can match it both physically and creatively in Robbie Henshaw and Chris Harris and this should be one of the most exciting contests on the park this Saturday.

So put aside all the questionable media exploits this week from both sides and settle down to a match which should hopefully provide all the excitement and quality that a tour of this magnitude should give us. The sparks were there last weekend but they never really managed to keep the fire going for the full eighty minutes from both sides. In a game of two halves the Lions ended up being marginally more proficient, significantly fitter and a tad luckier with the rub of the green. This weekend expect a much more level playing field both from the teams themselves and how the calls are made by the officials. Let’s hope that this weekend the Springboks/Lions Tour really starts in earnest and lives up to its proud pedigree, while setting us up for a Series decider in the third and final Test. Enjoy everyone and stay safe!

After all the hurdles, anxiety and setbacks it’s finally here as the Springboks and the Lions open their accounts in Cape Town!

It’s hard to believe but a tour, that so many doubted would ever happen in the first place, serves up its first course as South Africa and the British Irish Lions at long last get down to business in Cape Town. It’s time to put aside all the debates as to whether or not the Tour should even have gone ahead in the first place given the current situation in South Africa, both in terms of the pandemic and civil unrest. However, now we’ve finally managed to make it this far, it’s importance to a country that loves its rugby more than any other except New Zealand, simply cannot be underestimated. Consequently the power it has to potentially lift the spirits of a nation in troubled times is well worth the sacrifice. Despite the rather extraordinary environment in which this Tour is being played out, Lions Tours are still something special. They only happen every four years, and for players donning the red jersey it is an honor equivalent to hoisting the World Cup, and for their opponents it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to pit yourself against a collection of some of the world’s best players.

So without any further ado in a match that has plenty of fascinating micro contests within it, we look at five areas that really got us talking.

Two of the game’s most talismanic Captains who pride themselves on defying the odds have plenty to prove

South Africa’s Siya Kolisi and the Lions Alun Wyn Jones were both in doubt for this Tour having to race against the clock in terms of fitness, but have somehow managed to beat the odds and the Series will be all the better for it.

The fact that Lions and Wales Captain and second rower Alun Wyn Jones is actually starting this first Test is a testament to his status as perhaps the greatest Lions Captain the historic Touring side has ever seen. Having dislocated his shoulder seven minutes into the first game against Japan only four weeks ago, the fact that he starts this first Test is nothing short of a miracle. As the most capped Test player in the game’s history, his absence on this his last Lions Tour would have been heartbreaking. His determination to work himself back into match fitness just shows his strength of character and against such a physically challenging side as South Africa, his leadership will be so critical. However, if he can last this match and emerge injury free is a huge ask, so like many we’ll be watching with bated breath.

South African Captain Siya Kolisi, has been through his own trials and tribulations as he tested positive for COVID 19 and has had to isolate from the rest of the squad until only a few days ago. Consequently, like Jones questions will be raised as to his fitness levels. However, just like Jones he is such an immense presence and source of inspiration on the field for his teammates, that it was hard to imagine the Tour going ahead without him.

In short two legends of the modern game, both who have everything to prove and yet have defied all the odds to get here in the first place. A clash of noble Chieftains who their troops will follow without hesitation now awaits.

Two of the game’s most notable agitators/enforcers renew their acquaintance

South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and England and Lions Maro Itoje excel at getting under each other and everybody else’s skin, but Itoje will be relishing the chance for revenge after Etzebeth helped shatter his and England’s World Cup dreams

These two giant second rowers will provide us with some thrilling aerial battles come lineout time and some genuine grunt and grit in the scrums. They will terrorize the scrum halves, making box kicking a bit like playing Russian Roulette, while life in the rucks and the breakdowns will be a genuine misery for anyone who tries to get in their way. Both have a penchant for needling the opposition which at times can get them on the wrong side of the referee’s whistle for long periods of the game. Essential to both sides, South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and the Lions Maro Itoje are renowned for their short fuses, phenomenal work rates and awe inspiring physicality. Their respective roles in Saturday’s proceedings are likely to make the headlines come the Sunday papers. In addition for Itoje, there’s the small matter of an opportunity to settle the score with Etzebeth for England’s defeat at the hands of the Springboks in the last World Cup.

2019’s World Player of the Year meets one in the making

South Africa’s back rower Pieter-Steph du Toit was World Player of the Year in 2019 and England and Lions flanker Tom Curry could well have a similar accolade somewhere in his future

Pieter-Steph du Toit is a firm fan favourite here at the Lineout and has been for quite some time now. Since bursting onto the International scene in 2013 the 29 year old back rower who is equally at home in the second row, has simply matured like a fine South African wine. He’s just got better every year and we were delighted to see one of Test Rugby’s hardest workers get the recognition of World Player of the year in 2019 at the conclusion of South Africa’s successful World Cup campaign in Japan. A man who constantly puts his body on the line for the jersey with little or no regard to his personal safety, du Toit epitomises the passion and pride that comes with donning your national colors. Expect to see the giant utility forward everywhere on the pitch for the full eighty minutes, and looking like he could go another eighty when the final whistle is blown.

Some may argue that Scotland’s Hamish Watson has missed out on a starting berth for this first Test, as he finds himself on the bench but will likely feature as an impact player in the final quarter. However, we can understand Lions Coach Warren Gatland’s reasoning for picking England’s Tom Curry. He, like du Toit, brings an impressive and powerful level of physicality to any match, with a similar disregard for his own safety. In short, he’s almost bulletproof and in the thick of things for the full eighty minutes while never giving an inch. South Africa are renowned for the physical intensity they bring to the Test arena, and as a result Curry is the right choice to weather the initial onslaught.

Jeep vs Hummer

South African winger Cheslin Kolbe and his Scotland and Lions opposite number Duhan van der Merwe may be as different as chalk and cheese physically but neither suffer as a result in terms of speed or physicality

The only thing these two have in common is that they are both South African. Put them next to each other though and it’s an almost comical comparison as the pint sized Springbok winger at 1.7 metres and 74 kgs, comes up against his Scottish and Lions opposite number at 1.93 metres and 105 kgs. You’d think then that the Lion would be slower across the pitch than the Springbok – not so. But then surely the Springbok is a liability when it comes to tackling players twice his size – not so. While they may look like Laurel and Hardy standing next to each other on a rugby pitch it’s still a remarkably even contest. Kolbe consistently tackles way above his weight often bringing down men more than twice his size, while his footwork and turn of pace is simply dazzling leaving many a defender wondering if they even saw him in the first place as he racks up another try for the Springboks. Van der Merwe has been a try scoring machine for Scotland and the Lions who simply swats defenders aside or steps over them as he lights up the afterburners he has clearly had installed in his boots. Although defensively he can occasionally be suspect, if you do run into the Scottish Lion you’re likely to be stopped dead in your tracks. The contest between these two distinctly different physically built players will be one of the highlights of the Test.

