Canada Can't Fend Off USA Comeback
Canada’s final match before heading to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup got off to a dream start. Peter Nelson put a kick over the USA defence. DTH van der Merwe gave chase and put plenty of pressure on the American’s back 3. Ultimately, van der Merwe’s work was rewarded as Gordon McRorie came away with the ball in space a dashed in for the game’s first try. Nelson stepped up and slotted the conversion for 7-0 lead in the opening 2 minutes. The crowd at BC Place was on their feet and deafeningly loud as Canada continued to put the pressure on. The forwards were tenacious at the breakdown on both sides of the ball, a trend that continued throughout the opening half.
Eventually, those forwards would draw a penalty (collapsing maul) just 10m away from the USA line. Nelson caught the Eagles napping and took a quick tap that he dotted down in the corner. The play caught everyone off guard and it had to be reviewed. Despite a camera being just 2m away, there was no camera angle of the grounding so the try stood. Nelson looked to injure his hand on the play. McRorie would take the conversion kick in his place (and miss), but Nelson would stay in the game. The Canadian defence would continue to be strong. Mike Sheppard led the way with a number of bone crunching tackles (in a man of the match performance). Much of this game was a kicking duel with both the USA and Canada playing a territorial game. Canada’s kick chase was excellent and was giving Canada the upper hand in the aerial exchanges. The opening 30 minutes of this game were terrific from Canada and it left myself staring at my tv in amazement yelling “where the heck has this been all year?!?!”. However, if there was one area of the game the USA had the upper hand on early it was the scrum. With Canada leading 12-3, the USA had an attacking scrum deep in Canadian territory. The USA pack pushed right through Canada and Cam Dolan peeled off the scrum and picked up the USA’s first try. Magie would convert and the game would head to halftime with Canada holding a narrow 12-10 lead despite dominating the first half.
The 2nd half nearly got off to as ideal of a start as the first. It wasn’t quite Josh Ioane kickoff to George Bridge good, but it still a great start to the half. Following a USA penalty, Nelson stepped up and slotted a 45m penalty to extend Canada’s lead just 2 minutes into the half. Canada’s forwards were continuing to do well and making life miserable for the USA pack. They continued with the big hits and ended up with a lineout steal as well.
Unfortunately, Canada was too quick to put boot to ball on a handful of occasions, forcing them to play a lot of defence. Ciaran Hearn and Nelson had back-to-back ill-advised kicks. Hearn’s kick went straight to an America winger with no Canadians in sight and Nelson had his kick charged down. Van der Merwe did well to recover, but was quickly hit into touch. On the ensuing lineout, Dylan Fawsitt would score a try from the back of the maul and tie the game. The game would continue to feature plenty of kicking and Canada’s defence holding strong. Tyler Ardron and Lucas Rumball both created an excellent turnover following a strong defensive stand within the shadow of their own goalposts. Rumball and Ardron would earn a penalty on the play. Of course, right after the lineout, McRorie would box kick and Canada would go right back to defence. From a ruck, Jake Ilnicki would drop a pass from McRorie. The USA would turn on the counter attack and it would be Martin Iosefo who would fly into the corner for the go-ahead try. Hooley’s conversion attempt would miss and Canada was left with 8 minutes to score another try. The clock ticked down a bit thanks to a few scrum resets but soon Canada was knocking on the USA’s door. The USA defence would hold strong as they made it difficult for Canada to gain any ground. Canada would work the ball through the phases but, eventually Hassler would become isolated heading into a tackle and the Americans would turn the ball over to end the game. Despite putting in one of their best performances of 2019, Canada falls to the USA 20-15.
