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