As the Christmas festivities wind down, we finally get some time to put pen to paper once more and put our heads together for our annual set of report cards for the top ten nations who compete in the two major annual Test competitions – the Rugby Championship in the Southern Hemisphere and the Six Nations in the North. However, to kick things off we take a quick look at Canada as they fall outside of these two competitions and this is after all a Canadian blog.
Canada – 6/10
It was a year that after the misery of the 2014 and 2015 seasons seemed to promise so much for Canada as their opening campaign of the year in the Americas Rugby Championship under interim Coach Francois Ratier saw them finish in second place behind Argentina. However, with Ratier’s departure and new Coach Mark Anscombe taking over at the helm Canada sadly seemed to slip back into their old ways. Let’s face it if it were not for winger DTH van der Merwe there wouldn’t have been too much too talk about for Canada for the rest of 2016. A continued lack of decision-making from Rugby Canada in terms of Canadian participation in a regular professional competition, means that the majority of Canada’s top players still struggle to get the exposure to regular top-level rugby that is so vital to the development of a national squad.
Canada had a bright start to the year under interim coach Francois Ratier as they finished second in the inaugural Americas Rugby Championship and winning three of their five games. Against the competition’s two strongest competitors the USA and Argentina, Canada fared well with a narrow loss to the Eagles in Texas but the Pumas in Argentina proved to be a bridge too far despite a competitive first half from Canada. Nevertheless despite these two losses, Canada ended the competition in second place just ahead of the Americans on points difference.
Canada’s new long-term Coach, Mark Anscombe, took over in the spring and he and his charges were put under the microscope with three challenging home tests in June. First up were the Japanese. It was an exciting game and saw some outstanding performances from a number of Canadian players. However, for much of the match, despite the closeness of the scoreline you felt that this was Canada’s game to lose. Consequently the Japanese comeback in the last ten minutes suddenly turned the game around, coupled with the fact that scrum half Gordon McRorie had clearly left his kicking boots at home that day as several key penalty opportunities went wide of the posts. Once again the familiar sight of Canadian players leaving the field as the losing side in a match they knew they should have won was there for all to see.
Canada and Gordon McRorie in particular redeemed themselves against Russia the following week with a resounding win over the East Europeans in Calgary. The June series ended in Toronto against Italy. In a lacklustre match from both sides, Canada once again at the death let their discipline and focus slip away and once more a match they should have won went begging.
After the disappointing results of the June series an even harder challenge awaited Canada in November as they headed to Europe for three tough matches. Their opener was a real baptism of fire against Ireland in Dublin. Ireland fresh off an historic victory against the All Blacks in Chicago were brimming with confidence, despite the fact that few if any of the Irish heroes of Soldier Field took part in the match against Canada. Despite the stiff challenge they faced, Canada put in a fantastic performance for the first 60 minutes and made Ireland work hard, with winger DTH van der Merwe being a constant rallying point for Canada with an excellent opening try of his own and a hand in Canada’s subsequent two forays across the Irish white line. However, in the second half Ireland’s depth and pedigree simply left Coach Mark Anscombe’s charges in the dust.
It was Canada’s final two Tests of 2016 which really were the hardest to watch. Canada lost to their old arch-enemy Romania for the third consecutive time in a row in Bucharest in a game where their concentration and ultimately discipline once more let them down. Once again this was a game Canada could have won but as usual, despite a bright start, they petered out in the final 20 minutes. Lastly, against Samoa who apart from an exceptional performance by their fly half D’Angelo Leuila, were average to say the least, Canada once more ended up on the wrong side of the score line at the end of eighty minutes. This despite winger DTH van der Merwe scoring two brilliant tries in the last fifteen minutes to try to put Canada firmly in control in the final quarter.
In short, despite some early optimism it ended up being a year of bitter disappointment for Canada. Winning only four out of 11 Tests played is simply not good enough, no matter how close some of the results were. We simply saw too many of the same problems that have almost become hallmark traits of Canadian rugby in the last three years. A lack of discipline and composure at key moments, especially in the final quarter is still proving crippling to Canada breaking out of the lower ranks of the Tier Two nations. This is made all the more frustrating as Canada is respected by all of the Tier One nations as a feisty and difficult opponent. However, without the ability to finish opponents off the respect ultimately starts to feel a little hollow. Add to that an inconsistent kicking game and a lack of any real attacking threat other than that posed by winger DTH van der Merwe and at this stage there is still a mountain of work for Canada to get through if they want to stand any chance of getting within some kind of spitting distance of the world’s top 10. There is no doubt that Coach Mark Anscombe has the skill set and track record to help get them there with some promising players coming through the ranks. However, without regular exposure to some kind of professional competition Canada’s players will struggle as a unit and have to rely on the few players who have club experience overseas in Europe. However, the lack of familiarity and time together will prove a constant handicap. Consequently Canada’s decision to opt out of the newly formed professional league in the United States is likely to prove costly.
Having said that though it is not all gloom and doom for Canada. We feel that the following players really stood up and were counted this year, despite Canada’s trials and tribulations on and off the pitch. Prop Djustice Sears-Duru was immense for Canada this year and his obvious talents have been recognised by one of the star clubs of the PRO 12 competition in Europe, the Glasgow Warriors. Playing at such high-level competition, and also in the European Champions Cup will only increase Sears-Duru’s already considerable talents and experience. We also felt that Canada in the shape of Kyle Baillie, Admir Cejvanovic and Lucas Rumball has a back row that shows enormous promise for the future, and Clay Panga at number eight also looks the fitting complement to very solid-looking Canadian back row. Fly half Conor Braid, continued to show that he is an exceptionally talented player and has both a bright future in Europe and in a Canadian jersey while finally providing Canada with some long overdue spark in attack. Lastly whenever he pulls on a Canadian jersey magic is bound to happen. Yes we think you know who we’re talking about, Canadian superman – winger DTH van der Merwe. On that note we’ll leave you with DTH in action at the last World Cup to just remind ourselves that Canada really does have some absolute world-class quality and once we can get fifteen of these guys then anything is possible!