Canada got off to a solid start against Fiji. Early pressure led to a Fijian penalty that Shane O’Leary capitalized on to give the Canadians a 3-0 lead. Fiji answered back quickly with the type of play the Flying Fijians are known for. Eroni Sau was surrounded by 3 Canadian defenders near the touchline, but managed to get a magical offload away to Viliame Mata. The Fijians worked the ball down the pitch with explosive running rugby and Mata would be the one to finish off the try. O’Leary would add another penalty to restore the Canadian lead at 6-5. However, that again would not last long as Henry Seniloli wreaked havoc for Luke Campbell and Gordon McRorie at the scrum. Campbell could not get the ball away cleanly and Peceli Yato dove on it for the try. In the 27th minute, Fiji would win the scrum against a Canadian feed. Although Lucas Rumball was able to stop the initial attempt and hold up the ball, Fiji needed just 1 phase before Nakarawa added the 3rd Fijian try. Canada would get one back before the half as Nick Blevins intercepted a poor Seniloli pass and the ball quickly moved through the hands of McRorie and Kainoa Lloyd who finished off the try to send Canada to the sheds down by just 6 (19-13) at halftime.
Unfortunately, Lloyd’s late first half try would be the extent of the Canadian offense. Fiji had a strong start to the 2nd half and received tries from Peni Ravai and Josua Tuisova within the first 10 minutes of the half to give Fiji a 31-13 lead. The Canadian pack really struggled with the Fijians. Canada had opportunities for attacking lineouts deep in Fijian territory on numerous occasions. However, time and time again, Fiji would stop the maul and prevent the Canadians from playing the ball. Fiji’s ability to win the ball from the Canadian maul ended many scoring threats before the Canadian backs could get a touch. Fiji’s scrum continued to overpower Canada as well. Fiji would eventually show Canada how it is done, when they drove their own maul across the line for a try in the 67th minute. That try and Josh Matavesi’s 4th conversion of the game, gave the Flying Fijians a 38-13 lead. That’s how the game would finish as Canada drops to 0-2 at the Pacific Nations Cup.
Kingsley Jones and Canada came into this game with a clear strategy: utilize the box kick to control territory and possession in the game. To an extent they were successful. Canada had 62% of the territory in the match and 52% of the possession. They also spent more time in the Fijian’s 22 than Fiji spent in theirs. However, there were many times when it felt like the Canadians were going to the box kick far too quickly. Yes, the ball would be deep in Fijian territory for a moment, but when you constantly give one of the world’s most dynamic running rugby sides a chance to run with the ball, you are going to get burned. This was evident on Mata’s opening try. The Fijian counter attack was in fine form following a box kick as they ran the length of the pitch before Canada could really get their defense set. Of course, the box kick worked successfully on Lloyd’s try. It can work, but Canada went to it far too frequently and Fiji’s counter attack had some massive plays.
There was also a handful of occasions where Canada was playing with advantage and they would just kick the ball away. Ciaran Hearn did it in the 32nd minute. A Fijian player knocked the ball on and Hearn picked it up and just immediately kicked it. He never looked for someone to pass to or some contact to head to so Canada could set up something. Fortunately, in his haste, he kicked it right into a Fijian player so Canada still got the scrum. Jamie Mackenzie also did it in the 76th minute when he just put a grubber kick through that no Canadian player had a chance at getting to. There were more examples as Canada would keep box kicking and give the ball back to Fiji on advantages or other turnovers. Ultimately, throughout the game, Canada did not make enough use out of their free plays.
Ultimately, the deciding factor of this game was the dominance of the Fijian’s pack and their play at the set piece. Fiji scored two tries immediately after winning scrums against the Canadian feed. The first was their 2nd try of the match when Seniloli hit Campbell as he tried to play the ball from the back of the scrum and Yato pounced on it. Nakarawa’s try came following a scrum where Fiji ran over Canada. Fiji’s own scrum was also setting up tries as Tuisova had a highlight reel try from the set piece. Fiji’s scrum had the upper hand throughout the match and were constantly able to disrupt the Canadian attack and provide a solid platform for their own attacking structure.
The Canadian pack also found themselves overmatched at the lineout. In fairness, the lineout looked a lot better than last week. Eric Howard (and Andrew Quattrin) was connecting on his throws and Kyle Baillie, Luke Campbell and the other jumpers were able to bring the ball down. However, what happened after the lineout was awful at times. Every time Canada went to set up a maul after the lineout, Fiji stuffed it, held up the ball, and earned the penalty. Canada tried the maul not just once or twice, but 5 times in a row during critical moments in the 2nd half. Fiji made it very difficult for the Canadians to work the ball to the back of the maul. Ultimately, this left many fans wondering how many times does Fiji have to stop the maul before Canada would try something different? This goes back to what I discussed last week; at times Canada’s attack is way to predictable. Fiji kept stopping the maul, and they were more than happy to do it 5 times in a row since they saw it coming. In my opinion, one of the best lineouts of the game for Canada came toward the end of the 46th minute. Howard sent a short ball to McRorie (who was in the lineout) who then fired the ball wide to Rumball. Fiji was slow to react to the play and no Fijian player was near Rumball who had some space. It’s just a shame that he dropped the pass, but I would have like to see Canada attempt something like that again instead of just a maul for the 4th or 5th time in a row. Of course, the other side of this is the maul defense. After Canada failed to score a try on 5 consecutive lineout-mauls, Fiji rolled their maul over for a try in the 67th minute.
Justin Blanchet and Conor Keys both went down with injuries in this one. Blanchet suffered his injury in just the 2nd minute of the game. Mike Sheppard came on to replace him and played out of position at flanker for the remaining 78 minutes. Keys was replaced by Olmstead in the 39th minute. Both Sheppard and Olmstead played well off the bench. Sheppard always found a way to get himself involved in the game and threw a monster hit late in the game as well. His play should earn him a spot in the lineup next week against Tonga as well. Canada’s back line looked better with Peter Nelson at fullback and Shane O’Leary at flyhalf. Nelson looks way more comfortable at fullback and O’Leary demonstrated his excellent goal kicking ability with 2 penalties and a beautifully kicked conversion (that got some help from the post). Rumball was all over the pitch and found himself at nearly every breakdown. He also had a great play to hold up the ball in Canada’s ingoal area (although Fiji scored soon after). Rob Brouwer looked good as well and I still want to see him in the 1 jersey at the Rugby World Cup. Many people, including myself, questioned Kainoa Lloyd’s inclusion in the squad. However, he had a number of strong carries in this game and picked up Canada’s lone try. There is plenty of competition for the winger position on this roster so Lloyd should be pleased with that sloid performance.
Canada will take on Tonga Thursday August 8th at 11pm ET to close out the PNC.