Posts Tagged ‘Six Nations 2020’

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

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

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

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

Bledisloe 2

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

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

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

Heineken Cup Final

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland vs Georgia – Friday, October 23rd – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland vs Italy – Saturday, October 24th – Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

France vs Wales – Saturday, October 24th – Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excuse the silence but some of us have been taking some well earned breaks in the sunshine to get away from the Canadian winter. I had the particular privilege of watching France’s outstanding victory over Wales, in a particularly lively bar surrounded by French rugby fans on the island of St. Martin. The Six Nations has been thrown into disarray by the growing Corona virus epidemic, and while we all thoroughly support the precautions being taken, it all seems rather ham fisted and runs the risk of throwing the end result of what has been an otherwise outstanding tournament into disarray.

Super Rugby is really starting to get into its stride, with interestingly enough after five rounds, South Africa’s Stormers sitting atop the table, albeit due to most of the South African conference having a game in hand over most of their main rivals from the New Zealand conference. However, this early on there are no undefeated teams after only five rounds which should mean this year’s festivities could be a tightly contested affair, but much like last year New Zealand teams seem destined to dominate proceedings but with a strong challenge from Argentina’s Jaguares and South Africa’s Sharks and Stormers.

What’s really put a spring in our step these last few weeks is the Toronto Arrows barnstorming start to their MLR season. Along with San Diego, the only undefeated team after the first four rounds, it’s looking good for our home town heroes. If they are this good on the road and the injury gods are kind to them, what a prospect Canadian rugby fans have in store for them once the Arrows return to Toronto in April for the majority of their remaining games!

Six Nations

You knew it was coming, and for good reason, but let’s be honest the Corona virus machinations affecting the final two rounds of the competition have taken some of the shine off what was turning out to be one of the most intriguing Six Nations post a World Cup we can remember in a long time. The calling off of the Ireland/Italy clash due to public health concerns this weekend is understandable, but it is hard to fathom why the game couldn’t be played behind closed doors as is being proposed for the Italy/England clash. That would have kept the tournament’s table intact in determining the ultimate winner. As it stands now with the Ireland/Italy match now postponed indefinitely, with some saying that the most likely date is the November International window, we won’t really know who the Champions are potentially till then. If France go on to beat both Scotland this weekend and Ireland next weekend then such arguments become null and void as they will be the only team who at this stage remain undefeated. Given France’s red hot form at the moment, this is a distinct possibility, but it is still a shame that the tournament officials and their respective unions and governments have been rather ham fisted in their response to the crisis, and no clear unanimity on how to proceed.

On that note if France do remain undefeated in their final two matches, then you could argue that most neutrals would not be overly disheartened, as Les Bleus have certainly endeared themselves to many of us this tournament. France is back with a vengeance and we’d argue have done better than anyone else what all the teams in the Northern Hemisphere desperately need to do – take your youth and embrace it and reward players whose form has merited them a place in the national squad. New Coach Fabien Galthie has brought the breath of fresh air that French rugby has been gasping for for so long – and it is certainly paying dividends. Backed up by a stellar coaching team including the legendary English defence Coach Shaun Edwards, France look mean, efficient and breathtakingly talented. They have easily been the most enjoyable team to watch so far, and France’s investment in its youngsters this Championship has been a model for the other unions to look to. The half back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Emile Ntamack has been the talk of the tournament, while back rower Gregory Aldritt has been one of its most impressive performers. We’ve always thought Captain and openside flanker Charles Ollivon had many of the characteristics of the legendary Olivier Magne, and so far this tournament Ollivon has led from the front and been no stranger to the try line. Throw in a set of backs that can turn and weave on a dime and this is the France of old, and we can’t wait to watch them in their final two outings.