Two players who surely must be wondering what they must have done wrong

Welsh and Lions winger Josh Adams has been the leading try scorer on the tour, and yet finds no place in the squad for the first Test, while Ireland’s Conor Murray and temporary Captain finds himself sidelined to the bench in favor of Scotland’s Ali Price for the scrum half berth

You’d have to argue it’s probably felt like a bit of tough week for Ireland’s Conor Murray and Wales Josh Adams. After he was handed the Captaincy as a result of Alun Wyn Jones seemingly tour ending injury in the opening warm up game against Japan, it seemed certain that Murray would get the starting berth as scrum half. However, in the warm up games against provincial South African sides it’s Scotland’s Ali Price who has looked the more dynamic number 9. Murray simply hasn’t looked like he has the pace and quick thinking of the young Scottish upstart. His opposite number, the Springboks Faf de Klerk has all those qualities and more so it’s no surprise that Lions Coach Warren Gatland has settled on Ali Price’s exuberant game to match de Klerk’s compared to the more cautious approach favored by Murray. In many ways Price is what Murray was five years ago, so it’s not surprising that he finds himself getting the nod to start.

As for winger Josh Adams, he must surely be scratching his head and wondering what more he needs to do to impress the Lions boss. However, we think we can understand Gatland’s logic. South Africa have some bruising centres running the inside channels who are likely to suck in the Lions wingers. Consequently Gatland has picked a more physical mix out wide in England’s Anthony Watson and Duhan van der Merwe who can perhaps stand their ground a bit better whichever part of the park they get drawn into. Watson has been big, physical and fast as has van der Merwe and these are qualities that will be more important than the ability to score tries in this initial test of nerves and strength on Saturday. We fully expect to see Adams get to start in one of the Tests, but in this first real appraisal of the Springbok machine, we’d argue Gatland has made the right choice in going the more physical route.

There are so many other matchups that are worth talking about, but if we did then this piece would go on far too long. So these are the main things that struck us about what lies ahead on Saturday and what to watch for. We are putting out a podcast going through the respective team sheets so if you want a player by player breakdown head over to the TV Page for that. We simply don’t know how to call this one at this stage, but what we are fairly certain of is that it will go down to the Series being decided in the 3rd and final Test.

Till then take care everyone, and now the wait is finally over let’s enjoy what we hope will be three glorious Saturdays of Test Rugby! To reinforce our point that this Tour in the end was the right thing to do, we’ll let a man whose praises we’ve already sung in this article have the final word.

Wales’ young guns face an accomplished and powerful Argentinian side looking to set themselves up for the Rugby Championship

Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac could not have asked for a better test for his young bucks than a full strength Argentinian side looking to make a point in Cardiff and beyond. We can’t help feeling that tomorrow’s Test match has slightly slipped off the radar for everyone except the two teams involved, as it lives in the shadow of the Australia/France series and the continuing high stakes drama of the Lions tour to South Africa. However, you’re in for a treat tomorrow afternoon, and we’d argue that this and France’s showdown with Australia are the games of the weekend. Argentina will feel that they missed a golden opportunity last weekend, but will be seeking to make amends ahead of a challenging two months which sees them take on fellow Southern Hemisphere rivals, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Wales will want to show that they have the depth necessary to go deep into the next World Cup, as with the bulk of their first choice team away on Lions duty, tomorrow’s match day squad blends an exciting combination of raw youth and some experienced heads. It will be a big ask for them against a fired up Pumas squad, but in terms of preparations with an eye to the World Cup, Coach Wayne Pivac and his charges must be relishing the opportunity to prove themselves.

So here’s what got us talking about tomorrow’s festivities in Cardiff.

The Welsh second row are in danger of getting monstered by these two

Wales Ben Carter and Will Rowlands will have to dig deep to get past Argentina’s two massive second rowers Guido Petti and Marcos Kremer

Spare a thought for Welsh newbie Ben Carter in the second row. Imagine facing a world class wrecking machine like Argentina’s Marcos Kremer on only your second cap. Will Rowlands has a little more time under his belt at nine caps but facing Guido Petti is always a frightening prospect especially when he’s sporting a Phantom of the Opera face mask. Unfortunately for Wales, the Pumas duo got the better of their Welsh counterparts last Saturday by a long margin. Pumped up and looking to win the series, the two Argentinians are going be even more menacing. If the Welsh pair can weather the storm on Saturday, then it will be a real testimony to the kind of confidence Wayne Pivac can instill in his young charges. They were found wanting last weekend and it will be fascinating to see what if any difference a week will have made now the initial shock has worn off.

Back where he belongs

Facundo Isa is back and means business

This is another area of the park which based on last week’s evidence we expect to see Argentina dominate. Flanker Facundo Isa is back to his very best, and relishing being alongside former Captain Pablo Matera. Rodrigo Bruni, seems to be building on his breakthrough from last year, and it’s a daunting trio to say the least. Wales’ Josh Turnbull gets the start this week after replacing the injured Aaron Wainwright last weekend, and he was really the only part of the Welsh back row that stood up to the challenge. Much like the shock and awe campaign likely to be waged by the Pumas second row, the Argentinian back row look more than capable of stunning their Welsh opponents into submission. If the Welsh forward pack can come out of Saturday’s proceedings with significantly more credit than they were able to manage last weekend, then some solid depth will have been built under the most testing of circumstances. Ross Moriarty is well known for his rather combative nature but even he was struggling to assert his trademark physicality on proceedings last weekend for Wales.

Wales most exciting prospect for a while

Welsh scrum half Tomos Williams was electric last weekend

One thing Wales excels at is producing dynamic, lightning quick scrum halves who love scoring tries. Tomos Williams is just such a player. What is perhaps surprising is that he only has 23 caps to his name. He was more than a match for Argentina’s Tomas Cubelli last weekend, and appears to be hitting a run of form which could well see him making the nine jersey his for quite some time and definitely get the nod for the number one choice for Welsh World Cup plans. Although Keiran Hardy is breathing down his neck for the nine jersey, once Williams replaced him last week it was clear to see that Williams has the big game mentality that Wales need for an encounter of the type of intensity they will be facing tomorrow.

