Canada stepped onto the pitch wearing their black kits for their final match of the Pacific Nations Cup. The kit was nearly completely black with the exception of a few red accents. The kit looked sharp and had fans hoping they could play as well as the other team that wears all black kits. Canada did play their best game of the PNC, however early mistakes gave the Tongans a big 19-3 lead after 32 minutes and despite a valiant attempt, Canada was never able to overcome that deficit.
Canada got off to a slow start in this game. DTH van der Merwe and Peter Nelson failed to take a high ball on the full in the games opening minute. Tonga would knock it on anyway, but the play seemed to set the tone for a slow start. The Tongan pack was very effective early on as they were able to wear down the Canadian defense. The Tongan set piece would strike first as Tevita Halaifonua received the ball from Tane Takulua out of the scrum and smash his way across the line for the opening try of the match. A great Tyler Ardron steal would put Canada in good field position and after a Tongan penalty, Nelson placed a great kick to 10m from the Tongan try line. The Canadian lineout executed a great play with some excellent deception and ball movement. Unfortunately, the ball was knocked on at the line. Canada’s pressure would continue and McRorie would slot a penalty to cut the lead to 7-3.
Phil Mack sent a box kick up that was easily countered by Tonga. Tonga’s counter-attack created a lot of holes in the Canadian defense and a handful of offloads never allowed the defense to truly get set. The ball made its way down the field and Viliami Lolohea finished off the great team try. Tonga would extend their lead on another Canadian error just 5 minutes later. Benoit Piffero (who entered the game to replace the injured Eric Howard at the water break) overthrew his target in the lineout and Tonga made quick work of the error. This time it would be Mali Hingano dotting down the try. This gave the Tongans a 19-3 lead. Canada would answer back before the half was out. Canada was stopped on the previous 2 lineout mauls, but 3rd time is the charm and Mack got the ball out to Jeff Hassler who flew down the wing for Canada’s first try. Hassler’s try sent Canada to the sheds down 19-8.
Again, a slow start to the 2nd half would dig Canada a bigger hole. Canada let the restart drop and Tonga was able to turn that into a quick try from Latu Talakai just 2 minutes into the half. The play started to open up a bit and Canada’s attack began getting more creative. Mack tried a quick tap on a penalty, but that led to a knock-on. Mack and Piffero combined for a nice short ball lineout play. Unfortunately, as Piffero dashed down the sidelines, he had no support with him and the Tongan defense quickly turned over the ball. The tide of the game would begin to turn in the 61st minute.
Mack was replaced by Patrick Parfrey. Parfrey went to fullback, Nelson shifted to flyhalf, and McRorie went to scrum. The new combination wasted no time making an impact. With advantage, McRorie passed to Nelson who sent a cross-filed kick to Hassler’s wing. Hassler and Halaifonua contested for the ball, but neither came down with it allowing Parfrey to pounce on the loose ball for the try. Tonga answered back quickly, as Sione Vailanu picked up his reward for an outstanding game and a well-deserved try. Canada would not be phased through. Parfrey continued his surge as he caused a turnover, found some open space, drew in a defender, and sprung van der Merwe free for Canada’s 3rd try of the game. Nick Blevins had a great line break where he found Parfrey who was able to spring Hassler for his 2nd try of the match. This try cut the lead to just 10. Unfortunately, despite Canada applying the pressure, the clock would eat away at their comeback hopes. Despite, the game being out of reach Canada played hard the whole 80 minutes and Ardron had one last effort for a try, but was held up by the Tongan defense. Nigel Owens blew the fulltime whistle and Canada falls to Tonga 33-23 and finishes the PNC with an 0-3 record.
Before the match, I said this was a winnable game for Canada and after watching the game, it certainly was. In the first half, Tonga did an excellent job capitalizing on Canadian mistakes. The two most obvious examples of this are Mack’s box kick that turned into a Tonga try and Piffero’s overthrown lineout ball that led to a try. Canada has been box kicking a lot throughout the PNC. In my opinion, it has been happening too much, especially since they rarely gain possession back. I would just like to see them hold onto the ball more. In this case, the box kick was not covered well and it resulted in a try against. When Tonga saw a chance to attack, they wasted no time in doing so. Canada’s defense was always backpedaling and a stream of offloads would never allow the Canadian defense to reset properly. The 2nd half also began with Canada committing one of the major faux pas of rugby when they let the restart drop. Tonga again wasted no time converting that mistake into points. Meanwhile, Canada failed to capitalize on their chances such as the well-executed lineout play in the 13th minute that was knocked on at the Tongan try line. Mack knocked on a quick tap penalty just 5m shy of the Tongan try line and a handful of other turnovers inside the Tongan 22. However, despite this, Canada was still in this game, especially when they began their comeback surge in the 2nd half.
