Canada’s Rugby World Cup preparations are in full swing. The RWC is just 2 months away and Canada will be playing a series of games to prepare for the tournament. Up first is the Pacific Nations Cup. The Pacific Nations Cup is divided into two pools. Pool A is Fiji, Tonga, and the United States of America. Pool B is Canada, Japan, and Samoa. The PNC is played in a cross-pool format, so Canada plays USA, Fiji, and Tonga. On Saturday night, Canada opened the tournament with a match against the USA Eagles.
Canada struggled mightily in the opening match of the PNC. USA ran in 6 tries from Dylan Fawsitt, Blaine Scully, Ben Landry, Gannon Moore, Kapeli Pifeleti, and Ruben de Haas. A.J. MacGinty added 15 points off his boot and the Eagles routed Canada 47-19. Canada would receive tries from Tyler Ardron, a penalty try, and Conor Trainer. However, the later two tries were both within the last 4 minutes of the match when it was already way out of hand.
It was a difficult game to watch as Canada appeared to be simultaneously out classed and run into some awful luck. The Eagles 2nd try of the match came as Will Hooley sent a kick toward the corner. Scully raced on, but DTH van der Merwe and Patrick Parfrey were there in defence. The ball hit the touch flag and bounced back into the in goal area. Van der Merwe and Parfrey overran it and Scully dotted down the try. Canada was down 17-0 as the clock ticked down on halftime. Ben LeSage made a nice tackle that jarred the ball lose from Martin Iosefo’s hands. Conor Trainor came by, scooped it up and looked to dash in for a try to end the half. Alas, it was not to be as it was ruled the ball came forward off LeSage, meaning Trainor was now offside. MacGinty slotted the penalty and the USA went into the half with a 20-0 lead. However, despite the poor luck, it was clear the Eagles were better side on the day.
USA controlled the bulk of the possession and territory throughout the match. Ultimately, this meant that Canada had few offensive opportunities. Unfortunately, Canada was not able to do much with any of the opportunities that they had. The commentators for the match kept lamenting the strong defensive work from USA. However, despite the Eagles playing well in defense, Canada did not exactly make it challenging for them. Canada ran plenty of simplistic attacking options that the USA defense was able to read clearly. There appeared to be little creativity or little adjustments after it became clear that it was not working. Too often the ball would simply travel to the next player down the back line with out much variation. It was too easy for the Eagles to defend. It’s unfortunate that an incident in practice forced Jeff Hasler and Taylor Paris to miss the game with injuries. Both of those players have a lot of dynamic offensive talent and were certainly missed on the pitch today. However, both Paris and Hassler are wingers. In this match van der Merwe and Trainor both had minimal touches. Van der Merwe had a quiet game, largely because Canada could never get the ball to him. The Eagles defence always managed to break up the play or land a dominate tackle before van der Merwe could even get his hands on the ball. Ultimately, Kingsley Jones needs to make an adjust here going forward. Other opponents are going to see the attacking structure on tape and be prepared for it. Canada scored 3 tries in the match, but none of them were the result of building phases or a sustained attack. Ardron made a beautiful interception that he ran the length of the pitch for a try (outrunning Gannon Moore and the USA backs in the process). The 2nd try was a penalty try earned by the scrum. The 3rd was a set piece play from a scrum that saw Trainor take advantage of a hole created by a yellow card to the Americans. Canada will need to develop a stronger attacking game as we get closer to the Rugby World Cup.
The USA controlling the possession and territory in the match meant that Canada had to play a lot of defense. Obviously, the Eagles pinned 47 points on the board so there are certainly improvements that can be made on the defensive side of the ball. However, Canada still had some nice moments. Evan Olmstead had a solid game. He got himself involved at what seemed like every breakdown at times. Olmstead had a great play to break up an American maul by making his way straight through the middle of it. He was also responsible for drawing a handful of penalties, including the yellow card on Pifeleti. Canada was able to take advantage of the yellow card and picked up 2 tries in the final 5 minutes of the game.
Going forward, there are many players on the squad that didn’t have particularly good games. Ultimately, this should open up the door for some of the players that weren’t in this game to earn some more playing time. Benoit Piffero struggled throughout the match. He had a number of inaccurate lineouts throws that the USA was able to steal or he was simply given a penalty for. The rest of his game was not overly impressive either. Andrew Quattrin came in as a replacement in the 58th minute and faired much better. Quattrin was joined by Rob Brouwer and Jake Ilnicki as 58th minute replacements in the front row. They were the ones who earned the penalty try and helped set up a solid foundation for Trainor’s try off the set piece (USA’s scrum was shorthanded due to a yellow card at this time). Ultimately, I would like to see all 3 of Brouwer, Quattrin, and Ilnicki start against Fiji. Peter Nelson made a handful of mental errors and appears to still be adjusting to his new squad. He was shifted from flyhalf to fullback when Shane O’Leary replaced Patrick Parfrey. It will be interesting to see where Nelson ultimately ends up lining up at the RWC.
This game should open the door for players like Mike Sheppard, Eric Howard, and Djustice Sears-Duru to prove they deserve more playing time in the build up to the RWC. I have said before that very few players should feel safe about their spots on the team and that certainly did not change after this game. There is plenty of spots with tight competition and the upcoming games against Fiji and Tonga could go a long way to players that want to build a case to be included on the squad that heads to Japan in 2 months.