Wales in duelling with a master, try to find their second choice fly half

Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez outclassed his Welsh opponent last weekend. Will he do the same with Jarrod Evans this Saturday?

Despite Callum Sheedy’s stellar performance against England in the recent Six Nations for Wales, he just didn’t make his mark against Pumas Maestro Nicolas Sanchez. This weekend Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac continues to seek an understudy for Dan Biggar by giving Cardiff Blues sensation Jarrod Evans a bite at the cherry. If Evans can translate his club form to the Test arena then Pivac will have a wealth of options at his disposal come the November Internationals and beyond. We feel it’s a bit harsh that Sheedy has to sit this one out on the bench, but such is the competition for places in the Welsh squad these days. Evans made a difference last weekend when the roles were reversed and it will be fascinating to see if the same happens this weekend, with Sheedy making his mark off the bench.

Just one aspect of an Argentine star studded set of backs

Pumas sensation Bautista Delguy returns to the wing for Argentina, and along with his colleagues is likely to cause the Welsh backline to stutter and misfire once more

Argentina’s star studded set of backs list like a who’s who of Test Rugby back play. Jeronimo de la Fuente was outstanding in the centres last weekend and this Saturday is partnered by the powerful and exciting Santiago Chocobares. The wings are populated by Matias Moroni and the welcome return of Bautista Delguy, with the impressive newcomer Santiago Carreras shoring up the fullback slot. The Welsh set of backs simply didn’t live up to the task as a unit last weekend. There were some promising individual performances at times by Owen Lane and Hallam Amos but for the most part they were overshadowed by their Pumas rivals by a considerable margin. Jonathan Davies is sadly past his best playing days in the centres for Wales, and the Welsh offering simply can’t match the kind of pace and creativity that Argentina is able to put on display. It could be a very long afternoon for Wales in this part of the park tomorrow, as Argentina’s backs are as physical as they are fast.

In short, it should be a cracking Test match tomorrow. Provided Argentina can keep their discipline and avoid the costly red card they were shown in the opening Test, it’s hard to see anything other than a win by the South American powerhouse, who are fortunate to have the full complement of front line players at their disposal. Welsh players and supporters though should be equally excited at the opportunity for many of their own up and coming players to have a second crack at one of the World’s best Test sides. Either way, you’re going to want to make sure you’re close to a television or computer tomorrow afternoon.

Enjoy some great rugby this weekend. With the start of the Springboks Tests against the Lions next weekend, our focus will naturally shift to that, even though we haven’t given much coverage to the Lions warmup matches against provincial sides up till now. Take care everyone and stay safe!

In a series decider France face their ultimate test of depth against an equally hungry Australia

In perhaps one of the shortest summer tours in history, which sees 3 full blooded Test matches played in the space of a mere 11 days, you’d have to argue that of the two sides France has it all to prove. Let’s put aside the references to it being a second or even third string French side. To be honest given France’s depth at the moment, such labels are becoming increasingly irrelevant. France’s “unknowns” have impressed plain and simple while there are enough well known names in Saturday’s squad that there is every reason to believe that despite the ridiculous turnaround times between the three Tests, France can still rise to the occasion.

Australia also field a top notch side, but are not suffering from the travel fatigue their French counterparts are likely to be experiencing. Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie, must be thanking his lucky stars for a Test series that is providing the best possible preparation for a busy season ahead for his charges. The Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup are literally just around the corner followed by a challenging trip to Europe in the fall. With the series with France tied one apiece, Saturday’s decider will give us a real indication of how both sides have weathered this rather odd year of the pandemic.

So here’s what got us thinking in relation to tomorrow’s eagerly anticipated Showdown

French sides rarely travel well on their end of season Tours and despite this Series proving the critics wrong – is there really enough left in the tank for one last big performance?

France are riding high after their victory in the second Test against the Wallabies but after a long domestic and international season is there really enough left in the tank for Saturday’s decider?

France have so far been surprisingly good in this finale to their long season. They would have the series in the bag by now had it now been for a moment of madness at the death against the Wallabies in the first Test. Even in the second Test there were moments towards the end where you couldn’t help having a sense of deja vu. France managed to hang on and get the job done second time around, but if you’re a French supporter it’s unlikely you’ll have either hair or fingernails left after the series decider with the Wallabies tomorrow. France could win it but true to form they could also blow it spectacularly. At some point fatigue is likely to get the better of them, and their concentration and decision making at times can still be questionable. Add in the fact that Coach Galthie has had to rotate his squad yet again, meaning that there are more surprises and unknowns on Saturday’s team sheet than there are familiar faces. If France pull it off, then surely their claim to be genuine contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy in two years time are a given, as the depth they now have is rather remarkable to say the least!

A rather extraordinary player who is surely more than just an impact player

Mr. Versatile – Australia’s Taniela Tupou is as happy at the base of the ruck as he is in it!

After watching the Wallabies prop”Tongan Thor” Taniela Tupou try his hand at the scrum half role last Tuesday, you have to wonder why Coach Dave Rennie is starting him on the bench for this match. However, as an impact player he certainly provided plenty of that last Tuesday. Given that France’s bench may not be the best, we can only assume that Rennie is saving one of his 3 best players for that last quarter of the game where France may simply not be running at optimum efficiency. Tupou was absolutely immense when he came on in the second Test and provided the French with all sorts of problems. If you want a finisher who can clearly take on a variety of roles then it doesn’t get much better than the “Tongan Thor”. An exceptionally skilled player, expect to see Tupou play an important part in Australia’s 2021 Test campaign, and we can’t wait to see him in action tomorrow.

France will be hoping that this guy lives up to his reputation

Australia’s Red Card specialist Lachlan Swinton has been given a shot at redemption on Saturday

You have to scratch your head at Wallaby Coach Dave Rennie deciding to throw the dice and hand flanker Lachlan Swinton a starting berth for such a crucial Test on Saturday. Swinton is a disciplinary liability of note for the Wallabies, and to be honest we struggle to see what value he brings. His performances for Australian Super Rugby bottom feeders the Waratahs only stood out this season because he earned two reds and one yellow card, further compromising a team already struggling to make a statement in the competition. Should his propensity to see red come to the fore once more on Saturday, Australia will be hard pressed to hold out a man down against a very motivated French side determined to upset the odds. It’s a gamble and we hope for the Wallabies sake it doesn’t prove too costly.