England despite stumbling at their first hurdle in Paris to the French, have improved steadily as the tournament progressed. However, Scotland wasn’t really much of a test and the weather certainly didn’t help either side, though England made better use of the conditions. England simply resorted to the same playbook that saw them decimate Ireland last year and in the World Cup warm ups, something which the Irish for some reason best known to themselves seemed completely taken aback by for the third time in a row. Consequently, how much of a genuine Test England have had other than the French in this tournament is debatable. Of their remaining two fixtures, it’s only Wales that could potentially give them the kind of Test that could give them a benchmark of where England are right now. However Ireland, who England dispatched with ease a fortnight ago, managed to negate Wales’ supposed threats without too much difficulty in Dublin, and the Men in Red just don’t seem to be firing so far this year. England’s final clash with Italy, even if it does go ahead, should be a dead rubber, so as we say it’s difficult to really gauge where England are at post the World Cup. We’re not convinced by Eddie Jones selection choices especially at scrum half, and the jury is still out for us on Owen Farrell’s Captaincy – great when things are going well for England, but prone to unraveling in dramatic fashion when things aren’t – watch the France replay if you’re not convinced along with the World Cup final. England need to take a leaf out of France’s playbook and bring in some of their talented youngsters now and build a winning and youthful but experienced team for the next World Cup. That has to happen now and not two years down the road – and if not England will only have themselves to blame for yet another World Cup that ends in tears.

Last year’s Grand Slam heroes Wales, sadly look out of sorts this year. In many ways in 2020 they look a lot like Ireland post their 2018 successes. Wales had a stellar year in 2019 but much like Ireland in 2018 would appear to have peaked. Like Ireland they have some genuine talent in their youth but the new Coaching regime of Wayne Pivac seems to be struggling to get it to mesh. Their front row looks shambolic, their back row is clearly not gelling as a unit despite some extraordinary individual talent and their backs have lots of potential but it is just not being realized. In short, it’s hard to know what’s not working for Wales as on paper it should and then some. Their contest with England at Twickenham this weekend could be the match that leaves us with more than just a little egg on our faces, but as we put this out, we are not exactly stocking up on paper towels to clean up the mess. Our overriding impression with Wales is that they just look tired and like a team that has perhaps played just a bit too much rugby of late.

Ireland have blown hot and cold so much this tournament, that it’s almost impossible to know what is really going on in the Emerald Isle when it comes to the national team. Leinster continue to dominate the European club scene, but at a national level there is absolutely no consistency whatsoever. Coach Andy “Faz” Farrell may be a great guy to have a chinwag with in the locker and training rooms, but we are simply not convinced that any of that is really producing a plan that gets results on the pitch that would cause too many sleepless nights for the bigger teams. Although Ireland got their campaign off to a good start with a workmanlike win over a shambolic Scotland and a slightly more cohesive performance against a Welsh side that simply let Ireland get on with it, their implosion against an English game plan they had already seen twice in the space of a year was inexcusable. Ireland were utterly hopeless against England and once again looked like deer in the headlights in the face of a rampant and aggressive English onslaught. One they had already seen twice last year to the letter. There would appear to be no learning whatsoever going on in the Irish camp, coupled to the fact that their talented youth are wasted by Farrell’s insistence on sticking to some of his older players who just aren’t showing up. Don’t get us wrong – we’ve loved watching Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray’s exploits in an Irish jersey over the last few years – but even the most ignorant rugby observer could not deny that both of them are simply so far off the mark this year it is laughable. Ireland need to adopt the approach France has taken, as they have an abundance of talented players under 25 who need game time now – not in two years time. It’s highly doubtful that the Sextons and Murrays of this squad will make the next World Cup, so throw caution to the wind, roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with some serious squad development, even if that means taking a few ugly losses on the chin but learning from them in the process. At the moment we just feel that Ireland are learning absolutely nothing every time they run out onto the pitch and are just hoping that the opposition is a bit more clueless than they are. Given Ireland’s depth of talent that is criminal – plain and simple! Ireland can start to fix this by putting Conor Murray on the bench and starting John Cooney against France at nine – when Cooney came off the bench against England Ireland all of a sudden looked a completely different team.

