The inaugural Americas Cup kicks off this weekend and is a great start for Canada’s rebuilding programme after a World Cup that left us with more questions than answers. Set to mirror the other major Northern Hemisphere annual tournament, Europe’s Six Nations, it will feature, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, USA and Uruguay. Although it will feature full representation from five of the participating countries, it is likely that the Argentine side will most likely be a second string Pumas squad as the majority of the first choice Pumas team will be playing with the new Argentinian Super Rugby franchise the Jaguares for the length of the competition. Nevertheless, as other major international teams have discovered when touring Argentina, a second string Pumas side is a formidable opponent. Rugby has developed such depth in Argentina in the last ten years that without a doubt Argentina will still be the team to beat in this Championship, with the USA and Canada challenging hard for second and third place. Uruguay should be competitive while Chile and Brazil will enjoy the learning opportunities provided by participating in a regular international competition.
For Canada it is a time of change and uncertainty. The recent departure of Head Coach Kieran Crowley has led to the appointment of an interim coach, Francois Ratier who has had tremendous success with the women’s team, till a permanent successor can be found. However, in the long term this means that Canada is in somewhat of a leadership vacuum, following an inspired yet ultimately disastrous World Cup campaign. In the last two years Canada has entertained us yet been alarmingly short of results. Canada desperately needs to build a team that can play together on a regular basis without having to do double duty on the Sevens circuit. It is hoped that this tournament will see the initial steps towards building a long term structure that can take Canada to the next World Cup with a solid player base that has developed the mental fortitude required to get results. As an interim measure the appointment of Francois Ratier as Coach, is in our view an excellent decision. As mentioned earlier Ratier brings with him a winning culture as evidenced by the Canadian Women being runners up at the last Women’s World Cup. It is this kind of motivational culture and sense of self-belief which has been slightly lacking of late in the Men’s team. Consequently, the appointment of Ratier even in the short term can only have a positive effect on developing the mindset necessary to get results.
As the Lineout’s primary focus will be on the Six Nations over the coming weeks, we will not be covering the tournament in full, but instead will only be able to focus on the Canadian games in each round. As a result, we’ll start with having a look at Canada’s opening fixture with Uruguay.
Fixtures this weekend
Canada vs Uruguay
Saturday, February 6th
A new look Canadian squad takes to the field for this opener in the Americas Rugby Championship as a large contingent of Canada’s match day 23 will be uncapped players. However, Captain and veteran prop Hubert Buydens is in my mind a superb choice as an inspirational leader. Buydens was in the thick of everything that was positive about Canada’s performances in a troubled 2015 for the national squad. The epitome of a rugby workhorse and a player who puts his body on the line for the full eighty minutes, Buydens will set the right tone for his young charges this Saturday in Langford as they take on Uruguay, a side that despite the odds against them gained some serious respect from World Cup runners up Australia last year.
Consequently, as Canada’s opening match in a potentially exciting tournament, this will be no pushover. Buydens experience and leadership will be amply complimented by World Cup veterans Nick Blevins, Gordon McRorie, Ray Barkwill, Djustice Sears-Duru and Phil Mackenzie. These six individuals provided plenty of character to the Canadian challenge at the World Cup and Phil Mackenzie lit up the tournament on several occasions for Canada just as he did in the Pacific Nations Cup earlier in the year. Mackenzie’s talents have been clearly recognized in his professional career at Sale Sharks in the English Premiership and Canada is lucky that Sale have released him to participate in this tournament. With this wealth of experience an exciting batch of Canadian new caps should benefit greatly from the exposure that this new tournament will provide Canadian players on an annual basis.
As it is such a new look Canadian side it is hard at this stage to really make much of a prediction as to how they will perform. The above mentioned veterans should lend some real structure to Canada’s challenge against Uruguay coupled with the coaching successes that Francois Ratier has had with the Women’s team. As I mentioned on several occasions last year if Canada needs a winning culture then look no further than the Women’s team, hence the appointment of Francois Ratier as interim coach is a huge bonus. Add to this the fact that Jamie Cudmore, of French rugby giants Clermont-Ferrand, is now the forwards Coach for this tournament and this group of raw recruits should be in capable and experienced hands. Hooker Ray Barkwill like his Captain Buydens is a tiger in the forwards and his experience will be of enormous benefit to his younger colleagues, while Djustice Sears-Duru is rapidly causing a stir as a powerful front-rower. So plenty of experience and ability sprinkled in amongst the youth of the rest of the forwards. Meanwhile in the backs, Gordon McRorie has proved capable with the boot and reliable under pressure at scrum half despite having an inconsistent record of goal kicking last year. As mentioned already, Phil Mackenzie lit up both the Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup last year in a Canadian jersey and expect more of the same from him in this tournament. Lastly, center Nick Blevins scored some of Canada’s best tries in the Pacific Nations Cup last year and along with Mackenzie adds some real quality and experience to a youthful new look Canadian back line.
In short, can Canada win on Saturday in Langford? For me the answer is an unequivocal yes. It won’t be easy and at times is likely to be very close as Uruguay are no pushover by any stretch of the imagination. Australian Coach Michael Cheika gave his stamp of approval to a promising Uruguayan side last year at the World Cup and like Canada this is an exceptionally youthful team with great promise for the future. However, home advantage for Canada and a side desperate to rebuild and move on from a year that ultimately provided more heartache than most would care to remember in their rugby careers, should be enough motivation for Canada to get the job done and emerge the winners. A strong win on Saturday should build the self belief and confidence this young squad needs to face a much greater challenge of taking on their nemesis team of the last two years on the road, the USA Eagles. It should be a good game and the sight of Captain Hubert Buydens constantly being the last man standing should inspire his charges to make this first outing of a new phase in Canadian rugby one to remember and one that sets the tone for the build up to Japan 2019.