A legend in the making

Flanker Cameron Woki is a genuine wonder weapon for France

We were surprised to see Cameron Woki be relegated to the bench in favor of Sekou Macalou for the First Test. When he replaced Macalou his presence was immediately felt, and in the second Test where he was given a starting berth he made sure that French Coach Fabien Galthie was left in little doubt that the Bordeaux back rower is a vital cog in France’s machine with a view to the World Cup. We can’t think of an outing where Woki hasn’t impressed since taking the French camp by storm last year. Despite only having six caps for France, his ability especially under pressure is that of a veteran. Solid, reliable and in the thick of everything he is liable to make Wallaby problem child Lachlan Swinton’s life a misery.

France also choose to roll the dice

There is no question about winger Teddy Thomas’ ability on attack but plenty about his defense and work ethic

Teddy Thomas is a brilliant attacking winger make no mistake. However, when it comes to defense the adjectives suspect and lazy come into play a little too often. In his opposite number Filipo Daugunu for the Wallabies, he will meet many of the same qualities. Daugunu is also know for his defensive frailties and his all round ball skills are not as polished as the Frenchman’s. However, if Thomas switches off which he does with alarming regularity, then it could be a very long day at the office for France, making it impossible for them to use him as the weapon they need while leaving themselves dangerously exposed defensively. Australia will know this and will likely target Thomas as much as possible. If France are vulnerable tomorrow, this is one part of the park where it could be most in evidence.

Despite some of the unknowns peppering France’s starting XV tomorrow, we’ve heard enough good things about them that given the calibre of France these days and the brains trust in the coaching box, we aren’t as anxious as we would have been in the past. Australia will be up for this and then some, and on paper it’s hard to argue against them clinching the series tomorrow. What we are likely in for though is an absolute belter of a Test match, and a fitting conclusion to a series that has gloriously exceeded its billing and given the other showpiece event of the month the Lions Tour to South Africa a serious run for its money!

What we learned about Japan, the USA and Canada in their recent tours of the British Isles

Sadly much of what we learnt about Canada and the USA this summer doesn’t make for overly positive reading, but Japan gave us plenty to cheer about. All three sides emerged winless from their two Test visits to the UK and Ireland, but in Japan’s case it was no cause for long faces. The USA did give us a heroic and spirited second half performance in their first Test against England, but somehow failed to carry that momentum across the Irish sea a week later where they received a genuine thrashing at the hands of the Men in Green. Canada sadly left both the Principality Stadium and Twickenham with very little to cheer about. In short, Japan’s Top League domestic competition seems to be building on Japan’s recent World Cup success, while North America’s Major League Rugby has a painfully long way to go before it can rise to Japan’s lofty heights and allow the national sides to reap the benefits. Japan is a Tier One competitor and improving at a rate of knots, the USA has realistic ambitions to get there, while Canada glumly wonders if the golden years of the late eighties and early nineties will ever return.

Japan is the Northern Hemisphere’s most entertaining team to watch allied to a skill set that beggars belief at times

This was an absolutely cracking game of rugby and the best of the summer series by a country mile – Japan once again showed their truly remarkable offloading game

Like we say this was the highlight of the summer series for us – it was simply that good. We thoroughly enjoyed Japan’s first game against the Lions, but this was even better. It was just end to end stuff for the full eighty minutes and a real treat to watch. Ireland packed a powerhouse squad as a show of respect to their Japanese opponents, and Japan made sure that such respect was fully justified. Their offloading skills have to be seen to be believed at times, such is the skill level. Allied to that though is a physical game that is becoming increasingly more confident and difficult for the top teams to handle.

Japan has come so far in the last ten years, that we here in North America can only look on in envy. All the momentum of the last World Cup for Japan shows no signs of abating and they will be a threat that will need to be taken very seriously in France in two years time. Their game against Ireland was a full blown proper Test match, that simply did not let up in terms of intensity for the full eighty minutes, and in many ways Japan were unlucky to lose. However, in the process they showed that they are knocking hard at the doors of the Top Nations and thoroughly deserve their 10th place on the World Rankings table. Fly half Yu Tamura was every inch as good as he was in the World Cup and don’t be surprised to see him plying his trade this fall in Europe, like fellow teammate winger and fullback Kotaro Matsushima. His footwork in setting up Siosaia Fifita’s try was simply sublime.

Our only hope is that between now and the World Cup, Japan gets to play a consistent number of Tests against the top Tier one nations. They have earned the right and then some and the landscape of World Rugby will be better and infinitely more entertaining if they are allowed to do so. We doubt there is any team among the Top Ten teams who would deny the box office draw of a Test against the Japanese, and the resulting revenue it would create.

The USA are in it for the long haul, but will wish that there had been more to cheer about

US Coach Gary Gold knows that the much hoped for benefits of the advent of a professional league in North America in the shape of the MLR are still a long way off

After three years of professional rugby in North America and predominantly the USA (given that all the teams bar one are American), hopes were high that this tour would showcase some positive benefits at the Test Level for the Americans. There were some make no mistake. The USA’s second half dominance of England’s young guns at Twickenham in their first Test was impressive to say the least, especially considering the squad had only been together for four days prior to the match. However, that heroic effort seemed to vanish into obscurity a week later as they were ripped to shreds by an Irish side full of emerging talent for the Men in Green. The gulf between rugby on the two sides of the Atlantic could not have been more evident. The Americans failed to capitalize on the positives against England, and given that they had now been together longer as a unit, it seemed hard to fathom how poor they had become in the space of seven days against Ireland. While Gary Gold was rightly proud of his charges’ efforts against England, there is no way he can be happy with their implosion against Ireland.

While commendable, the USA’s steadfast refusal to take points on offer through penalty kicks, by kicking to the corner in futile attempts to break through a resolute Irish defence, beggared belief at times in terms of decision making. The execution and ball handling skills simply weren’t there for the Americans to justify that kind of thinking. As the match wore on their lack of any kind of structured defence allowed Ireland to run amok, and the Americans’ increasing frustration led to a complete breakdown in discipline and technique. This was perhaps summed up by flanker Riekert Hattingh seeing a red card on the 52nd minute, leaving his already stretched teammates with even more work to do as a 14 man Eagles side had to cope with an Irish team that was having a field day with the possession they were enjoying.