Scotland’s off pitch soap operas continue, but they need to end and end quickly. Scotland is our underdog favorite here at the Lineout come the Six Nations, and are definitely “the little engine that could”. This is a team that is always capable of a big surprise when you least expect it, but sadly so far this year our belief and expectations have been stretched beyond belief. There is a good team in there somewhere but much like Wales it is just not firing at the moment, and the frustration is there for all to see. We really hope that beating Italy isn’t going to be their only highlight this tournament. Disgraced fly half Finn Russell probably knows Scotland’s French opponents better than anyone after his exploits with Racing 92 this year, and internal politics aside Scotland will miss him this Sunday. France traveled well to Cardiff and there is no reason to suppose they won’t do the same to Murrayfield.

Italy meanwhile, even with the Corona virus mayhem sadly affecting them more than any other Six Nations competitor, continue their traditional campaign for the Six Nations Wooden Spoon. A new Coaching regime hasn’t really done them much good, and after three truly turgid performances they have only managed to put a paltry 22 points on the scoreboard albeit against tournament darlings France. However, getting blanked by both Wales and Scotland is not exactly a convincing argument that Italy is progressing anywhere fast. We don’t really know what the answer is for Italy but in this their 20th year in the Six Nations you have to wonder for how much longer people will bother to continue asking, let alone be interested in a solution.

Super Rugby

Despite the half full stadiums, we have to admit as we always do, that there has been some hellishly entertaining rugby on display at times so far this year. What’s perhaps caught us most by surprise is that after five rounds it’s a South African team at the top of the tables. However, the three front runner teams from the New Zealand conference have only played four games, whereas the Stormers and Sharks who currently sit atop the points tables have five under their belt. In short expect it to all change this weekend, and normal service to resume with New Zealand teams once more asserting their dominance. However, it does look like this year’s competition is going to come down to a six horse race between three New Zealand teams, one Argentinian and two South African.

No we are not being dismissive of the Australian contingent in the tournament but so far, apart from the Brumbies, we’ve haven’t seen anything from Australia or Japan (home of the hapless Sunwolves who also are part of the Australian conference) that looks likely to give any of the six aforementioned teams too much to worry about. The Brumbies look the only Australian team likely to trouble the big guns this year and their win on the road against New Zealand’s traditional power house the Chiefs last weekend was a big confidence booster. But sadly for Australian teams this year we feel it’s going to be a case of take your big victories when you can find them but sadly they are likely to be few and far between against teams outside the Australian conference.

As mentioned above, with the three top New Zealand teams only having played four games after five rounds, they find themselves lagging behind their Argentinian and South African counterparts on the points table. However, as usual the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes all look like serious contenders for this year’s silverware. Nevertheless, all three sides don’t look quite as polished as they have in years gone by. All three should have easy wins this weekend, and it will be interesting to see how they build momentum for some much more challenging encounters at the end of the month.

In the South African conference, the Stormers find themselves at the top of the points table, but for us it is the Sharks and Argentina’s Jaguares who pose the more serious threat in the long run. Both teams are on fire with the Sharks in particular having a truly lethal set of backs. However, the Jaguares also look to be the surprise package again this year that they were in 2019. The loss of a key group of Pumas internationals to European clubs hasn’t seemed to have slowed them down, and of their two defeats so far this season only one was by more than three points. Argentina continues to be a hotbed of rugby talent and they continue to prove that they are very much a Tier 1 nation to be respected and worthy of their place at rugby’s top table.

Major League Rugby

Well how about them Arrows?!!!! What a terrific start it’s been to only their second season in Major League Rugby, and to top it all off they haven’t even played at home yet. If they can keep this form up to their first home game in Toronto on April 4th against the Utah Warriors, then what a season this promises to be.

