The headline news for us here in Canada is that for the first time since its inception in 1987, Canada has failed to qualify for the Rugby World Cup. However, more to the point is the question concerning what has clearly gone so horribly wrong in the last six years. Remember that thrilling match against Italy in the 2015 tournament where we almost caused a major upset. The same tournament where winger DTH van der Merwe was one of the leading try scorers. Go back even further to 1991 where Canada actually competed in a quarter final. Always a feisty and nuggety opponent in the past, Canada are now on the verge or receding into rugby obscurity.
Meanwhile, it’s not exactly a rosy picture south of the border either, as the USA failed to qualify in their first attempt, after losing the Americas 1 berth at the 2023 World Cup to Uruguay. They now face a tricky road ahead as they have to overcome an increasingly confident and fired up Chilean team, and if that fails then there is the humility of a last chance repechage tournament. Despite the advent of Major League Rugby here in North America it seems there is little if any benefit to the fortunes of the national sides. If anything both Canada and the USA look poorer after 3 years of the MLR. As rugby seems to be going backwards in North America, by contrast in South America it would appear to be going from strength to strength.
On a happier note, despite our initial reservations about the new United Rugby Championship, the successor to the old PRO14 has really caught our attention. The addition of four South African teams to the mix, has proven to be an exciting development, despite their shaky start in the opening two rounds. Meanwhile last year’s Rainbow Cup champions Italian side Benetton are proving that they are no flash in the pan and are definite contenders for a strong finish. It’s a fascinating tournament which has a real international feel to it and is so far serving up some spicy offerings.
North America and Rugby World Cup 2023
Canada’s loss to Chile on aggregate was painful to watch as was the realisation that the earliest we can hope to see the boys compete in the global showdown is in 2027. It’s going to be a long 6 year wait and if that is going to become a reality then some hard decisions need to be made and quickly. For far too long the powers governing the sport in this country from the haughtily named Rugby Canada Centre of Excellence in Langford, BC have embraced mediocrity as their benchmark. A drastic shakeup is needed from top to bottom. Here’s what we think needs to happen and fast.
Kingsley Jones may be a lovely chap, but there is no getting away from the fact that under his coaching tenure Canada’s fall from grace has been almost dizzying. The negatives far outweigh the positives that he and his staff like to twitter on about in post match conferences attempting to explain yet another in a long line of losses. Teams need results and Canada can count them on one hand in the five years that Jones and company have been in charge. In short, he and the rest of his team need to go. Instead bring in some coaches from the MLR who know the players, watch and work with them week in week out and have an understanding of what works and what doesn’t in this part of the world.
The sevens and fifteen a side games need to be split in terms of development. With the advent of the MLR, there are enough Canadian players in the league that the endless cross coding favored by Rugby Canada must come to an end. We’ve been saying it for years now, and foolishly believed that we’d been heard. However, players are expected to jump from one code to the other in a desperate attempt by Rugby Canada to show results either on the annual sevens global circuit or the fifteen a side Test calendar. The two codes require a vastly different playing style and levels of fitness and training. In short, have players do one or the other but not both.
Rugby Canada must be doing more to promote the MLR and the ability for Canadian talent to participate in it, as well as pressing the case for at least a second Canadian franchise. Furthermore, efforts to help promising players get contracts in the highly competitive European leagues should also be a priority. The more exposure that Canadian players can get to top quality competition in Europe, the stronger the national team will become, supported by the continued development of the home grown MLR. It will be far better to get Canadian players exposure both in the MLR and abroad than simply drafting in foreign players who just aren’t good enough for their own national sides. That is not a slight to any of the players we have brought in from overseas, and Canada is not exactly unique in this regard. The Americans seem equally desperate to find anyone in Ireland with some kind of distant link to the US, whilst Scotland seem to have discovered an hitherto unknown kilt wearing clan of Afrikaners up on the highveld. All credit to all these players who are serving their adopted homelands so well, but preferably not at the expense of home grown players as this will do little to grow the game in countries such as Canada.
