Wed 4 Sep 2019 | 05:25

Canada's road to Japan

Canada's road to Japan
Wed 4 Sep 2019 | 05:25
Canada's road to Japan
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Canada’s 31-man squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan has just been announced.

There is a mix of youth and experience in the squad, which includes 17 forwards and 14 backs. Seven members of the squad play professionally for the Toronto Arrows, Canada’s only professional team that recently completed its first season in the North American MLR competition.

A number of the squad play professionally overseas or play professionally for American MLR teams, including four who play for the current MLR champions the Seattle Seawolves.

Eleven of the squad are from Ontario and five from British Columbia. Four players are from Alberta with another two each from Quebec, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland & Labrador. There is one member each from Prince Edward Island, France and the United Kingdom.

Roster

Tyler Ardron (Chiefs, captain), Kyle Baillie (New Orleans Gold), Justin Blanchet (Unattached), Nick Blevins (Calgary Hornets), Hubert Buydens (Unattached), Luke Campbell (Toronto Arrows), Andrew Coe (Markham Irish), Jeff Hassler (Seattle Seawolves), Ciaran Hearn (Unattached), Matt Heaton (Rugby ATL), Eric Howard (New Orleans Gold), Jake Ilnicki (Seattle Seawolves), Cole Keith (Toronto Arrows), Conor Keys (Unattached), Ben LeSage (Calgary Canucks), Phil Mack (Seattle Seawolves), Jamie Mackenzie (Toronto Arrows), Gordon McRorie (Calgary Hornets), Peter Nelson (Unattached), Shane O’Leary (Nottingham Rugby), Evan Olmstead (Unattached), Patrick Parfrey (Toronto Arrows), Taylor Paris (Castres Olympiques), Benoit Piffero (Blagnac SCR), Andrew Quattrin (Toronto Arrows),
Lucas Rumball (Toronto Arrows), Djustice Sears-Duru (Seattle Seawolves), Mike Sheppard (Toronto Arrows), Matthew Tierney (Castres Olympiques), Conor Trainor (USON Nevers), DTH van der Merwe (Glasgow Warriors).

Canada World Cup squad

It has not been an easy road to this year’s World Cup in Japan.

How Canada got to the 2019 World Cup in Japan

At the first ever Rugby World Cup held in 1987, Canada was in Pool 2 with Tonga, Ireland and Wales. Canada beat Tonga in its first World Cup match 37-4, but then fell to Ireland 19-46 and Wales, 9-40. The match against Ireland was especially memorable because for part of the game it looked like Canada might pull off an upset. The crowd at Carisbrook, in Dunedin, New Zealand was buzzing, thinking that the Irish may succumb to a Canadian team that took them by surprise.

It was not to be, but the Canadian team nonetheless won the respect of the Dunedin crowd for its passion and the quality of its play.

Fast forward to 2019, and Canada will be playing in its ninth World Cup Finals. Canada has played in every World Cup finals since 1987. Canada’s group will not be an easy group to play in, alongside New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia.

Canada’s Progress to the World Cup finals

Twelve of the 20 teams for the World Cup finals automatically qualified based on their performance in the 2015 World Cup (i.e., the teams who finished third or better in their group stages). The remaining eight places were determined by a regionally-based allotment. So, for these 2019 World Cup finals, eight teams would come from Europe, five from Oceania, three from the Americas, two from Africa, and one from Asia. The last place would be determined by an intercontinental play-off.

Canada did not qualify based on its previous World Cup performance in 2015, and it was not one of the three successful from the Americas (those being Argentina, Uruguay and the United States). Canada’s last opportunity to make the finals was in the intercontinental round-robin play-off, which was held in France in November 2018 between Hong Kong, Kenya, Germany and Canada. The top team would go through to the World Cup finals in Japan.

Canada won all three of its matches and qualified for the World Cup finals (beating Kenya 65-19, Germany 29-10 and Hong Kong in the final match, 27-10).

