Thursday, September 5, 2013

North Americans may have strategically ideal Rugby World Cup 2015 opposition

Canada v Italy from 2012 in Toronto
The Pacific Nations Cup looms as being the ideal long term solution for North American Rugby. Like Argentina needing to adjust to the style of play in the Rugby Championship both Canada and the USA need to play differently against Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and, less so, Japan than would be the case against European sides. While there are a number of differences between Canada and the USA in international rugby one crucial difference is the ability of Canada to play well against Pacific Island sides - unlike the USA. While Canada has defeated Tonga on five occassions out of seven tests and won three while losing six against Fiji the USA Eagles record is one win over both Fiji and Tonga compared to nine loses. 

Canada has also, importantly, delivered at Rugby World Cup´s. The USA has defeated Japan and Russia while Canada has defeated Fiji, Namibia, Romania and Tonga in addition to drawing twice against Japan. In Rugby World Cup 2015 Samoa will face Americas 2, likely the USA. Neither Canada nor the USA has ever defeated Samoa. The Samoans physicality, particularly at the breakdown, would appear to be what sets Samoa apart from the other Tier Two nations. This area combined with scrums is where Canada has had held an advantage over the USA year after year. 

Of note is that Canada´s style of play is more successful against European sides than others and Canada will play in Pool D at Rugby World Cup 2015 against France, Ireland, Italy and Europe 2 (possibly Romania). Although there are three Six Nations sides Canada may well prefer facing Italy than Samoa as the pool´s third seed on reputation after South Africa and Scotland. The reason being that Italy´s style of play is more familiar and easier to combat than is the case of Samoa´s. Overall facing France and Italy requires a far similar game plan than does facing South Africa and Samoa with Scotland in between. Canada also has a record of two wins and five loses against the Italians.

While Italy is a team ranked lower than Samoa on IRB World Rankings it is a team considered to be slightly better. The reasons being that it is a more consistent performer and has a more extensive playing squad to call upon. Samoa, unlike Italy, has no professional rugby and relies heavily on acquiring foreign players, particularly New Zealanders who are not able to make the All Blacks. Indeed 50% of the Samoan players at Rugby World Cup 2015 were New Zealanders, born to Samoan parents or grandparents. Samoa, quite simply, does not produce enough quality players and relies on acquiring eligible players from abroad.

Italy is well known for nationalizing players with Argentina, Australia and South Africa all having had many players represent Italy. Unlike New Zealanders representing Samoa, however, the players have been based in Italy. Samoa defeated Italy in June and did so with nine New Zealanders in the starting lineup: Ole Avei, Cencus Johnson, Jack Lam, Daniel Leo, Johnny Leota, Filo Paulo, James So´oialio, Jeremy Su´a, Paul Williams. These players were representing a country they do not play in nor were born or raised in. Both Canada and the USA also have players born abroad but finding players who have never lived in either country that play at the international level is like finding a needle in a haystack. It is rare rather than unlike Samoa, where it is the norm. 

The USA has an outstanding back-row to face Samoa and, arguably out play them at their own game. Not only are Samu Manoa, Scott LaValla and Todd Clever all elite athletes but they are all test players that were born and raised in the USA. They delivered against Ireland in June but the team could not win while the combination did not face Fiji or Tonga in the Pacific Nations Cup. The tournament will be key, particularly in 2014, with the USA needing to find a game plan to combat the Pacific Islanders that it can then use against Samoa in Pool B of England 2015. Pool D could, in other words, be a blessing for Canada while the USA certainly stands a better chance of making history by winning two pool matches in Pool B than is the case in Pool D.

Samoa enters Pool B as the official number two side behind South Africa and ahead of Scotland. It will, likely, have problems finishing second though as Scotland has the game plan to topple Samoa. It also has the players and the coach. Vern Cotter will be the Scottish coach. The New Zealander has transformed Clermont Auvergne from being a traditional French club side to playing Super Rugby in the Top 14. The game plan is attacking rugby and a brand that he is now set to utilize with Scotland. This is bad news for Samoa and it also implies that Scotland is likely to be closer to the style of play that is Ireland come 2015. Americas 2 will play Samoa first and Asia 1 last in pool play. It is a schedule that will likely see a policy shaped around winning these two games. The match against Scotland will be seven days after the opening fixture.


  1. Samoa are comfortably stronger than Italy at the moment. And the better they are, the more eligible players they will attract as more players put their hand up come RWC time as well.

    Italy are by far the more preferable opponents for not just on the field reasons.

    As you mentioned, their style is more familiar and Canada will likely face very similar styles in every match of their pool. But also Samoa beat teams up in a way that others can't. When Wales faced Samoa last November, they got beat up with a number of players suffering knocks. With the RWC schedule having quick turnarounds for Tier 2 teams, I would want to avoid the Samoa fixture as with short time to recover after a match with them would severely hurt the prospects in the next match.

    I wouldn't be so confident about Scotland merely because of the coach by the way. At Clermont Cotter could sign players like Sivivatu, Bonnaire and Nalaga. National team coaches are limited in options, so man management skills of getting the best out of available players are more important. You can't pick and choose national team players to fit your plan. Scotland will be limited to players like Nick de Luca, Sean Lamont and Matt Scott in midfield, that's not like picking between Fofana, Rougerie, King and Benson Stanley.

