Saturday, 24 October 2015

Rugby World Cup: Canada 15, Romania 17

Okay, I've put this off long enough, let's dive in...

In a disappointing ending to a frustrating World Cup, the Canadian team dropped a 17-15 decision to Romania which they should have won.  The loss meant that the Canadian team for the first time lost all its games in a tournament.  In 2007, the best the Canadian team could achieve was to tie Japan, but in every other editions, always managed at least one win.

What makes this result so bitter is that the Canadian team played very well against France, and fumbled away a very achievable win against Italy in the second half.  After these near-misses, mathematically eliminated, what remained was to bag a victory against a strong but inferior squad.  And we couldn't manage that either.

The Canadian team was on the attack for most of the game, running the ball aggressively and trying to advance, to score tries.  Unfortunately, they also committed many handling errors, dropping passes, knocking the ball forward, missing open men.

In previous years, the Canadian team played a more conservative style, predicated on ferocious defence and tackling and hope.  Its approach has evolved along with the game, you can't kick the ball exclusively like England used to do and expect to win nowadays, but maybe the technical skills of the Canadian players as a whole lags behind the ambitions of the coaching staff.

This of course does not apply to the superb, electric DTH van der Merwe, the Canadian wing who set a first in World Cup history, being the first player from a Tier 2 nation to score at least one try in every game his team played in the pool round.  Again in this game, his try was a thing of beauty, although for a change it wasn't a looping long-distance run.  He got the ball 15 metres out and juked and slid his way in over the line between some overmatched defenders.

The next Canadian try by Jeff Hasler, the other Canadian wing, was another crowd pleaser.  Getting the ball 20 metres out, he sped towards the goal and stiff-armed and bulled his way past tacklers, refusing to go down after contact, pushing his way past and sliding in under the goalposts.

This brought the score to 15-0 Canada, and our team should have put this game away.  Unfortunately, many dangerous opportunities to add another try were fumbled away, and kicks at goal were missed that could have decided the game.

Instead, Romania set a Rugby World Cup record for the biggest deficit at halftime overcome to win a match, an embarrassing distinction for the Canadian team to be a part of.  The Romanians used their 40 kg pack advantage in their favour, they started using their scrum and close mauls to overpower the Canadians, instead of trying to get the ball out wide, which they weren't successful with, committing lots of handling errors.  Both their tries came from mauls that they pushed over the line.

Add in some more surefooted kicking, and that was the deciding factor.  Along with an early yellow card to the Romanian team that the Canadians didn't seem impatient to capitalize on.  I thought I saw the Canadian team being a little listless, indecisive after breakdowns, instead of hurrying with a throw-in or put-in.

There were some players on the Canadian side who caught the eye.  Captain Jamie Cudmore, who I thought had a muted World Cup, seemed to realize this was his last kick at the can.  He played with more energy, and was more of a factor in open play, rather than just a steady veteran to power the scrum.  In previous games, when he had the ball, he seemed to choose an opponent, put his shoulder into him and go down willingly, posting the ball, having been successful in his phase, his job done.   This time, he'd run with ferocity, trying to elude tacklers, or at least drive them back a few yards before going down.

Aaron Carpenter for me was a revelation.  Any player who can play hooker one game and Number 8 the next is amazing to me.  He was clever in open play, useful with the ball, ranging out wide with the backs or playing close to the pack.   I have nothing but respect for his effort in this game and tournament.

The forwards, while they were expected to be outclassed by a much stronger and heavier Romanian pack, acquitted themselves quite well, again.  Their tactic in this tournament, which worked reliably, was to win its ball quickly and out of the scrum, instead of trying to drive back a bulldozer.  Our scrum half would put in the ball and a second later take it out the back and feed it to the fly half, no muss, no fuss.  And no opportunity for the opposition to feast on a potential weakness.  Great job, great execution.

The Canadian team continued its practice of not contesting opposition lineouts, not trying to spoil, but rather hanging back and getting ready to defend.  I'm out of my depth to analyze whether that's sound strategy, I'm not solid on the pros and cons, but it grates a little bit that we concede their throw-ins, it's dangerously near to admitting defeat.

And therein lies the kernel of a thought I'd like to discount, but I wonder whether the Canadian team, historically the plucky underdog who doesn't expect to win but will not be beaten easily, the minnow among the sharks, maybe in the back of its mind expects to lose.

It might be realistic to go in against Ireland or New Zealand or others knowing your best-case scenario is to keep it respectable, maybe it's inescapable, but when you're in a game that's close, when victory is at hand, against a more reasonable opponent, maybe the voices, the self-talk in the psyche of the Canadian team is a little defeatist.  And when the tide turns a little or a tough call happens, instead of bucking up, like the Japanese team did against South Africa in their win for the ages, maybe our boys think "Here we go again..."

But that's for another time.  I'll dissect this corpse at greater length later.

Overall, despite the fishtail ending, I'll giving our boys grudging applause and a pat on the back.  If not for a few bounces, this could have gone very differently.  And that's the nature of sport, sometimes the narrative at the end isn't necessarily what was pre-ordained before the game started.

Maybe this is just a case of more time, more test matches, better or at least different coaching and philosophies, and we may tell a very different tale in 2019.

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