Canada Qualifies
Photo credit: Rugby Canada

Canada is currently ranked 21st in the Rugby World Rankings. Unlike most of the other teams heading for Japan it has had less than a year to prepare for the World Cup finals. Canada’s late qualifying also meant that it was difficult to arrange games with top level international teams in order to prepare for Japan as their schedules had been arranged months earlier.

Canada played several games early in the year as part of the Americas Rugby Championship, and then in July and August played in the Pacific Nations Cup with the United States (ranked 14th in the rugby world standings), Fiji (10th) and Tonga (15th).

Americas Rugby Championship

In February and March of this year the Canadian team played five matches as part of the Americas Rugby Championship – against Uruguay (17-20), Brazil (10-18), Chile (56-0), an Argentinian fifteen (23-39) and the United States (25-30). The result with Brazil may surprise you but as one commentator noted, “they [Brazil] are an emerging force worth keeping an eye on.” The Canadian team lost four of its five matches (several of these lost by narrow margins), but it did show glimpses of form in various games. More significantly, a large number of players were absent due to their commitments with various professional club teams.

Pacific Nations Cup

In July Canada’s Head coach Kingsley Jones named a 31-man squad for the 2019 Pacific Nations Cup (PNC) that featured the United States, Fiji, Tonga and Canada. Canada played its first game at the end of July against the United States in Denver, Colorado, and then traveled onto Fiji where they played the home team and Tonga in early August.

Canada versus United States
Photo credit: Jeff Chan

Canadian team coming onto the field versus the United States

The PNC was the first opportunity for the professional players to join the national team. It is a challenge get the players away from their professional teams for any length of time. Given that the World Cup in Japan begins in about three weeks, there has been a very short window in which to develop the team, and its combinations, both from a tactical and systems perspective and the player-position point of view, and finalize the squad. At the time, the Canadian coach, former Welsh international Kingsley Jones, commented that “the PNC’s [games] are a great team building effort and an exercise in building continuity and cohesion going into the World Cup … exciting games coming up and we’ll find out a lot about each other.”

Kingsley Jones
Photo credit: Rugby Canada

Canadian Coach, Kingsley Jones

Captaining the squad was back-row forward 28-year old Tyler Ardron, having finished a successful season playing Super Rugby with the Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand. Tyler’s played 33 tests, including matches in the 2015 World Cup. Other well-known international players joined the team, as well as a number of players from North America’s newly formed professional rugby competition – the MLR (Major League Rugby).

DTH van der Merwe plays professionally in Europe and has played more than 50 matches for Canada. He’s played in three previous Rugby World Cups, and is Canada’s all-time leading try scorer. Versatile van der Merwe can play on the wing, at centre or as fullback. DTH is regarded by some as one of the best players who has ever played for Canada. Lock Evan Olmstead meanwhile, was a member of the victorious Auckland team in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 competition last season and has played several seasons for England’s Premiership team the Newcastle Falcons.

Fly-half Shane O’Leary has played several seasons in Europe and joined Nottingham in England in 2018. Prop Jake Ilnicki played for Northampton Saints, Newcastle Falcons and Yorkshire Carnegie prior to joining the Seattle Seawolves, the MLR Championship winning team last season. Ulster fullback Peter Nelson also joined the Canadian team through his grandmother’s Canadian citizenship. Nelson represented Ireland Under 20s and played eight seasons for Ulster.

These players and other overseas teammates bring to the Canadian team valuable experiences of the playing styles in Europe and New Zealand, as well as experience playing in competitions with high levels of intensity. One of the big challenges for Canada, however, is that the international and domestic players seldom play together. And now, with limited time available, they need to quickly learn combinations and systems, while at the same time getting the domestic players attuned to playing faster-paced, high intensity football.

Canada lost is first PNC match against the United States 19-47, then travelled to Fiji to face two very physical teams in the pacific heat. They succumbed to Fiji 13-38 and, in a much closer match that was within their reach, lost to Tonga 23-33. As Coach Jones said at the time, “We were able to pull a lot out of that first test against [the] USA. It didn’t go our way obviously, but it being the first time these guys have been put to the test out of camp—we’re focusing on the positives … We were able to find a lot out about each other and what we need to work on for this next match against Fiji … “Right now, it’s all about working on those unit skills, testing out individuals, and ultimately putting ourselves in the best position possible going into the World Cup.” Kingsley later added “I felt we got better as the tournament went on.”

