Canadian confidence is rising with only one game left to seal their spot at the 9th Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019.
The national team have been in a rankings free-fall since 2012, but their victory over Germany showed that the systems they have put in place to ensure their spot at the global tournament have started to pay dividends.
Canada (21st) grafted out a solid 29-10 victory over Germany (26th), to put themselves a step closer and will now battle out the finale with 24th ranked Hong Kong on Nov. 23rd.
The pleasing aspect for Canada’s on-field performance is the way that they have cut out some of the inconsistencies that got them to the repechage in the first place. Coach changes, player revolts, missing stars, and injuries all helped to throw the team into disarray leading to the very real threat of losing their World Cup funding.
When Canada first missed their chance by losing to the US, it wasn’t seen as the end of the world just the inevitable changing of the guard in North America rugby. When they lost their second chance to Uruguay, the complacency of entry to the previous 8 World Cups was fully gone. It confirmed that their 2 and 10 season of 2017 could not be written off and Rugby Canada needed to do something quickly.
Their answer was to tighten their belts, offer central contracting and bring squad members together as much as possible aiming everything at this repechage. It was a controversial move that angered many including the members of the national 7s team who had every right to feel aggrieved. But, it seems to have gotten Canada what they want…
The game against Germany showed that this singular focus has translated into on-field performance and some important combinations have started to gel. Coach Kingsley Jones has gotten some key selections correct.
In the outside backs, Theo Sauder has added an element of balance to the back line that has taken pressure off Van Der Merwe. Too often in the past, Canada has relied on DTH to create all the attack but Sauder provides a triple threat. He is a dynamic attacker with a full skill set which means oppositions have to move defenders around which frees up space for Canada’s all-time leading point scorer. Evans continues to make solid go-forward and there is a solid core of outsides below him including Taylor Paris, Kainoa Lloyd and Jeff Hassler.
In the centers, the return of Canada’s highest capped center, Ciaran Hearn has given the team a more powerful presence in the midfield. This is no slight on Nick Blevins who has been Canada’s best defensive player over the last 2-3 years, but Hearn seems to have more time on the ball. His skill set holds off defenders and this brings other runners into play. His combination with the strong running Lesage will only improve with more time together.
In the halves, it’s not clear whether Gordie McRorie is the long term answer at 10, but he is making his contributions count at the moment. As a scrumhalf, he offers a faster passing game than some of his predecessors and strong line runners like Sauder and Lesage have been the benefactors. Phil Mack continues to marshal his troops well, just don’t ask him to tackle.
The forwards are the real area of improvement and it is here that Kingsley Jones has made a big selectorial decision. With Evan Olmstead and Mike Sheppard in the second row, he is essentially selecting five loose forwards. This gives Canada exceptional mobility across the field and we saw both second rowers showing their athleticism against Germany. This tactic can lead to weaknesses in the line out; however, with Olmstead and Ardron playing regularly at lock in highly successful New Zealand teams, there are a host of options for Canada. Alongside Ardron, Rumball and Baillie provide powerful running options that consistently breach the advantage line.
The front row and scrum against Germany operated extremely well with several scrum penalties being called for Canada. If they can maintain that strength against higher ranked nations, then Canada can bring their attacking weapons into play.
Canada still have a game to clinch it, but at least they can be more confident in what they can do on the pitch.