    1. Point taken and, curiously, Clermont is set o announce the signature of Ma´a Nonu.

  2. I agree. If the other two teams in Pool B are USA and Japan, I'd be surprised if they don't target Scotland every bit as much as Samoa. I think both will believe they can be competitive and even possibly sneak a win against one or both. The gap is closing, steadily, RWC by RWC. It's a pity Japan v Scotland is only one week after Japan v NZ. That leaves Eddie Jones with a bit of a conundrum. He wants to be as competitive as possible v NZ but the game v Scotland is arguably more important as it is a real test against an opponent in 2015. But if he puts out his best team v NZ at home he faces the real danger that the team will be very banged up after the NZ game. What to do? I'm sure the JRFU would've preffered to play Spain first then Scotland afterwards so that Jones would have a refreshed 1st XV available to give it's best in both matches.

    BTW, other sports like football also feature national teams with most players picked on ethnic bloodlines rather than residence in the country they represent eg several if not all the Carribean nation's football teams loaded with UK-based pros. Even as NZer, I have no problem with Samoa, Tonga or others using NZ born and bred players if those players prefer to play for the island teams. They don't have big populations at home and the players in NZ and Australia etc are still ethnically Samoan/part Samoan so I think that is their birthright to still choose to play for the island team of their descent. I honestly don't know what your problem with that is or why you've even brought it up but it certainly makes it sound like you've got something of a chip on your shoulder about Samoa. There are also quite a number of players who play rugby for lower tier teams around the world, including the ENC in Europe and A5N in Asia based on their heritage, with many being born and raised outside the country they play for. It's not that unusual at all.

    1. It's not a criticism as such of Samoa. It's just noting the factors to their increased success of recent times, which has been built upon being able to get more eligible players to play for them. Samoa are directly benefiting from the New Zealand Rugby system.

      Nobody said it is unusual for this to happen, but I would argue that Samoa and Tonga have benefited to a far larger extent than others, Samoa now has the majority of their team born in New Zealand and gone through the NZ system, and many of the Samoan born players have also gone through the NZ system.

      I don't have a grudge about them benefiting from this, although unrelated I do have a problem with some Samoan fans who like to claim the "poaching" victim card and complain so much about New Zealand. Which is a myth, and hypocritical when the majority of their team has had their development funded by the NZ system. They benefit from NZ far far more than they lose out.

      As for Japan, Eddie Jones has already said he will play a full team against New Zealand. He mentioned in the press conference that Japan has never given a good show of themselves against the top sides at RWC as they play their second team against them, and this will be an opportunity to get a real test for the actual team. I am sure he will play the full team against Scotland as well of course. After all he played nearly the full team against Canada in the PNC just 3 days after beating Wales.

      Resting the full team in the RWC for the unwinnable has hardly worked in helping win the other ones the past for Japan, it looks like he will be only minorly altering in the close RWC matches as opposed to the 13 or 14 changes per game we saw last RWC vs New Zealand, or the one before against Australia and Wales.

  3. Regarding Vern Cotter's future prospects, I fully agree with BEH.
    He won't have the same quality to choose from that he had at Clermont. Only 3 scots made the lion squad off the top of me head! Samoa, toga and Fiji will all be big threats come the RWC.

    Japan are also starting to look combative. After living in Japan for so long, I can now see that breakdown rugby exists in the top league.
    European teams always play it through the forwards so whether group B or D, Canada and the USA will have it all to do!

    As for the topic of nationality every team has players from other nations representing it. I mentioned Japan. Eddie Jones was under instruction to choose more japanese player for the national side. After the 2012 PAC nations cup, it dawned on him and the JRFU that this could not be done, and that the cherry blossoms would always have to rely on overseas players.

    We talk about growning the game of rugby, but the reality is that it's a big man's sport. If for instance we look at Argentina, then we are looking at the big man nation of South America, and the most Eurocentric nation, too.
    If a nation like Bolivia starts to jump up the pecking order of S. Amer rugby, don't be surprised if many of the players originally come from Argentina.
    I'm a keen fan of all sports and it probably won't surprise anyone that mainly all the heavy throws events in athletics are dominated by Argentina with a few Chilieans and Brazilians thrown in.
    Rugby playing nations will always need players of a good standard so nationality shouldn't be called into question.

    Wait a minute. Argentina's players all come from Argentina and all learn't to play there, too! VAMOS LOS PUMAS.

    1. Hang on. Eddie Jones has selected far less overseas players than his predecessor Kirwan did, and I'm not sure he was under instruction either to do it as he talked in interviews that the side needed to be more Japanese.

      The side is much less reliant under Eddie Jones now. Hendrik Tui and Male Sa'u are the only two real nailed on starters who are foreigners, under Kirwan there was about 6 with Arlidge, Webb, Nicholas, Tupuailai, Thompson and Vatuvei all first choice.

      Jones may also have Broadhurst and Wing around the squad, but neither would start with the side fully fit and neither would be easily replaceable. 2 first choice foreigners isn't totally relying on them in my opinion.

  4. Yoshido Mori voiced his concerned after the 2011 RWC about the amount of foreign players in the squad.
    If you look at the team roster for the 2012 Asia 5 nations, apart from Michael Leitch they all but disappeared. One has to take from previous comments and the players who were present at that time, that there was a need to start more Japanese born players. Under instruction(?)
    For this year more more foreign players have been selected. Japanese rugby needs overseas players!
    By the way isn't it odd that despite Japan excelling in basketball(slightly) and volleyball(definately), they can never find tall or for that matter hefty second rowers.