Tyler Ardron said that “the two physical matches with Tonga and Fiji were an eye opener for some our team.” Kingsley Jones meanwhile, noted that “competing against some tough teams provided us a lot of really good experience and was a great opportunity for the team to get to know each other and start to gel as a unit.” He added that the team was competitive at times in the matches against Fiji and Tonga.

Canada versus United States
Photo credit: Jeff Chan

The Canadian team in action versus the United States

Friendly matches in Canada

On August 24th Canada played another warm-up match, this time in Hamilton, Ontario against Leinster, the top Irish team. It didn’t start well for the Canadians, giving away far too many penalties and the set pieces not working. Just before half-time they were already down 0-19. Canada scored a try right on the break, and some critical reflection at half-time saw a much more competitive team come out for the next forty minutes. After seventeen minutes of the second half, Canada was leading 21-19. With 14-minutes left to play Canada was leading 35-24. But Leinster narrowed the margin to 35-31 with 5 minutes remaining in the game. Then, right on full-time, after some resolute defending by Canada on its line, Leinster scored another try, so ended up winning 38-35. A victory for Canada would have been ideal, especially after such as spirited second half performance. Despite the loss, there were many positives to come out of the second half. Kingsley Jones said that “we showed a lot of confidence in the second half – we showed that we can play… once we secured our set pieces, we could put pressure on them.”

Since that match there has been a growing sense of belief in the side. Canada played another friendly match the following weekend against a British Columbia All Star XV, and ran out winners 45-13.

Canada plays its last warm-up match before Japan on September 7th in Vancouver against the United States. There is a sense that things are starting to fall in place. That said, there is still plenty to work on. “The US is a tough team, a good team to test ourselves with”, says Tyler Ardron. “A victory would send our spirits high.”

The team has needed more time and more higher intensity games for its preparation. But the important thing is to keep focused on the World Cup in Japan. Like other countries going to Japan, the warm-up games were valuable for the coaching staff to identify the strongest combinations of players while at the same time providing further insights to help with the selection of the final 31 players.

Tyler Ardron
Photo credit: Colin Watson

Canadian Captain Tyler Ardron on a break versus Leinster

THE ONCOMING DAYS

While there are several areas to work on, the last couple of games have shown some promise. Another piece of good news is that former All Black coach Sir Graham Henry, coach of New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup winning team and with more than thirty years of experience, has joined Canada’s coaching staff and will be with the team providing his wealth of experience and expertise in Japan. In addition, Richard Wigglesworth has also joined Canada’s coaching staff. Richard played for Sale and the Saracens in the English Premiership, and represented England in both their 15s and 7s teams.

I asked Canadian captain Tyler Ardron about the team’s progress and what he felt were the team’s strengths. He said “The main thing has been getting the group of guys together and getting consistent coaching, and we’re now getting a system in place.”

Tyler identified two core strengths of the team – athleticism and unity. “We’re agile and fast, and one-on-one we can do some damage. And then there’s the “unity and the character of the guys. Everyone fronts up and we train as hard as we can. We need to put in good games defensively, and put our fourth and fifth phases together, blending the tactical skills with our athleticism.”

Kingsley Jones agrees. The core strengths of the team, he says, are its “athleticism, they’re strong and quick, and they have a desire to play the best they can. It’s a good, close group. Although there’s a mix of overseas and domestic players, a lot of them have played together before at age group levels and in the domestic teams.”

Tyler says there is still plenty to work on. “We need to work on our tactical awareness. Some of the team have relied on their raw athleticism in the past, but at test level football we really have to marry-up the tactical game with the athleticism. At test rugby level everything happens so fast.” In addition, Coach Jones observed, “between now and the World Cup we need to continue to improve our set piece platform and continue to work on the fundamentals.”

