Whichever way you cut it – 2018 was a long and painful year for Canada and one which they will no doubt want to forget. It was salvaged at the death by a solid performance in the World Cup repechage tournament, which saw them snatch the last place up for grabs in this year’s global showdown in Japan. However, apart from that Canada’s track record in 2018 makes for depressing reading. 11 matches played, 6 lost and 5 won doesn’t seem so bad on paper but of the six they lost 2 were critical and almost lost Canada a place in the World Cup. A summer series saw Canada whitewashed, and the team appear rudderless in both shape and direction. They acquitted themselves well in their bid to secure a place in the World Cup in November in three matches played in France, but this was tempered by the fact that at one point this year Canada sank in the world rankings to 23. At the time of writing they still only sit at 20. This is a side that now finds itself sitting in a Pool with two of Test Rugby’s genuine contenders for World Cup glory this year – New Zealand and South Africa. The World Cup always seems to produce something special from Canada despite the odds, but there is no denying that after 2018, Canada and Coach Kingsley Jones have a phenomenal amount of work to get through in only nine months to make Canada genuinely competitive once more.
Canada – 4/10
Like we say it was hard to find positives this year for Canada, and we’re hoping that the spark we saw in November in France carries through into Canada’s opening games of a World Cup year, as they head into the Americas Rugby Championship in two weeks time.
Canada’s opening shots of 2018 in the Americas Rugby Championship however, did little to inspire confidence. Their first game of the year at home against Uruguay saw them at sixes and sevens as an exciting and powerful Uruguayan side ran rings around them. In the return fixture a week later in Uruguay, which also happened to be a World Cup qualifier, things appeared to be looking up as Canada ran Uruguay close and ultimately only lost by one point, but poor decision-making and discipline cost them a match they could and should have won. Their misery on the road continued as they were given a schooling by the USA. Returning home they managed to put Brazil to the sword, but then returning to South America were made to look like amateurs once more by Argentina. Pride was restored through beating Chile by a comfortable margin but they returned home at the end of the tournament having to settle for a mediocre fourth place on the table.
June saw Canada play a summer series of three home tests which Canada will want to forget. Being comprehensively thrashed by Scotland, Russia and the USA at home left the side completely demoralised, and Canadian fans with very little to cheer about. Furthermore Canada lost their second chance at World Cup qualification in the heavy defeat to the USA. Furthermore, to add insult to injury Canada’s place in the world rankings slipped to a desultory 23, the lowest it’s been in as long as we can remember. Canada simply looked bereft of ideas in all three matches coupled to a discipline problem that left you wondering if any of the players had ever seen a rule book. There were a few standout performances, but all too often it was left to the likes of players such as DTH van der Merwe to single-handedly pull Canada out of the fire. As good as such players are, without a team behind them it simply left with them with too much to do.
Consequently, it was with a sense of trepidation that Canadian supporters looked ahead to Canada’s last chance to qualify for this year’s World Cup in a repechage tournament to be held in France in November of 2018, between Kenya, Canada and Hong Kong. All games were played in Marseille and Canada was fortunate that, as the tournament fell into the official November Test window, it was able to bring in the services of its big guns who regularly ply their trade with major European club teams. As a result the likes of Taylor Paris, Tyler Ardron and DTH van der Merwe amongst a notable few were on hand.
Canada got proceedings under way with a convincing win over Kenya. Next up were Germany and despite the match being much closer Canada still walked away comfortable winners. Their final challenge saw them handle a spirited challenge from Hong Kong, but two superb tries from Van der Merwe helped Canada emerge the victors and thus secure their tickets to Japan and the World Cup. It was an uplifting performance from Canada but which also highlighted the critical importance of Canada’s European based players, without whom results seem rather few and far between. Furthermore, although Canada’s three opponents in the repechage were worthy challengers they are teams that in the past Canada would have dispatched with ease, and run in much larger scorelines. Canada find themselves arguably in one of the World Cup’s Pools of death. South Africa and New Zealand are simply out of reach while Canada has never beaten Italy. Their only Tier 2 opponent Namibia is a feisty opponent and Canada just emerged the victors in a tight tussle the last time these two countries met in 2014.
In short, Canada have their work cut out for them in 2019 in order to get things right for the World Cup. Ahead of them lies the opportunity to get some good mileage under their belt in the Americas Rugby Championship, with some real quality opposition in the shape of Argentina and the USA. The summer sees them travel to the US and then the Pacific Islands in this year’s edition of the Pacific Nations Cup, where they meet the Eagles, Fiji and Tonga. If they can get through this daunting challenge in good shape, then they will have had some solid preparation for both their target match in the World Cup against Namibia as well as hopefully a credible challenge to Italy.
There is some clear and obvious talent in Canadian rugby, both in terms of seasoned veterans and promising youngsters. While the coaching setup appears to have struggled, November showed that with the right mix of players things did seem to come together in that department. However, management of the sport as a whole in Canada and of the national team seems to be a disaster, as evidenced by the ongoing disputes with reimbursement for the sevens team, as well as very little effort at structuring the XV a side game in a way that makes Canada a Tier 2 force to be reckoned with as in years gone by.
2019 will be one of the most important years in Canadian rugby history. With the sport seemingly in free fall at a national level, continued failure this year is likely to kill off what remaining interest there is in the sport in Canada. As evidenced by the growth in popularity of sports such as rugby league, most notably the success of Toronto’s Wolfpack team, Rugby Canada really has to seize the opportunity provided by this World Cup with both hands. Should Canada fail to show up and catch the eye like they did at the last tournament in 2015, then it could well be the beginning of a very long and lonely period in the wilderness of the lower rungs of Tier 2 International Rugby for Canada. Despite the success in France last November, it would still appear that Canada will be up against it again this year. However, we reserve judgement till the results of the forthcoming Americas Rugby Championship are in. If Canada can at least finish in a strong second or third place in this tournament over the course of the next two months, then we like most supporters in this country will breathe a much-needed sigh of relief!
Player of the year – DTH Van Der Merwe
Every time he plays he seems to singlehandedly reverse the rot that has set into Canadian rugby. Blessed with some exceptional pace and skill, he is without doubt Canada’s finest player and one who consistently delivers results for a beleaguered national side – something he has been doing for quite some time now. At 32 this will probably be his last World Cup, but expect the veteran winger to sign off with a bang!
Player to watch in 2019 – Brock Staller
Blessed with a handy boot and an exceptional turn of speed when counterattacking from deep, the powerful utility back caught our eye every time he turned out for Canada this year. With his defence improving with each outing, we expect to see him play a very big part in Canada’s World Cup plans, and his reliability from the kicking tee help ensure that Canada makes a healthy return to being a solid Tier 2 opponent. If Canada can get their coaching structures right, Staller is a player who is likely to really come on song in 2019.
Match of the year – Canada vs Hong Kong – Marseille – November 24th – Canada 27/Hong Kong 10
Canada’s last game of the year finally gave us something to cheer about as they put in a solid performance to beat Hong Kong. It was a fitting end to a run of three straight victories in November and best of all ensured that after all the heartache of 2018, the last spot up for grabs at the World Cup belonged to Canada. The smiles on the players’ faces at the final whistle were a mixture of relief and happiness that a tough year was able to end so positively. From here it’s hopefully onwards and upwards for a team that in the past has been able to consistently punch way above its weight!
Next up – Argentina!