The statistics make for eye watering reading. 796 run metres for Ireland compared to a paltry 151 for the Americans. 11 defenders beaten by the USA compared to 31 by Ireland. 29 clean breaks by Ireland but none by the USA. 31 missed tackles for the US compared to 11 for Ireland. That’s not pretty and needs addressing fast. They made a better fist of it overall than Canada who they face in September for their first go at World Cup qualifying, so should feel the more confident of the two sides, but there is no denying that so far Major League Rugby has only scratched the surface of what needs to be done in terms of bringing rugby in the States to the level at which it can compete on a level playing field with Tier One nations.

We hate to say it but after a tour to forget for Canada, it’s time to acknowledge that the ship is heading for the rocks unless drastic action is taken immediately

Fullback Cooper Coats was the only real positive to come out of Canada’s tour

You can’t imagine how much it pains us to feel so negative about Canada’s recent tour of Wales and England. But no matter what spin we put on it, we simply can’t find reasons to be cheerful, and we get the feeling that the players likely feel much the same. Canada got hammered by Wales and then were dispatched by an English side that had struggled at times to contain our greatest rivals the United States.

As Canada heads into its first two World Cup qualifying matches with the United States in September it’s hard to find grounds for optimism. If we’re frustrated we can only imagine how the players must be feeling. We’re tired of the endless sound bites about “positives” and “lessons learnt” when we can see very little of either on the pitch. Canada’s dismal decline down the World Rankings since 2010 is simply unacceptable.

Meanwhile Rugby Canada seems oblivious to the plight of the national side, the Coaching staff appear nonplussed by a seemingly endless string of defeats and the team itself just don’t look like they enjoy what they do anymore. In 54 games since 2016 Canada have managed to win only 15, and the last time they beat a country ranked in the top 20 was 2017 when they beat Spain. The US is ranked 16 and we can only manage a ranking of 23, with countries like the Netherlands hard on our heels. In short, it’s a pretty miserable picture and someone, somewhere has to start taking responsibility for it all, and stop hoping that the problems will simply go away if we don’t talk about them.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all is that we are not without talent, and our players deserve a better deal than they are getting now. Captain and flanker Lucas Rumball and centre Ben LeSage are world class. Our revelation of the tour however was fullback Cooper Coats. We simply can’t say enough good things about the man, and neither could the commentators during the match with England. He was outstanding plain and simple and one of the few things that gave us cause for celebration. It seems remarkable that he is without a club contract. Admittedly he made a few mistakes in the game against Wales that can be put down to lack of experience but he more than made amends for them against England. In both games, however we kept wondering why we hadn’t seen more of the 25 year old prior to this summer. We also really liked the look of scrum half Ross Braude, and hope to see him get plenty of game time for the Toronto Arrows next season.

Apparently Coats has been lighting up the pitches on the 7s circuit, and here perhaps lies the problem. We were led to believe that Rugby Canada was shifting away from the practice of swopping players between the 7s and fifteen a side game. We’ve been advocating it for years and hence were delighted when it appeared our recommendations were no longer falling on deaf ears. Well it would appear it was just lip service. A genuine talent like Coats needs to be nurtured into the 15 a side game and kept there. This constant flipping between codes disrupts any kind of continuity Canada is trying to create, and must be a nightmare for the Coaching staff. In short, enough is enough – pick which direction you want your players to go in and stick to it. We hear the argument that we have a limited player base, but with the advent of MLR and the fact that at least 40% of players in the league’s 12 teams are Canadian, we think that’s rather a weak excuse these days. As Rugby Canada flips players from one version of the game to the other in a vain attempt to snatch fleeting moments of glory for the national side and silence their critics, the quality of the game at both levels suffers.

The Coaching staff, after this tour and in preparation for the World Cup qualifiers with the USA now have a ton of work to do, as the statistics don’t make for happy reading. Canada’s tackle success rate is a disturbing 71% across both matches, which is just not Test level standard, with lineouts not faring much better at 79%. We do seem able to hold our own when it comes to winning our own scrums and rucks. However, we appear to have no offloading skills (perhaps some time in Japan is in order), and getting the ball across the gain line is depressingly weak in comparison with our opponents along with metres made. A lot of the basic ball handling skills were just not there at times against Wales and England, and ball security rarely seemed to be a priority. All too often overly ambitious plays were attempted without the core skills needed to execute them. We often felt fly half Peter Nelson was making life far more complicated for his teammates than it needed to be.

Canada has the potential to get itself back on track, but it requires discipline and a genuine commitment from those in charge to address the issues the national side is facing. The upcoming two World Cup qualifiers against the USA are looking set to be far more of a challenge for Canada than they should be. However, six weeks can be a long time in Test Rugby and here’s hoping that we finally have something to cheer about come September. The commitment and hard work of Canada’s current squad is and has never been in question, and we continue to stand firmly behind them – but it’s time to see those efforts rewarded!

In a weekend that had just as much relevance as the Lions trials and tribulations in South Africa – Ireland, Wales and England gave us plenty to think about while the USA and Japan gave their supporters plenty of reasons to be cheerful and Canada reached for some Advil!

In this post we take a whip round last weekend’s Test action which although not as dramatic as the high stakes Lions tour in South Africa, taught us a great deal about what might be available come the much bigger prize of the World Cup in two years time. Canada and the USA got to play their first games since the World Cup. Japan continued to hold us spellbound, and as we suspected looked even better than in their spirited duel with the Lions a week earlier. England finally unearthed its young guns, while Wales and Ireland took a more tried and trusted route, but still had a healthy sprinkling of the next generation of talent, especially Wales.

Ireland get their revenge against Japan – but only just!!!

Ireland weren’t as generous with handing out new caps as Wales and particularly England, but it was a mark of respect to a Japanese side who are clearly just as potent as they were at the World Cup

Thrill of the weekend by a country mile that one and a genuinely proper Test match. Japan had shown us last week that they meant business at Murrayfield against the Lions, despite an almost two year absence from the Test arena. Consequently they arrived in Dublin hungry to show that their defeat of Ireland at the last World Cup was no mere stroke of luck. Ireland knew they needed to pay their visitors the utmost respect and as a result named their strongest possible side barring their Lions absentees. Our respects to both sides as in the process they provided us with an absolute humdinger of a Test match, with Ireland narrowly taking the spoils 39-31 as revenge for their World Cup exit courtesy of the Japanese almost two years ago.