I spoke to Gareth Rees about this years World Cup and Canada’s progress to date. Gareth was fly-half for Canada at the 1987 World Cup tournament and scored 15 of Canada’s 19 points against the Irish at Carisbrook. Gareth won 55 caps for Canada (captain in 23 matches), and scored 487 test points in his test career. In 2011, he was inducted into the World Rugby (IRB) Hall of Fame.

Gareth is working with Rugby Canada and will be in Japan with the team. He says there “is still a ton to do. We need to work on the set pieces at this high level of intensity. We need to work on the combinations; the tactical moves as well as between the individual players.” On top of that we “always need to keep building on the core skills and improve the level of finishing.”

“Playing Fiji and Tonga” he added, “was a step-up for the team, the players learned a lot. It’s a really important time now for the players to take ownership of the campaign – for the players themselves, but also for the guys that didn’t make it to this point.” Gareth also echoed Kingsley and Tyler, commenting that “there is a togetherness; they’re working as a team. There’s lots of respect for each other and for the program.”

Another former Canadian international, Al Charron, played in the second row and all three loose forward positions in a career that spanned 76 matches for Canada between 1990 and 2003, world cups, as well as several seasons with European clubs and Ottawa Irish. He was inducted into the World Rugby (IRB) Hall of Fame in 2017. I asked Al about Canada’s progress.

Al says the team has “a fairly strong back row” and is “very combative in the forwards. But the consistency hasn’t been there yet with the backline, although there’s lots of talent in the backline.” He recognizes, however, that the players are still being tested in these pre-world cup games as Kingsley Jones works to identify the optimal combinations. “Ultimately”, Al says, “it’s all about attitude, giving your best and playing with passion. Take the field with the idea to win.” And he says he’s seen great character in the team, especially in the match against Leinster. What the team needs, says Al, is “full-on commitment for eighty minutes – be sharp physically and be sharp mentally for the full eighty minutes. Some teams will exploit those players who aren’t sharp for the full eighty minutes. And if you come onto the field as a replacement you have to make a difference. Be an energy boost. Change the momentum. You’ve got to be a difference-maker.”

PROSPECTS FOR JAPAN

To Tyler Ardron, and many others in the Canadian camp and its supporters, the ideal outcome would be to progress past the group stage. That’s a huge ask, given NZ and South Africa are in the group. Wins over Italy and Namibia, however, are seen as quite possible. “That first game with Italy”, Tyler notes, “that’s huge. A win there would set us up for the rest of the tournament.” For his own part, Tyler’s goal is “to play as well as I can and to be the best player I can be for this team.”

The games in Japan will be played at a fast pace, constantly requiring quick decisions to be made. The team needs to continue practicing at the faster tempo so it’s not caught flat footed in defense, and, equally, can quickly adjust its tactical offensive game to take advantage of opportunities across the field. This requires that the fundamental core skills are executed well, and planned combinations can be adjusted with ease to maximize opportunities. This needs quick mind speed as well as physical speed.

That said, at this test match level, nothing can be given up in set plays. The team needs to continually receive reliable ball from its own lineouts and scrums, while at the same time look for opportunities to take the opponents ball. The All Blacks, and to a lesser extent South Africa, will quickly punish inaccurate throw-ins and any weaknesses they discern in the scrums. Line speed will also be a big factor.

Some of this may sound obvious, but at the World Cup, games are often won or lost by the smallest margins, and the result of unenforced errors, lapses in fundamentals or, a coach’s worst nightmare, unnecessary penalties. Eighty-minute mental and physical commitment, as Al Charron stated, is imperative.

The Canadian team is extremely fit, fast and athletic, and have trained hard over the past couple of months. The players will need all of these attributes to be competitive for the duration of each game. Between now and Canada’s first match the team needs to train at speed, all the while nailing the set piece platforms and fundamentals and ensuring that the player with the ball always has close support. It is often at the break-downs that games are won. Players need to run in numbers and not get isolated. It will not matter if the team is fit and fast if it has trouble retaining the ball over successive phases of play and cannot create opportunities.

