It's been a long hard road to the Rugby World Cup for Canada. And the journey may well be equally bumpy in Japan.
Expectations are low. Just making the tournament proved to be heavy lifting this time out with the 22nd-ranked Canadians the last to crack the 20-team field. Only Namibia, at No. 23, is ranked lower.
A rugby murderers' row awaits in Pool B.
The Canadian men are long on pride and commitment to the cause. Watch the team during the national anthem — no group belts out "O Canada" with more passion. But the ever-widening gap between Tier 2 nations and rugby's heavyweights is a daunting bridge to cross.
"It is an achievement to qualify for the World Cup but this is where it starts," said coach Kingsley Jones. "We need to take part in it, not just be here."
The Canadians will have to play at their best, and perhaps have some luck go their way, if they are to find the win column.
Consider that Canada has only ever made it past the first round once — in 1991, when it lost 29-13 to New Zealand in the quarterfinals. The Canadians have gone 2-12-2 in the last four tournaments, with both victories coming against Tonga.
While the Canadian men have never missed the sport's showcase, it took them three tries to do it this time. They won a repechage tournament over the likes of Hong Kong, Germany and Kenya after losing qualifying series to the U.S. and Uruguay.
Their reward was a place alongside three-time champion New Zealand (ranked second in the world), two-time winner South Africa (No. 4), Italy (No. 14) and Namibia (No. 23) in Pool B.
Canada's all-time record against the four is 4-14-0, with two of the wins against Namibia and two against Italy (which has beaten the Canadians seven times).
Canada opens Sept. 26 against Italy before taking on New Zealand, South Africa and Namibia.
"One does fear for the likes of Namibia and Canada in a pool with two of the tournament favourites, New Zealand and South Africa," wrote England's Daily Telegraph, noting the most lopsided World Cup beating came in 2003 when Australia beat Namibia 142-0.
After reading that, Canadians may be cheered to learn that Canada's average losing margin to New Zealand is 51.8 points.
Finishing third in the group would guarantee a berth in the next World Cup, an outcome that would likely need wins over Italy and Namibia. A more reasonable goal is just beating Namibia.
"I think with our best group available we can challenge," Jones said gamely when asked about the tournament.
"We've just got to keep getting better and better right throughout this competition," he added.
Jones has weapons at his disposal.
Winger DTH van der Merwe, Canada's all-time leading try-scorer with 38, turned heads with four tries at the 2015 tournament and will be looking for more at his fourth World Cup.
Taylor Paris and Jeff Hassler are other threats on the wing. Veteran Ciaran Hearn and Ben LeSage look to pair up in the centres. Patrick Parfrey likely made the fullback job his own with a fine summer.
Irish-born Peter Nelson, a late addition to the team, could be a key man in Japan at No. 10. The former Ulster player, who is eligible for Canada by virtue of his Toronto-born grandmother, is comfortable at both fly half and fullback and is a fine left-footed kicker.
Hearn is an option for long-range place-kicks.
Nelson, a 26-year-old from Dungannon, Northern Ireland, was thrown in at the deep end at the Pacific Nations Cup this summer but has shown improvement. Scrum half Gord McRorie can also play No. 10 if needed.
The forward pack is led by captain Tyler Ardron, one of Canada's finest rugby exports. The muscular No. 8 plays his club rugby in New Zealand for the Super Rugby Chiefs.
"He's in the prime of his career and he's looking in great shape," said Jones.
Veteran prop Hubert Buydens will lead the front row, likely alongside Eric Howard and Matt Tierney.
Barring a rapid recovery, influential lock/blindside flanker Kyle Baillie will likely miss the first two games due to knee injury.
Jones has options in the back five of the forwards with players able to change positions. But the pack may be under pressure, given recent results.
Canadians will enjoy watching lock/flanker Evan Olmstead, a big man with equally big hair.
Canada's pre-tournament results have been poor.
The Canadians have won just two of 11 matches in 2019, defeating No. 29 Chile and the B.C. all-stars. They lost to the 13th-ranked Americans (three times), No. 9 Fiji, No. 15 Tonga, No. 19 Uruguay and No. 26 Brazil as well as an Argentina XV and Irish club side Leinster.
Jones' test record at Canada's helm is 7-15-0 since taking over the team in September 2017. He succeeded New Zealand's Mark Anscombe, who was fired after Canada lost to the U.S. in its first crack at World Cup qualifying.
Anscombe's test record as coach was 2-11-1, although he rarely got to field all his top players due to injuries or other commitments.
Jones' cause has been bolstered by the arrival of Major League Rugby, the North American circuit that has two seasons under its belt. While the standard of play may not yet match leagues abroad, it has given many of the Canadians playing time in a fully professional setting.
Anscombe constantly complained that much of his player pool was not seeing the kind of action needed to prepare for test rugby.
Jones also wields more control than his predecessor. Rugby Canada restructured — again — in the leadup to the World Cup with Jones and John Tait taking expanded roles in the men's and women's high-performance rugby programs, respectively.
Not everyone was on the same page beforehand.
The goal now is to align the talent streams with a clear vision. That will take time, with the 2023 and 2027 World Cups more likely to see the fruits of the reorganization.
Success requires depth, something Canada is short on.
Jones, a former Wales captain who has an impressive rugby Rolodex, has assembled an all-star coaching staff for the tournament. The Canadian braintrust includes former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry, England and Saracens scrum half Richard Wigglesworth, Leicester Tigers forwards coach Boris Stankovich, Cardiff Blues academy manager Gruff (pronounced griff) Rees and former Welsh rugby national performance manager Huw Wiltshire.
Jones led Russia in its first Rugby World Cup appearance in 2011
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2019.
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