Get a national broadcaster on board. The fact that we can’t watch our own national team in this country on a regular domestic network is simply unacceptable. While the Rugby Championship was in full swing, and prior to that France’s tour to Australia coverage was provided on TSN. However, Canadians had to scour the Internet to find a source willing to show our own team facing up against Wales and England and then the all important recent World Cup qualifiers. It was expensive to watch and difficult to access for many. Once again another epic failure in growing the game in this country and getting it to a wider audience.
Lastly, get some proper venues for important Test matches. Watching Canada’s recent World Cup qualifiers was an eye opener. Canada hosted these games in tiny makeshift grounds that struggled to get a decent number of supporters in to cheer on the boys. While St. John’s was a worthy venue with a small but very vocal crowd that really got behind the team, it’s not exactly a classic Test arena and neither is Langford. Perhaps the powers that be thought that playing two matches at completely opposite ends of the country would somehow unite the country behind the sport. However, matches of such importance require venues suited to the occasion. Compare by contrast the stadiums in the US, or even better Valparaiso in Chile and best of all Montivideo in Uruguay. All provided an atmosphere that was somehow lacking at Canada’s home grounds despite the best efforts of the small but vocal Canadian crowds. In short, they looked like proper stadiums compared to the out of the way practice fields that both Langford and St.John’s felt and looked like.
On the flip side, our heartfelt congratulations to Uruguay who have qualified for the World Cup, and even though it was at Canada’s expense, Chile’s succesful bid to remain in the hunt for the Americas 2 berth. Rugby in South America clearly has a pulse and a desire to go places. The passion is there and it is starting to produce results, and in the case of Uruguay big ones at that. It has to be said that Chile looked the part in both their matches against us, whereas apart from that opening game against the USA in St. John’s the Canadian players often looked disinterested, frustrated and highly disjointed. Uruguay and Chile looked like well oiled machines and played like a team – Canada and the USA did not and will hopefully learn some useful lessons in the process.
United Rugby Championship
We have to confess that we are thoroughly enjoying this new tournament which replaces the old PRO 14. It has a real international feel to it, and regular season weekends have suddenly got so much more interesting, as clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales slug it out. The South African sides struggled to find their footing at first in the competition, and the hype surrounding their arrival seemed to be slightly overblown. However, the last two rounds have seen them rise to the challenge and get progressively better. They now return home to await the arrival of their Northern rivals at the end of November, as well as the return of several up and coming Springboks. On home soil they should be a real headache for the Celtic and Italian teams, as well as the altitude factor being thrown into the mix in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Meanwhile, Rainbow Cup Champions Italian side Benetton Treviso are proving that their shock win over South Africa’s Bulls to claim the trophy was no flash in the pan. They are playing some exciting rugby which could adapt well to the hard and fast pitches in South Africa, as well as them being slightly more used to the summer heat in the Southern Hemisphere than their colleagues in the British Isles. Their discipline remains their Achilles Heel, but they are a real pleasure to watch and their narrow loss to Welsh side Ospreys last weekend was exciting viewing.
Irish sides still look all conquering just as they did in the old PRO14 and Leinster in particular appear invincible, whilst Welsh sides promise much but deliver significantly less. The two Scottish teams however look like genuine threats this year. In short, we’re finding it a highly entertaining competition that looks set to only get better as it gets closer to the business end of the tournament. If you haven’t caught any of it to date, then you might want to get in on the action in the coming months.
Well time to sign off for now. As mentioned on the TV page, although the November Internationals are just around the corner, I’ve been given a ton of work commitments next month that will make it difficult to get things out on a regular basis blog wise. I’ll do the best I can, but can’t make any promises. I will update the TV page religiously every week with all the game listings along with a few thoughts on the games and links to highlights. I’ll also try and punch out a podcast or two every week. So bear with me, and like I say I’ll do my best to get stuff out as and when I can, it just won’t be with its usual regularity during a Test window but I will try and at least get something out on the biggest games. Till then stay safe everyone and here’s to what should be a bumper November as far as top notch Tests go!