In a game where the scoreline bounced back and forth between the two sides in an eighty minute 9 try extravaganza, Ireland emerged the victors knowing they had been made to work for every second of it. Japan’s offloading game is still as extraordinary as it was in the last World Cup, making them one of the most exciting teams on the planet to watch regardless of their position in the World rankings. There is some genuine skill in this squad and their offloading game is just as good amongst their forwards as it is in their backs. In short Japan are a joy to watch and we loved every minute of an exceptionally hard fought contest in Dublin. What struck us the most though was how good the Japanese are now at the physical aspect of the game. For long periods of the game they were matching Ireland’s ferocity in the set piece battles and at the breakdowns. Japan is working and come the next World Cup expect them to be a potent force that England and Argentina must take very seriously indeed.

As for Ireland, they clearly missed some of their big guns on tour with the Lions in South Africa, but there is so much depth in Ireland these days that it’s not the cause for alarm it once was. It was great to see fly half Joey Carberry return to international duty and he had a good shift in the green jersey. Fullback Hugo Keenan was once more a player we simply cannot say enough good things about, along with Hooker Ronan Kelleher in the front row who also rather handy in the loose. Flanker Peter O’Mahony had one of those games where he simply silences all his critics within the first five minutes, while colleague Josh van der Flier more than earned his Man of the Match award.

But it was the newer players that really caught the eye. Second rower Ryan Baird came on for the final quarter and immediately made his presence known. Utility back Shane Daly came on for the injured Jordan Larmour on the wing after 30 minutes and had a very impressive debut for the Men in Green, despite some defensive lapses which can be put down to lack of experience, especially when up against the quality of Japan’s Siosaia Fifita who was on fire.

Ireland have chosen to give all their young bucks a starting crack this weekend against an American outfit that put on an impressive and rather heroic show versus an English side touting its supposed stars of the future. Ireland should expect a stern challenge from the Americans on Saturday, and we have a hunch that it could well be another edge of your seat ride for these slightly greener Irish shoots.

Wales teach the Canadians a painful lesson in how it’s done which seems to indicate that Canada hasn’t been able to reap the benefits of the MLR in the same way the Americans have.

Wales had Canada well and truly wrapped up last Saturday, and if Canada learnt anything it was that they need a defensive Coach

There was all the usual vim and vigor and fighting to the end from Canada last Saturday which is always commendable, but sadly it led to very few points on the board. Let’s be brutally honest they got put to the sword by Wales in the 68-12 defeat. There were some big Canadian performances in there make no mistake, and for us flanker and Captain Lucas Rumball continues to merit the Order of Canada, for his never say die attitude and willingness to put his body on the line for the full eighty minutes. Centre Ben LeSage impressed yet again in the way he has at the Toronto Arrows this season, and any time Canada looked like getting some points on the board he was invariably the spark behind it. We also felt fullback Cooper Coats has for the most part an outstanding game, despite some defensive frailties, but his counterattacking and ability under the high ball caught the eye on more than one occasion.

However, the rest of it simply wasn’t pretty viewing even though Canada looked like things were starting to click better for them in the second half. Nevertheless defensively we were a shambles and somebody or someone in the management team needs to stand up and take responsibility for it and quickly, if we are to avoid another slaughter at the hands of England’s young guns this Saturday. Wales missed 10 tackles compared to Canada’s 33. Wales made 723 metres compared to a paltry 189 for Canada. In short the Welsh were having a field day chucking the ball around unopposed, while Canada had few if any answers to counter it.

For the Welsh it was a stroll in the park, and like Ireland they were able to show how much strength they have in depth given that the vast majority of their first string side is on tour with the Lions in South Africa. Their front row bossed Canada in the set pieces, their second and back rows made life a misery for Canada in the lineouts and at the breakdowns, and in loose play exposed a myriad of Canadian defensive weaknesses. Wales showed that their halfback partnerships are oozing with confidence as scrum halves Tomos Williams and Kieran Hardy dominated proceedings while Callum Sheedy provided his Canadian opposite Peter Nelson with a rather harsh lesson in game management. The only real downer for the Welsh was the loss of fullback Leigh Halfpenny to a nasty looking injury in the game’s opening minute and which could put paid to his career.

While Canada may take some solace from being the first to score through winger Kainoa Lloyd’s opening try, they will be cringing at his complete lack of defensive skills in the video review and be wondering why the advent of the MLR seems to have had such a positive effect on American fortunes in the Test arena, but little to none for Canada on the evidence of Saturday’s performance. Apart from the standout performances of Rumball and LeSage who impress week in week out with the Toronto Arrows, there wasn’t too much to get excited about. For the rest of the squad, who all ply their trade in the MLR many with US franchises, it was a day to forget for the most part. Interestingly of our three standout performers, one of them fullback Cooper Coats doesn’t even play in the MLR and is without a professional contract – probably not for much longer.

At a national level rugby in Canada has been managed very poorly for years now, and there seems little evidence that anything is being done to reverse the rot and get rid of a club of incompetent old boy amateurs. Until that’s done our brave lads will continue to fight the valiant fight but without the support they so desperately need to reverse Canada’s seemingly inevitable slide to the very bottom rungs of Tier Two status.

England’s young bucks are put to the test by an impressive and solid USA effort

England supporters will have been delighted to finally see Eddie Jones embrace the wealth of young talent at his disposal – while the USA clearly came intent on spoiling the party and made a very good fist of it!

If you were an England supporter you must have popped the champagne corks when you saw Eddie Jones’ selections for this match. He did something he should have done ages ago – embrace the future. Sure some of his young guns found their introduction to Test rugby at the hands of an exceptionally feisty and determined American outfit a bit of an eye opener. But as experience, hopefully with a view to the November Internationals and the next Six Nations, the quality of the opposition provided by a spirited American side was invaluable. While the Americans didn’t win, they made life exceptionally difficult for England and can be proud of their efforts. The 43-29 scoreline in favor of the English is more than respectable, especially when you consider that the bulk of the American squad had only been together for four days prior to the match.

