By: Adam McQueen
Two hundred and forty six.
That’s the number of days until all eyes descend upon Japan to kick off the crown jewel of the sport, the Rugby World Cup. The USA Eagles sensational season and Canada’s slogfest of a qualification campaign last year are now bookmarks in history. Every proceeding moment until September 20 is geared toward preparing and shocking the rugby world at the sport’s biggest spectacle.
The first portion of the World Cup cycle for both nations will be the upcoming Americas Rugby Championship in February. The ARC has been an invaluable tool for the two-time defending champion Eagles. Head coach Gary Gold used last year’s tournament to build continuity within his squad with overseas professionals at his disposal, offering a glimpse into how they would operate come summertime. Meanwhile, against less formidable opponents, the domestic players took a larger leadership role as young, fresh faces entered the fray. The tournament is the perfect environment to blood unearthed talent.
Canada have less fond memories of the ARC. They lost to Uruguay during last year’s competition which doubled as a World Cup qualifier, arguably the low point of their season. Fortunately, Kingsley Jones’ men finally found some form during the November repechage and a few faces took the opportunity to lay claim over crucial starting positions.
Canada have announced this year’s ARC squad early and will prepare this Saturday with a warm-up game against the Toronto Arrows. On paper, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the roster. Maybe November did signal a change in fortunes. The most exciting names on the Canadian roster are the four newest members: Justin Blanchet, Will Kelly, Nakai Penny, and Will Percillier are all in line to earn their first senior caps. In years’ past, players have made fleeting appearances for Canada in the ARC; however, these four young players Jones has brought into the fold all have the potential for long international careers.
Halfbacks Kelly and Percillier have both represented Canada u20 and are now playing for the Dragons and Stade Francais academy sides respectively. The 19 year-old Percillier has shown immense potential, and his performances during a two year stint at the University of British Columbia earned him a professional contract in Paris. Although Phil Mack will likely captain Canada in September, Percillier’s inclusion in the team is far from a bolter. Another former UBC standout, Nakai Penny, has been long overdue for a national team shot after winning the inaugural Major League Rugby championship with the Seattle Seawolves. The physical backrower is a destructive ball carrier with a tireless workrate. Blanchet has been a regular face for the Bedford Blues in the RFU Championship for a number of years. The former Canada u17 representative is another bruising back row option that will turn heads with his play in February.
One current and one former 7’s player will also board the plane to South America. Andrew Coe, who has just returned from representing the development-side Canada Maple Leaf 7’s in Uruguay, reemerges into the XVs setup and will quickly head back south. Coe was electric at fullback in his first senior matches. However, given Theo Sauder’s performances during the repechage, Coe may be utilized as a center or wing option. Veteran Ciaran Hearn returns to the Canadian squad with the goal to recapture a regular starting position. The London Irish center was one of the first names on the Canadian team sheet for years until a serious injury derailed his international career.
Results will not be at the forefront of either Kingsley Jones or Gary Gold’s minds. The ARC is the beginning of a yearlong selection process that will culminate in September. It will be a battling ground amongst domestic players to vie for a World Cup shot as opportunities to shine get slimmer.
But, you know, a couple of wins wouldn’t hurt either.