Monday, December 30, 2013

An eye to RWC 2015 - Canadian v Italian Wingers

When Canada qualified for Rugby World Cup 2015 as Americas 1 there was a mixture of celebration and fear. While Canada would begin preparing well in advance it would be doing so in what is a very difficult pool. In defeating the USA home and away in August Canada joined three Six Nations teams in Pool D while the USA, should it defeat Uruguay, is set to qualify for Pool B and face two Six Nations sides in addition to Samoa and an Asian qualifier. 

In Pool B the Americas 2 qualifier will face South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and Asia 1, likely Japan. In theory wins over Samoa and the Asian qualifier can therefore be said to be more realistic that the task facing Canada. But, perhaps it is not such a difference after all. With the exception of Canada the Pool D participants are to be entirely European. France, Ireland and Italy all pre-qualified based on their performances in New Zealand 2011 while the Europe 2 qualifier, likely Romania, will join them. In November, despite losing against Fiji, Romania showed tremendous improvement to defeat Tonga and Canada while Georgia defeated Canada and Samoa but lost against the USA. 

Italy, on the other hand, is a different example altogether. The Italian side was disappointing in 2013 as despite defeating both France and Ireland in the Six Nations in Rome the central Europeans were poor thereafter in losing the eight of the nine other tests. The one victory in November came against Fiji and it show cased everything that it wrong with Italian rugby - too many veteran players and a lack of quality backs with wing being of grave concern. Rugby World Cup 2015 rivals Canada, in contrast, are enjoying success in the same position as a result of Rugby Sevens and a greatly improved domestic tournament in recent years. During the 2012 test between the countries in Toronto the host nation had the better of play in the backs but was unable to withstand the power of the Italian pack.

2013 showcased an improved pack and for Rugby World Cup 2015 the signs are that Canada will have its best forward pack at Rugby World Cups since 1999. Jamie Cudmore and Jebb Sinclair have being joined by Tyler Ardron at the top level in Europe while Jason Marshall and Hubert Buydens are both professional props while another professional, back-rower Aaron Carpenter is a strong chance at moving to hooker. With there being other established and respected forwards Italy is going to face a much improved Canadian pack in 2015. Also improved is the backline, with the wingers being particularly of note and there being sufficient reason to suggest that Canada has better stock and supply than Italy outwide. The leading five Italian players in contention to be starting wingers against Canada at Rugby World Cup 2015 are arguably Tommasco Benvenuti, Tommaso Iannone, Leonardo Sarto, Giovanbattista Venditti and Luke McLean.

DTH van der Merwe breaks clear
against Japan in RWC 2011
Of them Benvenuti is the only player based abroad. So far this season he has played thirteen Top 14 matches for Perpignan, starting seven with two of them being on the wing. he has mainly been used as a mid-fielder and it is in this position which he is more suited to. McLean is also better as a fullback than a winger and started in the position in place of the injured Andrea Masi in November. McLean has made seven appearances for Benetton Treviso thus far this season. The three others are all contracted to Zebre, the bottom placed side in the Rabo Direct Pro 12 and a team that has recorded just one win since its creation ahead of the 2012-2013 season. Tommaso Iannone has played nine of the eleven league matches so far while Leonardo Sarto has played eight and Giovanbattista Venditti six. Sarto is the leading try scorer with three while Venditti is yet to score this season.

Hassler scores for the Ospreys
Playing in the same league but for notably better performing teams are Canadians Jeff Hassler and DTH van der Merwe. Hassler has made nine appearances scoring three tries for the Ospreys while van der Merwe has scored two tries in seven matches for the Glasgow Warriors. The teams are sitting in third and fourth position in the league compared to the ninth and twelfth positions of the Italians.  Perpignan is eleventh in the Top 14 compared to the eighth placed Sale Sharks in the Aviva Premiership. Another Canadian winger, Phil MacKenzie has played six matches for Sale this season.

Phil Mackenzie scored the match
winner against Tonga in RWC 2011
Canada can lay claim to having better wingers than Italy as a starting combination of Jeff Hassler and DTH van der Merwe showcases better records playing in the same competition as Italy´s equivaelnt players. Crucially, though, is that Canada has depth to provide cover in the form of Phil MacKenzie, Taylor Paris, Conor Trainor and Matt Evans amongst others. Like van der Merwe and MacKenzie Trainor can play both wing and centre while Evans has even played for Canada at fullback and fly half. Some have argued superior rugby can be found in the Pro d2 than that produced by Zebre and with this in mind it is notable that Paris has started eleven matches for the second placed Agen this season scoring five tries. The same cannot be said of England´s second division but it is nonetheless highly notable that in scoring fourteen tries in as many appearances Matt Evans was the highest try scorer in the RFU Championship last season.

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