England’s front row was ably led by Ellis Genge, who seemed to relish the leadership role in the tight five. Sam Underhill was his usual immense self in the back row, while Callum Chick had a solid debut at number eight and his replacement Lewis Ludlam continued to impess us, with the USA’s Cam Dolan providing some solid opposition for both of them. We thought barring one or two schooboy errors Harry Randall was outstanding at scrum half and if Coach Eddie Jones has any sense he will fast track the youngster into England’s squad come November. Although much was made of him prior to the match we thought fly half Marcus Smith didn’t quite live up to the hype surrounding him. While he may shine at Club level at the Test level we feel he’s not quite there yet. Max Malins continued to impress on the wing before being taken off early through injury, and Joe Cokanasiga is just a try scoring machine. We also thought that Freddie Steward had an exceptionally promising debut at fullback, and while he may be green, he’s absolutely fearless. He is definitely another possibility that Jones will want to consider given his troubles with finding the right fit for the 15 jersey.

As for the Americans, they must surely feel genuinely pleased with their efforts as they were competitive throughout and arguably won the second half. As the game wore on their confidence grew and had they played with the same kind of assertiveness and belief they showed in the second half for the full eighty minutes, we might have been writing a very different story. Much like the Japanese in Ireland they gave us a proper Test match and must surely feel confident about their future. MLR has clearly had a positive effect on US rugby with players being well coached and managed into the national team.

Canada must be looking on with envy especially as they will have to face this pumped up American squad twice in September for two World Cup qualifiers. If the Americans bring the same kind of commitment and intensity to their match with Ireland this weekend and can manage a similar result, then it will be Canada with all the homework to do this summer, especially if things don’t go well for them against England this Saturday. America may not be on the same upward trajectory as say Japan, but the future certainly looks bright enough to be wearing shades!

We’ll have more to say on this weekend’s upcoming festivities in the British Isles as well as France’s eagerly anticipated second Test with the Wallabies this coming Tuesday. Till then take care everyone and continue to stay safe.

The Lions tour continues its roller coaster ride – and despite the setbacks the show must go on!

First up sorry for the silence but I’ve been away on a training course and apart from catching up on all the rugby of the past ten days in the limited time available to me, there was precious little for sitting down and writing. As a result it’s a bit of a whip round this week. In this piece we look at the continuing ups and down of a Lions tour that for the most part seems to be defying logic and somehow manages to keep going. We’ll also be following this up with another piece looking at all the non-Lions action that took place this past weekend.

Despite some tragic setbacks at the outset and continuing doubts as to whether the Series will be allowed to play to its conclusion – the Lions soldier on in adversity

Despite the loss of perhaps one of the greatest Lions talismans of all time – Gatland remains positive that this tour will ultimately be a success

If you were like us there was a deathly silence in your TV room as you watched a genuine Lions legend walk off the pitch after only seven minutes of a Lions tour that was likely to further cement his place in the history books as perhaps the greatest Lions Captain of all time. After that there was probably anguish, depression, rage, despair – and a recourse to the nearest libation available to numb the shock. How could the Lions go on without their Mufasa, their Aslan?

Well it seems they can, and despite the setback it has hardened the resolve of the 37 men donning the red jersey to do the great man proud and make this Tour one that will stick in our memories as being done in his honor. He may not be there in person but in spirit he is clearly looming large over the current squad, and rumor has it that he may be out to join the coaching team for the actual three Tests against the Springboks, as well as an even more surreal fantasy of him actually returning to the pitch for those matches.

In his absence, Gatland raised everyone’s eyebrows by appointing Ireland’s Conor Murray as Captain in Jones’ absence. This is a player who has only captained his own club side Munster once, but never his country, let alone wear a Lions armband. However, once our brows unfurled and we stopped our head scratching, the decision, even if it is a bit out in left field does make sense. He’s the perfect link between the backs and the forwards and understands the trials and tribulations of both, he’s perhaps one of the most popular guys in the squad and most important of all has two Lions tours under his belt, making this his third. In short he’s got the street cred.

As for the tour itself. The current COVID complications have once more thrown the whole thing into crisis, with the Springboks now reeling from the virus and South Africa itself in crisis as the third wave sinks its ugly teeth into the country, still playing catchup from the first two waves. Questions linger around whether or not it is appropriate in such times to even be playing rugby in the first place when your host country has rather more pressing problems. Can the Springboks emerge fit, healthy and more importantly match ready in the space of just over two weeks before the first Test? Their first Test since the World Cup against Georgia seemed to indicate that they were fairly capable of blowing off the cobwebs quickly, but a squad of some of the combined Northern Hemisphere’s finest is a slightly different proposition.

In short, while Gatland’s unbounded optimism around the tour’s ultimate success may seem to some to lacking any grounding in reality or even empathy with what his hosts are going through, we have to grudgingly admire it. The Tour has become in many ways a direct challenge to the cloud of gloom and doom we’ve all had to live under for the last 18 months, and in a country like South Africa where good news is often hard to find even in the best of times these days, the Tour has become like a beacon for better times ahead.

So therefore, we side with Gatland and the Springboks in wanting the Tour to continue despite the minefields it’s had to cross already and the ones still lying in wait. In a land where Nelson Mandela once famously said that “sport has the power to inspire and unite people in a way that little else does”, the Lions and the Springboks recognize that this Tour is bigger than just rugby at a time when South Africa desperately needs to find a way to smile and cheer.

And so it begins – The Lions take on Japan as a preface to what could be one of the most important tours in International Rugby since the last World Cup!

The long wait is over, strap yourselves in and get set. Despite the controversy, the restrictions of COVID-19, the lack of crowds and so much more – this Lions tour surely must be one of the most eagerly anticipated in years. The excitement is building and this Saturday sees the slow start of a return to normal service in terms of International Rugby. Crowds will be at the Rugby Championship which immediately follows the Lions tour, as well as at France’s tour of Australia, and Canada and the USA’s tour of the UK. In short, rugby is back and we have a vintage summer to look forward to!

Despite the primary focus of the Lions tour being on the three Tests with South Africa next month, this warmup game against Japan is one that holds a great deal of interest for fans of International Test rugby. While the Lions will be the first Test opponents that South Africa will face since their World Cup triumph, they will also be the first Test Japan will have played since the World Cup. Like South Africa, Japan have also been in international isolation since the global showdown as a result of COVID. They took the world by storm at the World Cup, by proving that Japanese rugby has improved by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years. Their quarter-final effort against South Africa was impressive, and this is clearly a side that has arrived with strong Tier 1 aspirations.