The only other unbeaten team in the league so far is the San Diego Legion and Toronto will have the added advantage that their only encounter with the Californians prior to the playoffs will be at home in Toronto. There appears to be growing interest in the Arrows in Toronto, with live showings of their games at Hemingways bar in downtown Toronto being packed affairs.

There is no question that Toronto look a tight and well drilled unit this year. Their scrum is arguably the most devastating in the league, their lineout work is vastly improved over last season and they look a threat in the loose. They have a pacy and smart halfback contingent and their backs are just as quick and dangerous out wide as they were last year coupled to a solid centre pairing more than able to make inroads up the middle. In short, if the injury gods remain kind to Toronto for the rest of the season then this could be a very big year for the team. Having already dispatched last year’s Champions the Seattle Seawolves, there’s no reason to think the Arrows couldn’t go all the way this year. The impact of MLR success on Canada’s national team prospects this year and beyond could be very telling.

TV listings are over on the TV page for all this weekend’s Six Nations, Super Rugby and MLR action. Till next week enjoy a very tasty weekend ahead!

It’s here and for all intents and purposes it’s Christmas time for rugby fans around the world, as the world’s oldest annual rugby competition the Six Nations gets underway this weekend and for those with leanings towards the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby has its opening festivities. With plenty of new faces and sea changes in personnel, this could be one of the most interesting opening weekends post a World Cup, that both tournaments have seen in a long time.

Six Nations

As mentioned above, we are genuinely fascinated by the start of this year’s tournament. A new look France is for many taking center stage on Sunday. It’s a team that boasts perhaps one of the most exciting crops of young French talent that we’ve seen in years. Add to that a new dynamic coaching regime under Fabien Galthie that has seemingly got off to a very determined start in building for the World Cup in 2023, perhaps more so than any other team in the competition. France could well end up being the surprise package of the tournament, and although it may sound like a broken record that has never really been the hit song it promised, we can’t help feeling that there’s something potentially ominous about this French squad. They’ve got a capable and very mobile set of young energetic forwards and a solid albeit young halfback partnership with scrum half Antoine Dupont being an absolute nightmare for opposition defences. It’s that French set of backs though that really get the heart racing and is going to test the other Six Nations defenses to the limit at times if used creatively and given any kind of space.

We have to admit to some confusion though regarding Wales’ selections for their opening match against Italy. Italy despite a strong selection are the weakest side going into the tournament. Consequently wouldn’t it be a golden opportunity for Wales to blood Gloucester sensation winger Louis Rees-Zammit? Much to our amazement he doesn’t even make the bench. It is after all Wales at home, a ground they rarely seem to lose on these days. However, it is also new Coach Wayne Pivac’s first proper international outing with his charges, so perhaps we can understand his caution and need to make a good impression with some tried and trusted figures in what should be a fairly foregone conclusion in terms of results. He has given winger Johnny McNicholl his first cap, and consequently perhaps felt two new wingers was too much of a gamble despite their obvious talents. Seasoned Welsh supporters will also be eagerly awaiting the return of Taulupe Faletau at number 8. Arguably one of Wales’ most important players in recent years, the powerful forward had to miss out on the tournament last year as well as the World Cup due to injury.

Italy should be able to give Wales a gritty physical contest up front at times, but we fear that ultimately they will, especially away from home, inevitably be outclassed with a slick looking Welsh squad that has a strong sense of unity and familiarity to it. Furthermore, we are puzzled at the omission of second rower Federico Ruzza, who was our Italian player of last year’s tournament, who doesn’t even make the bench.

