Friday, March 30, 2007

Weekend internationals

June 12, 2006

Lots of action last weekend.

NZ Maori are into the Churchill Cup Final at Edmonton next weekend against Scotland "A". Full details and standings here.

In the southern hemisphere June internationals, the All Blacks gave their fans a fright and fought back late to snatch victory from Ireland. The Wallabies stuffed England. The Boks rolled Scotland. Argentina pipped Wales in Patagonia.

I was in attendance at the Canada vs. England Saxons match at York Stadium in Toronto. I've already posted a reaction in the Rugby Canada message board; so rather than provide an actual commentary, here's part of what I wrote:

... The wind didn't help matters, but then neither did Canada's tactics and inability to adjust.

Ian Kennedy in his report writes:

"There will be some Canadian rugby buffs who will be muttering in their beer still commenting on Canada’s 41-11 loss to the England Saxons Saturday at York University Stadium. Here’s my take on the result and I’m not ‘gilding the lily’ but just stating some facts."

It's true many of us were muttering, and the report does make some legitimate points about Canada's young team (translation: lotsa defensive lapses out wide). But Mr. Kennedy does in fact gild the lily by omitting what I think are a few obvious points.

For instance, playing into the teeth of a gale force wind in the first half, why were we kicking so much possession away for what amounted to absolutely NO GAIN in territory? There was one possession with Canada on the attack approaching the Saxons 22 after a nice sustained build-up of strong pick-and-goes making hard yards, where the ball was then kicked on a break (I think by Morgan Williams, who should have known better), but all the English defender had to do was retrieve the ball and boot an up-and-under that the wind took 80 metres down to Canada's goal area. You could see the heads and shoulders of the Canadian forwards droop in despair seeing what a waste all their efforts had been.

When playing into a strong wind, the backs have to be instructed to refrain from kicking up-and-unders from their own defensive zone. In fact, tell them not to kick the ball at all unless it is absolutely necessary, and drive the kicks lower, maybe make some grubber kicks, but do not put it up high where it comes straight back at you like a ferris wheel. Mystifyingly, we seemed to kick more balls *into* the wind in the first half than we did clearing our own defensive lines with the wind *at our backs* in the 2nd. Surely watching England let the wind do all the work of 70-80 metres with high kicks in the first half should have showed us something. Clearly, it did not.

Also, it was obvious from the first set scrum that England was demolishing Canada and shoving us back at a rate of knots. We had no resistance to it. It looked like an 8-man scrum against a 5-man scrum. And in fact, we were regularly short-changing ourselves by offering a 7-man scrum, and I'm not just talking about the period where lock Matt Phinney was sin-binned. It was obvious England had much bigger men than we did. But on virtually every scrum we had, our No. 8 Sean-Micheal Stephen was playing the role of halfback, *trying* to peel off the back of a scrum going backwards. All it did was de-power our scrum. Scrum-half Morgan Williams stood off to the side like he was a stand-off. I didn't see the point of it the first time we tried it; it got frustrating watching it happen on virtually every scrum we had thereafter.

That sound you heard wasn't English fans clapping; it was Canadian fans slapping their foreheads and groaning. Every one of our scrum possessions was an unmitigated shambles. We rarely made an inch with the tactic of the No. 8 roll-away, the scrum would go backwards or wheel or implode with a tighthead-- it was self-destructive and several times the ref had no option but to award possession to England or we ran into a wall and lost the ball. This was a tactic that clearly was not working, and yet we didn't seem to learn a thing, we didn't make adjustments and we kept getting our clocks cleaned on our own ball.

I feel a bit sheepish complaining about much of this, 'cos lord knows I love to see some first (or second) class rugby in the flesh. But the high cost of tickets and parking leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and our inability to compete on the field sours that a little.

Kennedy's initial game report had the crowd at 7,500, and from my own look I thought it was a pretty good crowd all things considered, especially given the absense of rugby on Canadian TV the past year. We're never going to attract new fans if we charge NFL ticket prices for a sport that Canadians rarely-if-ever get to see on their televisions.

Hopefully The Score's coverage this year will get a few new fans to the competition next year. But doing my own polling of fans at the game, they were pessimistic, believing as I do that the absence of top-tier rugby union from our TVs the past few years is a disaster for the sport we love. The IRB can say they are throwing wads of cash at minnows to strengthen world rugby, but the fact of the matter is that if young Canadian kids don't see the excitement of rugby played in front of packed stadia around the world on their televisions, then they are probably never going to pay to watch rugby let alone participate in playing the sport, and our future internationals will continue to be filled with the sons of British ex-pats.

I'm going to keep the Montgomery Burns illustration around for the next few days. I'll provide further comment later. Suffice it to say, you know things have bottomed-out when yours truly is nonsensically maginalized as a suspected "ARU spy" by paranoid scaredy-cat assclowns. Right now my cynicism is at an all-time high. (Or is that low...?)


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