One stat does stand out to me though and also illustrates that Canada could have won this game. Tonga scored 5 tries to Canada’s 4. However, the difference in this match (at least where the scoreboard is considered) is the conversion kicks. Tane Takulua and Latiume Fosita were a combined 4/5 on conversions. Gordon McRorie and Peter Nelson were a combined 0/4. Tongan wins this game by 10 points meaning it was a 2-possession game as Canada marched up the field in the final 3 minutes. However, if McRorie (who was 0/3) and Nelson (0/1) can make even just 50% of those conversions, it’s a 6-point lead and Canada has a chance to win on the final play of the game. Of course, this would mean McRorie or Nelson would have needed to make the final conversion, but by going 0/4 throughout the match you don’t even get that chance. Ardron was held up over the line on the final play anyways, but the chance to win could have been there with more accurate kicking. Yes, many of those kicks were from tough angles, but Shane O’Leary was able to make them last week against Fiji, so it will be interesting to see what Kingsley Jones does moving forward.
When Eric Howard was forced to leave the game, Benoit Piffero replaced him. In the first match against the USA, Piffero struggled mightily. He sat out the game against Fiji and returned to the lineup this week. Piffero came on in the 20th minute and had a big opportunity to redeem himself. Unfortunately, he struggled again, although he did get better as the game went on. Piffero once again had trouble connecting on his lineout throws. One poor throw, in particular, led directly to a Tongan try. In contrast, Howard made a number of good throws, placing the ball where only a Canadian jumper could get to it.
Overall, Canada’s lineouts (with Howard or Piffero) looked a lot better. The plays were not as predictable and they were able to generate some attacking options from them. They didn’t go to the maul nearly as often and instead opted to get the ball out more quickly which was more effective for the Canadian attack. Just prior to Hassler’s first try, Canada went to a maul twice in the lineout. They didn’t go too far but they were able to draw some penalties in them. The try was scored when Mack was able to get the ball out to Hassler on the wing. Despite a similar look 3 times in a row, Canada was able to change it up and get the ball to Hassler. Changing the looks in the lineout is a big improvement over the match with Fiji.
When Patrick Parfrey entered the game in the 61st minute Canada’s attack became way more dynamic. Within the first minute of Parfrey being on the pitch, he capitalized on a Crossfield kick from Nelson, which is something Canada has not even attempted the entire competition. Parfrey was able to facilitate a strong counter-attack, especially as the game opened up toward the end. He managed to spring van der Merwe for his try. Van der Merwe had a very quiet game up until Parfrey came onto the pitch. All of a sudden, he became more involved in the Canadian attacks. The backs as a whole looked completely different, as the began running more effective lines and opening up holes in the Tongan defense. Parfrey himself had a direct hand in all 3 of Canada’s 2nd half tries. He was arguably Canada’s best player in this game (sorry Patrick, but Tyler Ardron still played like Tyler Ardron) and he only played 19 minutes. Jones has plenty of decisions to make regarding the squad for the Rugby World Cup. Parfrey is making it very difficult to ignore his skill set and what he brings to the Canadian side. Nelson and Parfrey are both viable options for the starting fullback role. However, with seemingly no clarity as to who will be the flyhalf, Parfrey’s position in the starting lineup is up in the air. If Nelson is the flyhalf, Parfrey will be in the 15 jersey. If it is either O’Leary or McRorie at flyhalf Parfrey may be in the reserves much like he was against Tonga. Only Jones really knows what will happen here. However, Parfrey has certainly made his case for selection on the World Cup team.
Ultimately, this was Canada’s best game of the PNC. Their offensive surge last in the game was the best they have looked on the attack the entire tournament. Tonga capitalized on the Canadian mistakes early in the match and jumped out to a big lead that Canada was not able to overcome. However, with more accurate kicking they may have had a chance to win the match on the final play. Canada goes 0-3 at the Pacific Nations Cup but is improving every game. Up next for the Canadians as they continue to prepare for the Rugby World Cup will be the Pro14 Champions Leinster in Hamilton on August 24th, 2019.