Ireland field an exciting blend of youth and experience, although many, ourselves included felt that Ulster’s John Cooney should have got the start over Conor Murray for this match. Murray may be the seasoned campaigner that new Irish Coach Andy Farrell would want guiding his forwards, but there is no denying that Cooney is the form player at the moment. Cooney will get his chance from the bench and it will be fascinating to see at what point Farrell decides to give the youngster his chance. All eyes will be on newcomer Caelan Doris as he gets his first Irish cap, and once more proves that Ireland have rudely healthy stocks of back rowers. Ireland desperately need to make a BIG statement in Dublin on Saturday, and prove to their supporters and critics that their disastrous run of form last year is behind them and that they have genuinely learnt from their mistakes. We feel the team running out at the Aviva is the kind of team that can do that and hopefully make Ireland a genuine contender once more for Six Nations silverware.

Scotland a bit like France are the great unknown this tournament in more ways than one. Their campaign gets underway Saturday in Dublin surrounded by all the makings of a soap opera. Rumors of dissent in the camp about Gregor Townsend’s coaching methods abound fueled largely by the Finn Russell fiasco. Scotland have plenty of talent make no mistake, but how cohesive they are as a unit under pressure remains to be seen, and new Captain Stuart Hogg will have the additional task of building a team that seems clearly rattled heading into the tournament. We like many have mixed feelings about Finn Russell, as he is clearly one of the most talented players in International Rugby at the moment, but his maverick approach to the game doesn’t always provide the kind of stability a side like Scotland clearly need right now. He is willing to take enormous risks which when they pay off produce spectacular results, but when they don’t Scotland ends up at sixes and sevens and appears rather rudderless. Adam Hastings who gets the nod at fly half for this match, is also showing some impressive form and is starting to have a surprising arsenal of tricks of his own up his sleeve, so Scotland certainly won’t be lacking in the creativity department on Saturday. Still it’s going to be a very tall order to take down an impressive looking Irish unit in front of a demanding Dublin crowd.

England would still appear to be the favorites, but we are not entirely sure they are going to breeze through this tournament. Like many we think that their date with France Sunday could be a rather rude awakening from their World Cup disappointments. They will need to come out of the blocks firing, and your opening weekend in Paris is not always the best place to achieve that. France could well pack plenty of surprises that England may struggle to cope with, and as we saw in the World Cup, once the Men in White feel they are struggling to make any kind of headway they start to unravel rather dramatically, particularly in terms of leadership – something we feel that Captain Owen Farrell is not particularly effective at turning around. It’s a powerful and accomplished English team that runs out onto the pitch at Stade de France on Sunday – but can it stay that way for the next seven weeks? Add to that their dilemma at scrum half and seeming lack of any kind of long-term plan for the position, and England remains just short of where they need to be.

It’s still one of the greatest rugby shows on earth and we CAN’T wait!!!!!

Super Rugby

We sadly admit to the fact that we don’t quite have the same degree of enthusiasm for the opening weekend of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club tournament that we do for what will be taking place on the playing fields of Europe over the next seven weeks. Nevertheless it is a competition that has always showcased some extraordinary rugby skill and for that reason alone, it will get our attention.

Just like in the Northern Hemisphere there have been plenty of changes in setups across the fifteen competing sides since the end of the World Cup. It is Japan’s Sunwolves swansong in the tournament as they will no longer feature after 2020. Will New Zealand’s Blues finally return to winning ways after years in the wilderness? With former Welsh Coach Warren Gatland now back in his native land coaching the Chiefs and Crusaders Coach Scott Robertson likely feeling just a little pipped at not getting the All Blacks job, the race for the number one Coaching job in World Rugby is alive and well in the land of the long White Cloud once current incumbent Ian Foster’s contract is up for review at the end of two years. Can Argentina’s Jaguares still be the force they were last year with so many of their star players now having sought greener pastures? Can South African and Australian teams even be competitive with a player exodus of massive proportions for the former, and a fractured and rudderless administration running the show in the latter? In short, more questions than answers this year, which sadly detract from the rugby on hand especially as the competition is unlikely to survive in its current format beyond this year.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of matches that we are keen to have a look at this weekend. Although a raft of matches take place on Friday, it’s Saturday that has caught our eye. The competition sees three matches which highlight it’s globetrotting nature, as well as featuring three teams we think could well make the semis and one potential wild card. The Crusaders are always worth watching and once again are likely to produce a healthy contingent of the 2020 All Blacks side. Consequently their match against Australia’s Waratahs will be definitely one to watch, and pay particular attention to that set of Crusaders backs.

