Better but still a long way to go – Canada’s 2019 Americas Rugby Championship campaign

Posted: March 29, 2019 in Americas Rugby Championship, Canadian Rugby, Tier 2
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After a disastrous 2018, only salvaged by Canada’s last-ditch stand to grab the final spot up for grabs in this year’s World Cup, it was with a sense of hope and optimism that we looked ahead to this year’s Americas Rugby Championship (ARC). Although there was slightly more to cheer about at times this year, Canada still couldn’t progress beyond a fifth place ranking once the dust had settled on the tournament for another year. Fifth last year and fifth again this year, with humiliating losses at home to Argentina and on the road to Uruguay, Brazil and the USA it was hard to see much progress for Canada from 2018. The 56-0 thumping of Chile brought some comfort, along with the fact that at least Canada ran the USA and Uruguay relatively close. But overall it was another cold start for Canada in the lower reaches of Tier 2, and not exactly the kind of confidence booster you want heading into the World Cup in less than six months time. So let’s have a look at how it panned out and what if anything we learnt from the whole process.

Uruguay vs Canada – Uruguay 20/Canada 17 – February 2nd – Montevideo

Remember how Canada seemed to take a commanding lead of games before the last World Cup and then somehow would inexplicably throw away a match in the final quarter? If you do then this match would have provided you with an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Plain and simple this is a match that Canada should have and could have won. To add insult to injury Uruguay played with only 14 men for three-quarters of the match.

Canada you felt had a grudge against Uruguay going into this match as it was the South Americans who robbed them of their first shot at World Cup qualification last year. With half of Canada’s squad now playing professionally either in North America with the newly formed Major League Rugby setup or in Europe, there was a genuine sense of optimism that the new infusion of professionalism would raise the standard of Canadian rugby.

Uruguay looked full of intent and were rewarded with a solid opening try, but then on the 16th minute a nasty tackle from Uruguayan scrum half Santiago Arata on Canadian winger Andrew Coe would see the South Americans a man down for the rest of the match. Canada would score three fine tries that showed some genuine enterprise on attack with the back three and centres looking particularly impressive. Jamie Mackenzie had a solid outing and the Toronto Arrows scrum half was rewarded with an excellent try for his efforts. Ciaran Hearn and Ben LeSage hooked up nicely at centre, though the latter’s yellow card in the last quarter of the match put a blemish on an otherwise positive showing. Andrew Coe and Kainoa Lloyd  put in some blistering pace out wide and expect to see big things from Toronto Arrows winger Lloyd in years to come, along with his fellow Arrows teammate Theo Sauder at fullback.

However, up front Canada for the most part looked clumsy and poorly organised and as the match wore on, discipline started to collapse and execution started to slip. Uruguay even with a man down set up a relentless physical assault on the Canadian defences in the final fifteen minutes and on the final whistle scored the try that would seal the win for the South Americans. Canada were left wondering how they let a match they appeared to be in control of slip away from them at the death. Still it was early days and overall it had been a positive showing for Canada and something to build on as they headed to Brazil.

Brazil vs Canada – Brazil 18/Canada 10 – February 9th – San Jose dos Campos

This in theory should have been a comfortable win for Canada after having summarily dismissed the Brazilians last year. However, apart from a superb opening ten minutes from Canada and Ciaran Hearn in particular as a last-minute change to fullback, Canada simply never looked like they were in this match. Whether it was the Brazilian heat and humidity and gruelling travelling that wore the Canadian players down is still up for debate, but it was a poor and lacklustre performance from Canada whichever way you cut it. Their discipline was atrocious as Brazil slotted six unanswered penalty goals. The Canadian defence was solid enough to prevent Brazil from crossing the whitewash but in so doing it gave away its fair share of penalties. In short there were no positives for Canada from this match, and it must have been a rather subdued flight home.

Canada vs Chile – Canada 56/Chile 0 – February 22nd – Langford

Canada’s first home game, gave them an emphatic victory over a courageous but completely outclassed Chilean outfit. Once again Canada’s wingers, Andrew Coe and Kainoa Lloyd had an absolute field day, with Lloyd scoring a hat trick. It was also a good day out for the forwards, and lock Kyle Baillie in particular had a superb outing and was rewarded with a fine try of his own. In short it was a performance all about Canada and one which they dominated from start to finish. However, there was no getting away from the fact that Chile were weak opponents, and thus it was hard to judge just what the 56-0 thumping really meant in terms of where Canada was really at.

Canada vs Argentina – Canada 23/Argentina 39 – March 1st – Langford

Argentina have always been a problem side for Canada in the tournament and this year would prove to be no exception. Argentina would ultimately emerge as undefeated champions in this year’s Championship so Canada were always going to be up against some serious opposition in this match. Argentina play a fast and brutally physical game and Canada’s inexperienced youngsters could not have asked for a better Test.

