By Doug Crosse
It is not an understatement that the 27 players selected for the Rugby World Cup repechage next month are the most important individuals for the future of the sport in Canada for the next decade.
While many wax nostalgic about the great heights the 1991 Canadian team reached, it was a different time and a completely different world of rugby.
There are many critics who say it is the administration of Rugby Canada that has laid waste to Canadian men’s team in recent years. I would argue that the sport itself has been sputtering along on three – or two – cylinders rather than four.
Clubs have shrunk, amalgamated, or folded altogether. While the world-wide consumption of rugby might be at all-time highs, we have gone off the game, especially at the youth levels. Sure, we might have plenty of kids playing sevens and 15s but that does not make for a smooth transition to the university and club level.
That is all a preamble to say that if Kingsley Jones and his band of Canadian stalwarts stumble at the last hurdle, there is a real chance that those naysayers of Rugby Canada may get their wish to return of the early days of the sport.
The money that will be lost if Canada does not participate in the World Cup will eviscerate the organization. The eastern office has been downsized to a small handful, but word is the new training centre may become too much of a burden financially without World Rugby money coming through the door.
While that will have people in the rugby wilds cheering that it is about bloody time, the ascension of Canada, its long path of development through support from World Rugby, was paying off through the mid-2000s to 2015. It was 2011 that Canada nearly automatically qualified but for the draw against Japan. But a lot has changed in the meantime.
No resolution of the row between the sevens players with head office means some of our brightest and best athletes are not participating at a time when they are needed most. People should not begrudge the players their stance. It simply is not feasible to ask for the very best preparation out of an individual, including daily training, eating the best food, and find a place to live for under $1,000 a month. Would you be able to do it? Would you be willing to do it.
ROUND 1 – Sunday, November 11: Canada vs Kenya Germany vs Hong Kong
ROUND 2 – Saturday, November 17: Canada vs Germany Kenya vs Hong Kong
ROUND 3 – Friday, November 23: Canada vs Hong Kong Germany vs Kenya
While the clearest path forward is to win all the games, Canada may stumble and need some help through the round-robin. All games are taking place in Marseille at the 5,000 seat Stade Pierre Delort.
Canada vs Kenya – November 11th
Kenya is having similar preparation distractions to Canada. Players are on strike, money for the Kenyan Rugby Union has not been received from its government. This has led to the cancellation of preparation matches.
Kenya is the one team that has the possibility of being more physical and creating a contest at the breakdown. Canada’s quick pace and technical precision in the backs should be able to handle the Kenyan defense. This game should be the closest of the three.
Canada will need 70 minutes to get this one put to bed. When Kenya brings its replacements on, the Canadian bench will start to dominate.
Canada vs Germany – November 17th
The Germans could possibly be the best organized of the participating teams with issues surrounding centralized training sorted. There are some surprise packages in the German side, players with South African roots and some impressive playing experience, but not enough to carry a team.
Canada should be able to out-scrummage and dominate at the breakdown, giving a stable platform for Phil Mack to distribute out wide, box kick into the German half and generally create confusion for the Germans.
This will be a potentially good win, but not a blow-out in the making.
Canada vs Hong Kong – November 23rd
Hong Kong has circled this date as its most important date with destiny. It has targeted Canada as the key game to win to advance to the big party. There was a day, many moons ago, when Hong Kong and Canada competed regularly in the Epson Cup and the games were competitive. With a small player pool to draw from and a new coach looking to make big moves with the existing playing group, it will be a Hong Kong side that can have fits and starts of success but playing the third game in ten days it will be a big ask.
Canada cannot trivialize this match but nor should they panic. A lot will be dependent on what the scenario is going into the final round. It may not be enough to get the victory, it might also be necessary to run up the score late in the games to ensure final-day success.
Canada managed a win against Tonga in the last round of the Americas Pacific Challenge. It was the first win in what was a rough year. Other victories against Chile and Brazil were punctuated with a number of tough outings. A few more wins in the past calendar year would have been helpful going into the three-game set.
If Canada does not manage to clear this final hurdle, changes will be coming. A sport won’t go bankrupt, per se. But a lot of services offered by Rugby Canada will be downloaded onto the provinces. A time could come that the provinces would directly have to fund preparation for various programs because the money will not be there from World Rugby.
Now rest assured, World Rugby cares deeply about this. Canada is part of a knife and fork set with the US. Various incentives and emergency funding could be offered to right the listing ship. The easiest way forward, however, is for Canada to get to the promised land on its own.