On looking at South African prospects this year, we have a hunch that the Stormers may well be the front runners. New Zealand’s Hurricanes remain a force but it remains to be seen how they adapt to the loss of the outstanding Beauden Barrett at fly half now he plies his trade with the Blues this season. This should definitely be a fiery contest and an interesting contrast of styles, especially in the contest between the two fly halves in terms of the experienced cut and thrust of the Hurricanes TJ Perenara and the live wire that is the Stormers Hershel Jantjies.

Lastly we have Argentina’s Jaguares kicking off their campaign in Buenos Aires against South Africa’s Lions. There have been some feisty contests between these two sides in the last two years, with both sides facing off against each other in the knockouts. The Lions and Jaguares have seen a massive depletion in terms of some of their big name players but some of the youngsters look just as exciting if not more, especially in the case of the South Americans. Furthermore we love the fact that the Estadio Jose Amalfitani often boasts the healthiest and liveliest crowds of the competition, with thousands of passionate supporters, which makes a refreshing change from the rows and rows of empty seats that often tend to be the norm in other stadiums in the tournament. In short it’s noisy, atmospheric and there’s plenty of fast paced exciting rugby on hand to keep it all bubbling along. We love it!

Major League Rugby

We’re still not sure who will be broadcasting Major League Rugby here in Canada once the Toronto Arrows kick of their season on February 9 in Austin against the Herd. We know CBS has acquired the rights in the US, but last year Game TV had them here in Canada, but it is still to be confirmed as to who will be covering it this season. Games can be watched through the Arrows Facebook page and hopefully we’ll have details in the next week as to who is covering it via streaming or on demand here in Canada. We know ESPN has an agreement to air some of the games in the US and given their affiliation with TSN we are hoping that something similar may happen North of the border. We’ll keep you posted.

So get ready, get the fridges stocked or find out where you and your mates can catch the games in a bar. If you’re in Toronto, Hemingway’s and Balmy Beach Club are two definites for the Six Nations, otherwise spark up the TV and fire up your Chromecast for DAZN and the Six Nations and TSN and Super Rugby!!!

Enjoy and see you next week!

This week saw the Heineken Cup playoffs finalized with the weekend providing some epic contests, but ultimately not too many surprises in the final draw for those eight spots in the knockout stages. Meanwhile England completed the Six Nations jigsaw puzzle by naming their squad, and lastly the Toronto Arrows had a rousing preseason opener in Las Vegas which saw them dispatch the Utah Warriors with ease 33-5.

Heineken Cup

The final round of the pool stages saw plenty of tense moments as five squads duked it out for the last two runner up spots in the playoffs. Munster and Glasgow provided us with plenty of entertainment and earned two solid wins but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough to get them a spot in the knockouts. Unfortunately a trip to one of French rugby’s heartlands was too much for Gloucester and despite throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Toulouse, they would sadly come short.

As a result, as expected Northampton and Saracens got the job done and booked the final two spots in the playoffs. Ulster had already been in a league of their own in the runner-up contest and dispatched Bath with ease to book the first of the runner up spots and a quarter final contest against tournament racehorses Toulouse. Northampton survived a serious first half scare from Lyon in France to emerge victorious and book a quarter final date with fellow English Premiership giants Exeter. Saracens did just enough in North London to hang on for dear life against a classy Racing 92 side, but now find themselves facing a challenging trip to Dublin to face a daunting Leinster side who currently are one of THE form teams of the tournament. The other quarter final will be an all-French affair as Clermont and Racing 92 replicate their race for the top in France’s Top 14 domestic competition.

