Canada hopes it will do more than just try

Cana­di­ans at a disad­van­tage with a lack of a pro league, and a tough World Cup draw

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - MOR­GAN CAMP­BELL SPORTS RE­PORTER

Canada’s men’s rugby team heads into the World Cup with a noble goal: reach the quar­ter-fi­nals for the first time since 1991, and equal Canada’s best re­sult ever. The re­al­ity is more daunt­ing. Ad­vanc­ing past the group stage means win­ning at least two of the four round-robin games they’ll play over the next two weeks in Eng­land. It is a tough task con­sid­er­ing the squad has won just two of10 matches since last Novem­ber. Just one vic­tory — 16-15 over Ge­or­gia this month — came against a World Cup team.

Canada’s squad isn’t ex­pect­ing a mir­a­cle trans­for­ma­tion into a ti­tle con­tender, but a fo­cus on prepa­ra­tion and ex­e­cu­tion means Canada will field a stronger team than the one that beat Tonga and drew against Ja­pan in 2011.

“If you’re not play­ing to win the whole thing, you prob­a­bly shouldn’t be here,” said Toronto na­tive Liam Un­der­wood, who plays fly-half for Canada. “But we’re try­ing to fo­cus on our process and not look at out­come goals. That’s some­thing that’s hard to con­trol.”

Since its de­but in 1987 the Rugby World Cup, which be­gins when Eng­land plays Fiji on Fri­day, has grown into the world’s third-big­gest sports event, be­hind the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. Over the tour­na­ment’s six weeks, or­ga­niz­ers ex­pect to bring in $320 mil­lion from sales of 2.3 mil­lion tick­ets, and the Ber­lin- based travel in­dus­try con­sul­tancy Go Euro es­ti­mates the World Cup will gen­er­ate more than $2 bil­lion in tourism and trans­porta­tion.

On the pitch, in­ter­na­tional rugby’s heavy hit­ters are al­ready lin­ing up for a shot at the Oct. 31 fi­nal. Top-ranked New Zealand warmed up by thump­ing world No. 2 Aus­tralia 41-13 in mid-Au­gust, while the tour­na­ment has English sports fans trans­fixed. Host teams have won three of the pre­vi­ous seven World Cups. Into this mix jumps Canada, ranked 18th world­wide but sev­eral notches be­low the elite pro­grams. Since 1983, Canada has won just eight matches against top tier pro­grams, and none since 2005.

Clos­ing the gap this month won’t be easy, thanks to a draw that put Canada in Pool D, which in­cludes six­thranked Ire­land (Satur­day’s open­ing op­po­nent) and sev­enth-ranked France.

“We’re in a dif­fi­cult pool, so we’re very much the un­der­dogs,” as­sis­tant coach Graeme Mof­fat said. “We’re pre­pared as best we can . . . We’re very process-fo­cused and look­ing to put up good per­for­mances.”

Rugby Canada has worked to boost the pro­gram’s pro­file do­mes­ti­cally. Last spring they en­tered a part­ner­ship with Un­der Ar­mour that not only out­fits Canada’s rugby teams, but al­lows them to ac­cess the sports­wear gi­ant’s mar­ket­ing mus­cle. As part of a pre-tour­na­ment pub­lic­ity play, Un­der Ar­mour sent a ship­ment of goods to Lon­don in a con­tainer ship bear­ing gi­ant im­ages of sev­eral rugby stars, in­clud­ing cana­dian cap­tain Jamie Cud­more.

But a look at the ros­ter re­veals Canada’s most stub­born im­ped­i­ment to in­ter­na­tional suc­cess. While top teams field en­tire teams of highly paid pros, Cud­more is one of just 14 play­ers among 31 Team Canada mem­bers who play in an over­seas pro league.

Most of the rest play for rugby clubs in Canada, where they use 15-on-15 rugby union rules but face lim­ited com­pe­ti­tion.

Ear­lier this week head coach Kieran Crow­ley told re­porters in Eng­land that the lack of a do­mes­tic pro league is stunt­ing the sport’s growth in Canada.

“The play­ers in the U.S. and Canada need to play in the same sort of en­vi­ron­ment that (Cana­di­ans) Jeff Hassler and Tyler Ar­dron have at Ospreys,” Crow­ley said, re­fer­ring to the rugby union club in Wales. “They were in Canada just play­ing rugby at that level, then they sud­denly get a chance in a daily, pro­fes­sional train­ing en­vi­ron­ment and you can see the strides they have made.”

Five play­ers, in­clud­ing Un­der­wood, play full-time with the rugby sev­ens na­tional team that won the Pan Am Games and hopes to qual­ify for the Rio Olympics. Play­ing sev­ens al­lows Un­der­wood to face world-class com­pe­ti­tion year-round, but he says mov­ing from the free-flow­ing sev­ens game to the more struc­tured rugby union re­quires a big ad­just­ment.

“It’s a dif­fer­ent game and it’s tough get­ting used to it af­ter play­ing sev­ens for most of the year,” Crow­ley said. “That’s the one good thing about hav­ing so many games this sum­mer. He had time to ad­just and get back in gear.”

DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Only 14 of Canada’s 31 play­ers are in pro­fes­sional leagues over­seas, in­clud­ing cap­tain Jamie Cud­more.

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