Consequently Saturday’s match holds plenty of interest, as Lions Coach Warren Gatland puts together a strong side that should be able to handle a very quick and nimble Japanese offering. Here’s a couple of points that got us talking about what to look for this weekend.

So where are the Brave Blossoms after the most successful World Cup in their history?

Japan stunned the world at the last Cup by winning every one of their pool matches, including victories over Ireland and Scotland

Japan had a fairytale World Cup that sadly ended at the knockout stages as they were summarily dismissed by the ultimate Champions and the Lions opponents this summer – South Africa. However, they played some absolutely exquisite rugby in the process and captured the world’s imagination. It put Japanese players on the map, and got the talent scouts in the top leagues in Europe genuinely interested. The big question is now after almost two years, has that incredible momentum of the World Cup come to a grinding halt? They can ask for no better examination than by a side representing some of the best players in the Northern Hemisphere. Club rugby has flourished in Japan since the World Cup and with some key Japanese players now plying their trade in Europe, there is every reason to believe that we are in for a competitive showing at Murrayfield by the Brave Blossoms. It may be too stern an initial Test for Japan, but will set them up admirably for their encounter with Ireland a week later. Either way it will be great to see one of the most inspirational sides of the last World Cup welcomed back to the fold of International Test Rugby.

Gatland picks a Northern Hemisphere fantasy XV of note!

Wow is all we can say. We’d fancy this lot against the best in the world and have a hunch that the starting lineup for the three Springbok Tests isn’t going to look too different, with possible tweaks in the second and back rows and possibly at fullback. In short, expect to see these 23 individuals dominate the latter stages of the Lions Tour. Throw in Itoje and the Exeter pair of Stuart Hogg and Sam Simmonds, who will be doing duty in the English Premiership final this weekend, and you have a truly fearsome unit – powerful, fast and full of creativity. Gatland has picked a physical but highly mobile squad to counteract the kind of silky opportunistic running much favored by the Japanese. There’s been much speculation about the possibility of “Warrenball” this tour, given that its chief proponent is running the show. However, Gatland hates the term and to give one of the most successful Coaches in this era of Test Rugby credit, one that hasn’t really reflected the play style of his charges in the last couple of years. It may have given Wales an initial platform when he first took charge but the Gatland style has evolved dramatically in the last five years. His ability to enable his teams to adapt quickly to their opponents is becoming legendary, and we’d hardly say that it’s a boring brand. Barring coaching his native All Blacks, a clean sweep of South Africa would be the crowning achievement on a career that is rapidly elevating him to a position where he will be able to sit with the Coaching gods.

Two feisty but very mobile opponents

Conan will be wary of Mafi after it all went so horribly wrong for Ireland against Japan at the World Cup

While Amanaki Mafi may be a slightly colorful character at times who can get on the wrong side of the referee and even his teammates, there is no denying the bruising Japanese back rower has an eye for the kind of opportunities that make headlines for number 8s. Ireland and the Lions Jack Conan is outstanding at seizing such moments with both hands and has done so time and again for the Men in Green to devastating effect. Both are bruising ball carriers, solid defensively but blindingly quick off loose ball, and with a head of steam behind them hard to bring down. Talupe Faletau may be Lions Coach Warren Gatland’s first choice at number 8, but Conan will relish the opportunity to put his talents on display in front of his new boss.

Superman meets Captain Fantastic

Welsh Lion Justin Tipuric meets a truly inspirational Captain in Japan’s Michael Leitch

It was supposed to be Scotland’s Hamish Watson, out with a minor injury, but Justin Tipuric or “Superman” has we call him here at the Lineout will rise admirably to the occasion on Saturday as he meets one of Test Rugby’s most talismanic leaders Japan’s back rower and Captain Michael Leitch. A national hero in Japan Leitch has been at the forefront of really putting Japan on the map in the last ten years. A veteran of three World Cups, he shows no sign of slowing down at the tender age of 33. He may not be the most gifted player on the planet but his workrate is very much in the same vein as the mighty Tipuric who we’d have to argue is amongst the five best International Test sevens in the world. Tipuric may be the fitter and more inventive player but Leitch will endeavour to stifle all of those qualities and probably do a fairly admirable job of it, while creating some opportunities of his own. In short there is going to be a lot of grit on display here, and while that Lions back row may simply prove too much for Leitch and his colleagues it won’t be for the want of trying.

He may be fast but can he get past the Lions Duhan van der Merwe?

Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima is a master of invention and speed but the Lions van der Merwe can match him at pace, and when it comes to the physical side of things the Scottish Springbok is likely to have the edge

Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima has been one of the stars of the last two World Cups. The winger’s dancing feet have been so impressive that he has been snapped up by French Top 14 side Clermont and is clearly making his presence felt in Europe. His weaving runs are a trademark of the exciting free flowing rugby that caused all of us neutrals to embrace Japan as our favourite underdog team in the last World Cup. He’ll need those dancing feet though to get past the hulking menace of the Lions Duhan van der Merwe. Despite some brave efforts Matsushima is unlikely to be able to match up to the Scottish Springbok import’s physicality and once the Lion is up to speed with ball in hand the Japanese winger will need to call in support to try and bring him down. If his colleagues can keep the ball away from van der Merwe and Matsushima can keep away from the Lion prowling the touchlines then we could see a very exciting clash of playing styles. It may be a mismatch on paper but one that could provide some of the most exciting moments of the match.

It’s hard to see anything other than an outright win for the Lions despite a solid challenge from Japan at Murrayfield. The pedigree of the Lions matchday 23 is so high and Japan’s game time since the last World Cup so low, that we have trouble seeing an upset here. The Lions may be going through that initial bonding process and figuring out how to play the kind of game that the Coaching staff have devised for them, but the star studded calibre of Saturday’s lineup and experience it brings leaves the end result in little doubt. Japan are a good side and they could well cause Ireland some grief a week later if they have a strong showing on Saturday, but facing up against a collection of the Northern Hemisphere’s very best as your first taste of International Rugby in almost two years is a tall order. Gatland will be keen to lay down a marker to the Springboks of their intent, without showing his hand too much at this early stage. Either way it’s a contest we won’t want to miss and a glorious foretaste of a summer that could well be one for the ages.

In case you’ve forgotten just how magical Japan were at the last World Cup feast your eyes on this. Enjoy!