Last weekend’s action gave us a mouthwatering glimpse of some of the names that are likely to feature in the upcoming Six Nations which is our next order of business.

Six Nations

England have made their selections and now the picture is complete. In one week it all kicks off and we can’t wait. So who’s looking good and who are the dark horses?

After their World Cup exploits, despite their implosion at the final hurdle against South Africa, England still remain the team to beat. However, we can’t help feeling that they are not quite going to have it all their own way this year. Jones has named a powerhouse squad, but we are once again utterly baffled by the scrum half options that Jones has gone with. Ben Youngs is so past his sell by date for the most part barring that one off performance against New Zealand in the World Cup, it’s laughable and even in the All Blacks game his teammates made him look good rather than his own individual brilliance. His backup Willi Heinz also doesn’t really look the part and is certainly not World Cup 2023 material. In our opinion a golden opportunity is being lost to develop some younger talent here, Ben Spencer probably being the most notable omission. The chances of England winning the tournament are certainly high, but on the back of a Grand Slam it won’t be. There are simply too many exceptionally talented banana skins lying in wait. Their first encounter with France being the most significant tripwire lying in wait for them in Paris. They may have the most notable dark horses Wales and Ireland to face on their home turf of Fortress Twickenham, but even that is no guarantee with the talent the two Celtic tigers have in their stables this year. There’s also the small matter of a difficult trip to Murrayfield to face a wild card Scotland. At the end of the day however, England are the only team along with Scotland who are not trying to adapt to a new Coach and that in this first International outing since the World Cup may be one of their most valuable assets.

France may still be the conundrum that all the teams will have to deal with. They potentially have the most exciting back line in the tournament if utilized properly, and Antoine Dupont may be the most exciting scrum half package the tournament has seen in years. They won’t take the silverware but they could definitely pose some massive problems for the teams that are in the running for top honors, and some definite upsets are on the cards.

Ireland are another dark horse package. There is some extraordinary young talent that is genuinely world class in Ireland’s Six Nations offering, and if it can adapt to Ireland’s new Coaching regime under Andy Farrell then they can not only upset any team on their day, but are also more than capable of competing for the silverware. Despite their dismal season last year, it would be foolish beyond belief to write them off.

Wales will not repeat their Grand Slam heroics of last year and furthermore we have trouble seeing them take the silverware. However, like Ireland we feel that a strong second place finish is well within the realms of possibility. Along the way expect them to produce some epic performances in both defence and attack and as we said last week, winger Louis Rees-Zammit could well end up being one of the players of the tournament.

Scotland would appear to have some dissension in the ranks with the Coaching regime of Gregor Townsend, but there is no denying that if they play with their hearts and a bit of devil may care attitude they could end up providing us with some of the most memorable moments of the Championship. Their encounter in round 2 with England at Murrayfield will be one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament.

We can’t see Italy doing anything other stir the Six Nations pot with the wooden spoon, but their match with Scotland in Rome and one of the last matches with the inspirational Sergio Parisse in an Azurri jersey could well be one for the Six Nations archives.

In short, a tournament that promises an enormous amount of excitement, and much more than most Six Nations immediately after a World Cup usually deliver. The best news for us here in Canada is that DAZN will be broadcasting all matches live and on demand. See TV listings on upcoming matches, broadcast times and how to subscribe.

Major League Rugby

The Toronto Arrows got their preseason underway in Las Vegas and put the Utah Warriors to the sword with ease. Next up they face Rugby United New York and then it’s 14 days till the season kicks off in earnest with their first regular season game against Austin Herd on February 9th. We’ve got a really good feeling about this season and think it’s going to be a great time to be a rugby fan in Toronto this year. Onwards and upwards!

Super Rugby

The Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition kicks off this Friday, January 31st and once again TSN has the rights for this season here in Canada. We’ve got the full schedule over on the TV listings page and will have more to say about the tournament later in the week.

See you later this week and get ready for five weeks of outstanding International Rugby action!