This weekend sees Canada take on the USA in St. John’s for the first of two critical World Cup qualifiers against the Americans. Saturday’s proceedings and the follow up in Denver a week later will determine whether Canada will be competing for the Americas 1 berth in Pool A. If Canada do not win the two game series on aggregate then they still have a chance at qualifying for the Americas 2 berth in Pool D. Whichever way you cut it it’s a difficult route for a team that simply hasn’t fired a genuine shot in anger for several years now and sits 22nd on the World Rankings Table.
Here’s what Canada’s route to the World Cup looks like in a nutshell. If they win the series against the US over the next two weekends, then they will play Uruguay twice next month. If they win that series on aggregrate then that Americas 1 berth in Pool A is theirs. If they lose this series against the USA then they will play Chile next month in a two match series. If they win that then they will play the runner up between the USA and Uruguay which would have decided who got the Americas 1 berth. If they beat either the US or Uruguay then the Americas 2 berth in Pool D is theirs. If they win neither series then next November, similar to their qualification process for the last World Cup, they will compete with three other countries in a repechage tournament for the last spot in Pool C. Considering that to qualify for the first two berths up for grabs they would have to beat the US and Uruguay at least twice, teams they haven’t had a good track record against in recent years, then the magnitude of the task in front them becomes rather clear.
There is sadly no denying that Canada has deteriorated dramatically since the 2015 World Cup, and their win rate under Coach Kingsley Jones who has held the reigns since 2017 has been poor to say the least. In short they are a poorly coached and managed team. Patience and excuses are running out at a rate of knots, and Canada and Jones simply have to put the past behind them and show on Saturday that there finally is the glimmer of a new dawn for Canada in International Test rugby.
We find it really painful to appear so disparaging of our national team. At the heart of it all is a squad of talented and highly motivated players whose commitment has never been in doubt. However, we feel they are constantly being asked to play with one hand tied behind their backs. So with bated breath and fingers crossed here’s what got us talking about Saturday’s proceedings.
Canada vs USA – Saturday, September 4th – St. John’s, Newfoundland
If you ever want a place where a crowd will get behind you, we could think of few better places in this land of ours than Newfoundland. Newfoundland hospitality and generosity is the stuff of legends, and as a result the team will have felt very much at home this past week. Hopefully that atmosphere will provide the perfect setting for the kind of performance and results that have sadly been lacking for the last few years. Canada has the squad to do it against the US, but focus and execution will be key and all too often the absence of these two essential qualities have let the side down.
Sure there have been plenty of excuses, but they are sounding increasingly hollow. The vast majority of these players have just completed a full season of Major League rugby with the various participating franchises. While Canada has only played two Tests since the last World Cup, the same can be said of the US. In short, in terms of difficulties faced, primarily as a result of COVID-19 it’s a level playing field for both sides. Most of these players know each other well through the MLR, and Canadians are well represented across the league. Enough said, it’s time for the rugby to do the talking.
One player who has proved his mettle and another who needs to
One of the most fascinating and potentially entertaining struggles on Saturday will be in the second row. We felt the USA’s Nate Brakeley made a real impact when he came off the bench against England this summer, even if he fell dramatically short of the mark a week later against Ireland. However, Keys is a player of similar stature and ability and in the regular MLR season was one of the standout players for Rugby Atlanta who finished second in the league. A highly capable player at club level, Keys really needs to make his mark on the International scene and the next two Saturdays will provide him with golden opportunities. The talent is there and he definitely has age on his side compared to Brakeley.
A player who demands and earns respect no matter what jersey he wears
Captain and powerful back rower Lucas Rumball, will be one of Canada’s greatest assets on Saturday. His quiet but forceful leadership has served him well both in the MLR and at Test level. At only 26 years of age he is such a vital cog in the spine of this Canadian team, that he is well on his way to live amongst Canadian legends such as Al Charron. He has impressed us from day one in a Canadian jersey since he first burst onto the scene in 2016. A player who wears his heart on his sleeve, never says die and is clearly such a talisman for his fellow teammates, Saturday’s match is a golden opportunity for the Ontario native to really lay down a marker that Canada’s recent woes are behind them.
All he needs is consistency
Cam Dolan was a key component of the USA’s second half revival against England this summer, and scored a fine try of his own. However, a week later against Ireland he was nowhere to be seen. It’s that lack of consistency in his performances that Coach Gary Gold and the Eagles management need to address. Dolan is a quality player through and through and his ability is not in question, but sadly his consistency is. The USA will need a big game from him on Saturday. He is up against Canada’s Siaki Vikilani, who although impressive for the Toronto Arrows in his rookie season was seen to be be completely out of his depth against England and Wales. So if ever there was a chance for Dolan to lay down a marker that he is the premier number 8 this side of the Atlantic, then Saturday’s the day.
The duelling Irish
Although AJ MacGinty starts on the bench for the Eagles, expect to see him sooner rather than later. This will only be the American fly half’s first match since injuring his knee with English premiership side Sale Sharks in June. However, his rehabilitation post surgery has gone well and there is no denying the pedigree he brings to the side. He has been a key part of Sale Sharks’ success in the Premiership, and brings a formidable talent with the boot and his game management to the Eagles efforts.
Sadly we just can’t seem to say the same of his fellow countryman Peter Nelson who plies his trade as Canada’s fly half on International duty and with French second division outfit Aurillac at club level. Although impressing with Ulster in his early career, there has been little evidence of that early promise since coming to Canada. The only thing that Nelson can perhaps bank on is that as much of a shocker as he had against Wales and England this summer, his opposite starter Will Magie for the Americans has had very little game time at International level in the last two years, having only played for 11 minutes in the USA’s horror show against Ireland.
Don’t leave your Coats at the door!
In short we want to see lots of Cooper Coats on Saturday. His American counterpart Luke Carty had an absolute shocker against Ireland, admittedly in the fly half berth which is his more usual position. However, despite Canada’s thumping defeats to Wales and England, Coats needed to make no apologies for his performances in both matches. His defence may need a little work, but as an attacking player who is exceptionally solid and courageous under the high ball, Canada has been given an early Christmas present. Coats is the real deal and has made a seamless transition from sevens to the fifteen a side game. Like we say his defence needs a bit of work given his sevens background, but expect to see him carving up large chunks of the pitch on Saturday, while the Americans will not want any kind of kicking game that allows Coats to use his abilities in the air.
It should be a fascinating encounter. Despite our frustration that it is being put behind a paywall through Premier Sports instead of through TSN, causing us to fork out yet more money to watch our beloved sport in this country and to add insult to injury cheer on our own national team – we’ll be making plenty of noise on Saturday afternoon. We’ve felt for the players at how badly the game is being managed at an International level in this country for the last 6 years, but are really hoping that Saturday will finally allow us to move on from the past and look towards the future. The Americans may perhaps be the more confident of the two sides, but on paper it’s still an even contest. Canada simply has to play for a full eighty minutes against a quality opponent and not, as they so often do, switch off for a crucial 15 minutes around the 60 minute mark.
This is Canada’s game to win and while it won’t be easy, we’re really hoping a little bit of that Newfoundland magic and can do attitude will rub off on them. So with bated breath and every finger and toe crossed – Go Canada Go!!!