Possession of the ball can’t be squandered, especially against the All Blacks and South Africa. What that means is Canada needs to keep building on successive phases of play with specific tactics in mind, and use the kicking game sparingly, but effectively. If the plan is to simply kick for distance back to the opposition, at this level most teams will relish the new-found possession, and counter-attack. Some teams, as we know, do this brilliantly. On the expected hard surfaces in Japan an ineffective kick that loses possession could easily lead to seven points to the opposition.

“We’re well aware of the fast pace of the games we’ll be playing” observes Kingsley Jones. “We replicate the pace in the training as much as we can. But the best way to train for the fast pace is the intensity of games with Tier One countries.” And in that regard Canada is no different than the other Tier Two teams.

Canada opens with Italy on September 26th, then plays the All Blacks and South Africa, with the last group game against Namibia on October 13th. So, what are the prospects?

There will not be many observers picking Canada to defeat New Zealand or South Africa. Either of those teams could win the World Cup and they may even end up playing each other in the Final. Kingsley Jones comments that there “less pressure on us in those games.” Which is quite true. And that’s an opportunity. An opportunity to learn from playing the best in the world. An opportunity to try new things, perhaps an innovative tactical play, that could make a difference in the games.

The matches against Italy and Namibia are much different. Canada has the capacity to beat both teams, and as often said, that likelihood very much depends on the day. “We’ll have to be at our very best to beat Italy,” says Al Charron. The team will need a solid set piece platform, execute the fundamentals well, build the phases and sustain the pressure on the opposition. It will need 80 minutes of total commitment and attitude. As Kingsley Jones puts it, “We need to have the belief that we can win those two games. We have to avoid the tendency to over-complicate things. We can certainly put the pressure on the other teams with our athleticism.”

Wins over both teams would be huge for Canada. For one thing, third place in the Group would secure an automatic place in the 2023 World Cup. It would also secure larger amount of funding for Canadian rugby.

EXPECTATIONS

With a few days remaining until the final squad is announced most of the selections are pretty set.
Gareth Rees says that as the campaign has progressed “Kingsley has done a great job communicating the expectations to the team.”

In late August the Canadian public had an opportunity to meet and mingle with the team at a Suits & Scrums fundraising night in Toronto. A large number of former Canadian internationals were also present. A similar event was held in Vancouver a few days later. These were massive send-offs. The evenings showed the team that there is a huge amount of support for them and for Canadian rugby.

To the general public in Canada there will likely be high expectations of its national team succeeding, or at minimum evidence of a team representing the country that plays with attitude, belief and commitment. To the more seasoned, knowledgeable observer, the expectations need to be placed within the context of the short timeframe in which to prepare for the World Cup and the limited financial resources that dictate the nature and extent of preparations for the tournament and the functioning of the team while its in Japan. That’s in regard to the players, and also for the support staff that work tirelessly with the team – the therapists, analysts, managers, media relations, coaches … everyone who is putting in hours and hours to prepare the team the best way possible.

Canadian players
Photo credit: Malcolm Anderson

Some of the Canadian team at the Suits & Scrums night in Toronto

It’s very difficult to do what needs to be done for rugby in Canada with the current levels of funding.
Wins over Italy and Namibia would likely give the team third place in the group, and automatically qualify it for the 2023 World Cup in France. And that would be an enormous boost to the development of the game in Canada.

Looking ahead, many of the current team will have World Cup France 2023 in their minds after this year’s tournament in Japan. The younger players in the squad have a big future beyond the World Cup in Japan and we can look to 2023 in France where some of these players could make a real impact.

If Canadian rugby is sufficiently resourced, and if development programs are implemented across the country and players can access high level international games and professional rugby in the newly formed North American competition, World Cup 2023 will likely see a strong Canadian team.

And if Canada plays with attitude, belief and commitment at this year’s World Cup we may be witness to the beginning of a new era in Canadian rugby.

By Malcolm Anderson

Canadian logo

Main picture credit: Malcolm Anderson

Artist David Arrigo, a much sought-after artist and muralist, paints ‘live’ at the Suits & Scrums event in Toronto, the finished piece auctioned later in the evening.

 

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