Normally we produce our Monday match writeups, er, well, on a Monday but given our clash of choice this week was actually on the Wednesday we decided to go a little early this time around.
We went for Canada v Samoa in the Pacific Nations Cup mostly because Ireland’s opening match in the World Cup is against the Canadians in the Millennium Stadium on September 19.
Now if this was to be your first look at the Canadians this summer, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were very unlucky to lose this match in front of a home crowd in Toronto. It was a try literally in the last play of the game which pinched the spoils by a point and put Samoa into the tournament final against Fiji on Monday.
But if you take this performance and compare it to their previous two outings against Japan and Tonga, you would definitely have concerns over their chances in Ireland’s Pool D.
First, some thoughts on how I feel we should be analysing these “Tier 2” nations. Quite simply, it’s a World Cup year, so as far as I’m concerned all 20 teams taking part in the competition need to be compared to the very best.
If there is any chance for the sport to avoid “ending in tiers”, ie the gap in class between the different levels never shortening, then rather than treating test nations outside the Six Nations/SANZAR bracket with kid gloves, we should be pointing out the areas they need to improve. And when it comes to Canada, it’s not hard to find a starting point.
Even without players they’d be relying on like DTH van der Merwe, Jeff Hassler and particularly Jamie Cudmore (not to mention losing Tyler Adron early), they got off to a flyer of a start against a Samoan outfit which, despite not having a full XV out either, would probably have expected to assert themselves on this match early given they’d have justified designs on playing more than four matches at the World Cup.
Perhaps there was a bit of good fortune about the Nick Blevins try after 6 minutes (the knockon that preceded it came off his fellow centre Trainor’s knee) but the home side were definitely good for their 13-0 cushion after just 12 minutes as they really took the game to their opponents, keeping the tempo going nicely and knocking the Samoans off their game.
But as you can see by the final score, they were unable to bring that victory home. Add that to the 15-3 lead they had and lost against the Tongans plus the fact that they only managed 6 points against Japan and you’ve got yourself a side that has issues lasting the full 80 minutes.
And believe me, I’m not just going merely on the numbers making that observation. Having watched all 240 minutes of their Pacific Nations Cup campaign so far (yeah, I know, serious rugby nerd alert!), I have seen the Canadians play some pretty impressive rugby and ask serious questions of their opposition...only for those questions to be answered.
In this particular match last Wednesday, the Samoans actually came back twice. They had some first half disciplinary issues and in many ways were lucky to just have the one player sent to the bin as some of the tackling was high, and despite putting a halt to the Canadian scoring in the first half they could only muster 3 in reply.
Then after an interval period during which the message to the Canadian players surely had to be “let’s bring this lead home” the self-foot-shooting began as early as the 43rd minute.
Samoa were primed and ready to lay siege on that 10-point cushion from the kickoff and got themselves an attacking lineout in Canada’s 22 only to make a hames of the binding maul and get tagged for accidental offside. A scrum to the home side protecting that lead at that stage of the game in that area of the pitch should have gone only one way...get the pill as far out of the 22 as you possibly can.
Maybe the Canadian scrum hasn’t been their best asset over this tournament and they were surprised to have won possession so easily, but when they did, for some unknown reason they chose to run it out of their own 22. End result, the Samoans smelled blood, threw themselves into the breakdown and prised the ball loose for prop Perenise to take it up for what in the end was an easy score.
Michael Stanley, who finished last season at Ulster and impressed overall at 10 throughout this match, converted to close the gap to just 3 points.
Now to be fair to the Canadians, their heads weren’t to drop just yet. After that setback they started to play some sensible rugby and it was getting results...well, if you call their first decent amount of territory since the first quarter “results” - there weren’t any points to go with it.
Full-back James Pritchard missed a couple of make-able penalties and their luck with the red zone knockons seemed to desert them. The Samoans for their part had really upped their defensive game and it appeared there was no way through...and when outhalf Hirayama pushed a drop goal attempt wide only for the Pacific Islanders to go down the other end for two quick penalties of their own to take the lead, it seemed like that was that.
But nobody told that to Sale Sharks winger Phil Mackenzie. When a Hirayama territory kick fell short of touch and begged to be re-branded as an intentional crossfield kick, the bounce may have fallen kindly for him but still he had no hesitation in pinning his ears back and gunning for the posts from the tramlines and the Samoans could barely lay a glove on him. A super try worthy of winning any contest, and Pritchard managed the placekick this time to stretch the lead crucially to 4.
Enter the game’s biggest facepalm moment. Consider the picture to the left there. The clock is past the 78 minute mark, Canada, who lead by 4 and seem on the verge of a famous victory, have just turned the ball over when their loose head prop Sears-Duru ships the ball out to his inside centre. In the photo you see Blevins (red number 12)in the action of kicking the ball towards the Samoans 22 where the was a ton of space, a sensible move and it was an accurate kick as well.
Would you, like I did, do a facepalm when you learn that Sears-Duru (red number 1), seen here a good 5m ahead of his teammate, kept on running to chase the kick giving the referee arguably the easiest offside call possible at this level?
Instead of the Samoans having to run the ball back from their own 22, they now had a penalty which Stanley was able to put deep into the Canadian one. And here the home side got to see just how unforgiving the rugby gods can be...they actually pinched the Samoan lineout on their own 5m line but couldn’t get it under control and eventually it fell to another prop Taulofo who was also able to finish and put his side in the final with the clock gone red.
Yes, it is very possible I am being harsh on Canada here with my criticism. But like I said earlier I’m only doing it because of what I call the Rugby Tactical Development Paradox - the leading nations will genuinely want those below them to raise their standards, once they never actually surpass them of course!!!
On the evidence I have seen in this tournament so far, I can see the Canadians definitely causing Ireland a few problems in our opening match. I might even dare to suggest they could be level or ahead on the scoreboard after the first quarter. But if they don’t find a way to get a handle on how to play smart rugby during the course of a tight contest, they could well struggle as the match ticks on.
In fairness, they have certainly given themselves plenty of opportunity to iron out those kinks I’ve spotted because Canada seem to have the most extensive warm-up schedule of all the competing nations...they have still to face the USA twice (this Monday included), as well as Georgia, Fiji and even Glasgow Warriors, so I’ll keep an eye on them and see if they can improve.
As for Samoa, while they were clearly knocked back by the early onslaught, it was clear they had the greater combined experience in matches like this and despite the opposition virtually handing it to them I’d say they pretty much deserve their place in the final, if for no other reason than to serve as a replay to the 30-30 draw with Fiji earlier in the competition.
Right...that’s enough non-Irish rugby for the time being. The boys in green are back in action next weekend. No doubt both us and the Welsh will be putting out experimental sides but there are several positions in our World Cup matchday 23 still to be decided and with Joe keeping his cards close to his chest there’s bound to be a lot to harp on over the coming weeks. Are you ready? JLP