Source: Colin Watson / Rugby Canada
It’s finally here! The Rugby World Cup is off and running! Canadian fans have been left chomping at the bit as Canada had to wait for the first round of games to pass before taking the pitch. In their tournament opener, Canada will take on Italy. The Italians opened their tournament with a 47-22 victory over Namibia. Italy was sloppy in that game at times and despite the margin, will certainly be looking to shore up the execution errors against Canada. This is arguably the most important game of the tournament for Canada.
At the Rugby World Cup, the top 2 teams in the pool advance to the quarter-finals and qualify for the following RWC. The team that finishes 3rd is eliminated from the tournament but qualifies for the next RWC. For a lot of teams earning that automatic qualification is something to aspire too. The All Blacks and Springboks are heavy favourites to claim those top 2 spots, leaving Canada, Italy, and Namibia to fight for the 3rd spot. Italy already has a bonus-point win under their belt. Therefore, if Canada has any dreams of reaching 3rd, they must beat Italy on Thursday morning.
Kingsley Jones and Canada have targeted this game with Italy as a winnable match. Italy is a tier 1 nation, so it would be a tough test no matter what. However, if Canada fields their best team and plays at the highest level they are capable of (and get a bounce or two to go their way) they could beat Italy. Unfortunately, Jones is not able to field Canada’s best Starting XV due to a series of injuries. Justin Blanchet and Kyle Baillie suffered injuries in the last match against the USA. Blanchet was replaced by Josh Larsen and Baillie is with the team but still recovering. To add to it, Evan Olmstead and Taylor Paris suffered injuries at training. Ultimately, the injuries to Blanchet, Baillie, and Olmstead are massive blows to the pack. Conor Keys and Larsen will start at lock and Mike Sheppard will start at flanker in their place.
Sheppard has been playing outstanding rugby as of late and deserves a start. He is typically a lock, so he will be playing out of position a bit. He will be in the back row with Lucas Rumball and Tyler Ardron. There were no surprises in the front row or on the backline. The backline looks to be Jones’ preferred starters. However, one noteworthy change is Nick Blevins will be starting at inside centre with Ciaran Hearn coming off the bench. The biggest exclusion of the matchday 23 is Shane O’Leary who is a pure flyhalf with an excellent boot.
With just 4 days of rest between following their match with Namibia, Conor O’Shea has made a number of changes to his Starting XV. Only hooker Luca Bigi and flyhalf Tommaso Allan retain the jerseys they wore against Namibia. Legendary captain Sergio Parisse will not be in the lineup and Dean Budd will captain the side. Despite the nearly wholesale changes, the Italian pack will prove quite a test for the weakened Canadian side. In the backs, fullback Matteo Minozzi will provide a constant scoring threat. Minozzi notched a late try against Namibia to bring his career total to 8 tries in 14 games. He is playing in his first RWC and will be looking to make a big impact.
3 Things to Watch
The Set Piece
Josh Larsen did not make the Canadian squad. However, due to injuries he and Conor Keys have been thrust into the starting lineup of the most important game of Canada’s World Cup. Olmstead was a primary target in the lineouts and Baillie was the one who called the plays. It will be interesting to see who is able to step up their play in the absence of Olmstead and Baillie. Canada’s set-piece has been a point of focus for Jones’ to improve. The pack will be under a lot of pressure at both the lineouts and scrums. Ardron and Rumball will be looked to for leadership and take control of the pack. Italy has a solid scrum, but their lineout struggled at times against Namibia. They will be looking to clean up their set-piece as well. It should be an interesting battle.
Hold onto The Ball
Canada utilized the box kick too often against the Americans. It seemed like every time Canada got the ball, Gordon McRorie would kick it away. Canada’s defense is going to have to put in a great performance to give them a chance to win. You don’t want them doing more work than they need to. I would like to see Canada try to hold onto the ball more for a few reasons. Canada has many solid ball carriers in the pack like Rumball, Sheppard, Ardron, and Buydens. Let them try to break down the Italian defense. Then you can get the backs involved. Canada’s two best attacking backs are DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler. If you hold onto the ball you can increase their opportunities to get their hands on it and have an impact on the game. If you kick away the ball too much, you will open the door for Matteo Minozzi to make some plays. That probably won’t work out too well for the Canadians.
Execute with Ball in Hand
Italy left a lot of points off the board against Namibia. Far too often it seemed they were close to a try only to see the opportunity squandered by a poor pass or a knock-on. The conditions weren’t exactly ideal, but you could still see the disappointment after each mistake. Italy will certainly want to clean that up and execute with the ball in hand against Canada. Similarly, Canada will be looking to do the same thing. They are going up against a tier 1 nation and will need to make every opportunity count if they are going to give themselves a chance at the upset.
Canada will take on Italy at 3:45am ET on Thursday, September 26th. You can catch the game on TSN 1, 3, and 4. You can also follow me on twitter @Bressette4 for updates throughout the match.