Despite the loss Canada for the most part acquitted themselves well against such quality opposition. Argentina came out of the blocks firing and, as they would throughout the match, exposed some of the defensive frailties of Canada’s back line. Argentina dominated the first half and Canada was clearly struggling to keep pace with them.

A halftime chat clearly did Canada some good and they struck back with a vengeance, and once again it was that man Kyle Baillie who led the charge through the forwards. The first quarter of the match was all about Canada and saw them play some of their best rugby of the tournament, with winger Andrew Coe following up Baillie’s try scoring efforts six minutes later. Thereafter though it was once more all about Argentina as their physical prowess came to the fore, leaving Canada exhausted and literally on their knees in the final quarter. Discipline started to slip and saw yet another costly yellow card against Canada with four minutes to go. By that point it was all over bar the shouting and Canada would end the contest 16 points behind, with Argentina hoisting the trophy after four rounds. There had been some positives in Canada’s performance, and to score 23 points against such a potent side is no mean achievement, but from a discipline and defensive point of view Canada just looked far too vulnerable.

USA vs Canada – USA 30/Canada 25 – March 8th – Seattle

In one of the Americas greatest rivalries, it is getting hard to remember the last time Canada beat the USA. However, the intensity of this fixture was there for all to see in this final match of Canada’s ARC campaign for 2019. It was a solid effort from Canada and one that should have got them the win as they had a slender lead at the seventy minute mark. Once more it simply wasn’t good enough as the USA put the chokehold on a clearly exhausted Canadian side in the final 10 minutes. Yet again Canada looked naive defensively when it mattered most.

In a game that saw plenty of ebb and flow and the lead changing hands several times, Canada put in one of their better performances. They got an early lead through the first try of the match and both sides would then engage in a tit for tat scoring fest for the rest of the game. It was a fast paced encounter with plenty of punishing physical contact which to Canada’s credit they handled well. However, perhaps one of the saddest moments of Canada’s whole 2019 ARC campaign was seeing lock Kyle Baillie sent off in the 76th minute with a yellow card for an unfortunate high tackle. Baillie had been one of Canada’s star performers all tournament, and to see such a quality player end the Championship in such circumstances seemed harsh medicine. However, once again Canada caved under pressure in the final ten minutes and it cost them – a trend which has become all too familiar in the last few years and something they seem no closer to fixing. Nevertheless it had been an exceptionally equal contest and Canada can feel pleased that they were able to hold the Americans so close for most of the game. The forwards did some outstanding work, perhaps best epitomised by newcomer number eight Luke Campbell who really caught our eye in this match.

So where to from here?

After eighteen months in charge Canada’s fortunes have sadly not improved under Coach Kingsley Jones, and if anything they have got worse. Nevertheless, we feel that despite the results this year’s ARC showed Canada in a slightly better light. They were competitive against the USA and Uruguay and fought hard against ultimate champions Argentina. There is a group of exciting and talented young backs who simply need to lose their defensive naivety, but with their increasing exposure to professional rugby at club level in the MLR and elsewhere this will come. The forward pack is impressive, but perhaps needs to lose some of the veteran stalwarts, while retaining a core group of younger experienced heads such as Lucas Rumball and Kyle Baillie to mentor the likes of promising youngsters like Luke Campbell. Canada have finally identified a scrum half with pace and vision in the shape of Jamie Mackenzie, but the fly half berth still remains a conundrum. Gordon McRorie has often been drafted in at fly half from his usual position of scrum half, but it has not worked well, and as regular readers know we don’t really favor his rather pedestrian and conservative playing style in either position. Canada’s front row also would appear to be a liability with no real sign of who might take up the mantle of veterans like Ray Barkwill and Hubert Buydens, although we thought prop Jordan Olsen showed some real promise in the USA match.

Canada now has only three games before the World Cup, and all of them take place away from home, as they face first the USA and then Fiji and Tonga. All three are very tough opponents who could also leave Canada with an injury list from hell as they head to Japan. Given that Canada’s depth is exceptionally limited, this must surely be a concern. Canada’s draw at the World Cup is the stuff of nightmares with both New Zealand and South Africa in their pool. Their first match against Italy is surely one they are targeting but then so will the Azurri as they know that their only real chances of victory in the World Cup are against Canada and Namibia. Consequently, Canada’s only real shot at World Cup glory is against Namibia, but sadly this will be Canada’s last match of the tournament and one can only hope that the injury gods will have been kind to them up to that stage.

It wasn’t a great ARC for Canada but we felt that as it wore on Canada got better to the point where there is some hope for the future. That future is unlikely to materialise at this year’s World Cup. However, come 2020 and beyond Canada is starting to look like they have the kind of talent that could help them claw their way out of the international rugby wilderness that they have found themselves in since the last World Cup. With the growth of the game at a professional level in North America now through Major League Rugby, we’d argue that the future looks a lot brighter than it did a year ago. Time will tell but we hold that the results will come even though we may not necessarily see them in Japan in September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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