The first half of this match was the best half of rugby Canada has played all year (especially the first 30 minutes). Canada was able to apply plenty of pressure to the USA defence early and shot out to a 12-0 lead early in the match. The game quickly took to the skies, with both sides utilizing their boots quite frequently. DTH van der Merwe, Jeff Hassler, and Patrick Parfrey were all terrific during the kicking exchanges. The kicks from Canada were not always the best, but the chase was always outstanding. Van der Merwe, Hassler, and Parfrey made it incredibly difficult on whoever the American had camped under the high ball. McRorie’s opening try was a direct result of this pressure. These 3 were also terrific on the receiving end of the kicks as well. Parfrey in particular has a number of great takes under the high ball. He had steady, reliable hands the entire match as did Hassler and van der Merwe. As a result, Canada came away with the upper hand on numerous aerial exchanges. This kept the Canadians in the right half of the park as they dominated the territory in the opening half.
The forwards also turned in a wonderful performance in the first half. They were dealt some injuries to overcome (Justin Blanchet and Kyle Baillie) and did a great job in doing so. Mike Sheppard (who was Blanchet’s replacement) was at the front and centre of the pack’s great play. The Toronto Arrows’ star lock made his presence felt early as he had a number of huge hits during a big defensive stand for Canada that began soon after the 20-minute mark. That defensive stand would end with Eric Howard forcing a turnover. Sheppard’s work rate was outstanding as he found his way to seemingly every breakdown or making a tackle at every phase. The pack continued their first half momentum and played with plenty of intensity throughout the match and were getting the better of the USA at the breakdowns. Every player in the pack came up with a big play at some point during the game (especially during another huge defensive stand around the 56th minute). Of course, the captain Tyler Ardron was at the forefront of this with a few solid tackles, turnovers, and charge downs throughout the match.
However, despite this being Canada’s best game of the year, the USA was able to comeback. The USA had the upper hand in the set piece throughout the match. The scrum was a particular area of weakness for Canada. USA frequently got a solid shove on the Canadian scrum. Cam Dolan’s try was due to a dominant America scrum at close range. The scrum has been an area of concern for the team throughout the year and certainly struggled against the Americans. Canada has spent a lot of time working on the lineouts as well. Unfortunately, with the injuries to Blanchet and Baillie, there seemed to be some confusion in the lineouts. This resulted in a lot of untidy lineouts or lost lineouts. Baillie is typically the one who makes the play call in the lineout and his presence was certainly missed in the 2nd half. Of course, the USA’s first try in the 2nd half was scored from a maul following a lineout. The set piece will continue to be an area of focus prior to the Rugby World Cup.
Despite the great opening half, one area of concern was still present in the Canadian game; Canada was kicking the ball away far too much. Canada had to play a lot of defence in this game. At a certain point it felt like every time they got the ball; it would be kicked away. McRorie opted for a box kick far too often and Canada played a lot of defence as a result. McRorie, Nelson, Hearn, Parfrey, and even Ardron at one point, all seemed too eager to put their boot to the ball. One great example of this was following a great defensive stand on the Canadian try line, Rumball and Ardron combined to force a turnover. USA was penalized so Canada regained some territory too. However, after the lineout, McRorie box kicked after the first phase and the USA went right back to the attack. It is frustrating because following the Leinster match Ardron said in order for the offence to improve Canada needs to “keep the ball a few more phases”. That statement was followed up by Canada kicking away possession more than they have in a game all year. Hearn had a kick that seemed direct to no one in particular, but the USA sent it right back. On the next phase, Nelson had an ill-timed kick charged down. This sequence led directly to the Fawsitt try.
The box kick and kicking for territory was clearly a big part of the Canadian game plan. However, after Iosefo put the Americans in front, Canada was left with no choice but to maintain possession. During the final 5 minutes, Canada’s attack struggled to gain any ground. Ultimately, some poor ball/game management would lead to a turnover to end the game. When the box kick was no longer an option, the offence seemed lost. I’m not saying you should never box kick or kick for territory. However, there is a time and a place for it. In this match Canada was far too eager to put boot to ball. Box kicks aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but the frequency in which that tactic was used in this match was shocking. As we now head into the World Cup, I hope Canada heeds the advice from their captain and holds onto the ball for a few more phases.
Ultimately, this was one of Canada’s best games of 2019. Even though they didn’t get the victory, it’s good that they can carry some positive momentum into the tournament. Canada’s next match will be against Italy at 3:45 am on September 26th to open their 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign.