When Canada lines up for its first game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, against Italy in Fukuoka, there is likely to be a swelling of national pride and just a smidgeon of residual relief.
Having left it to the last possible juncture to qualify for the four-yearly showcase — which brings tension, considering Canada has competed at every single Rugby World Cup — the Canucks won the repechage event in Marseille in November and go into World Cup Pool B with New Zealand, South Africa, Namibia and those Italians.
It has been a slog to get to this point.
Since the last World Cup in 2015 the men’s 15-a-side team has tumbled down the global rankings, and in recent years has suffered humbling losses, including defeats against rivals USA and Uruguay in earlier World Cup qualifiers. There have been coaching reshuffles, financial restructuring and a lot of worry about funding if Canada were to fail on the road to Japan.
Yet in Marseille Canada negotiated its way past Kenya, Germany and Hong Kong and safeguarded part of its future.
Now it is all settled, Canadian players and management can look back on how tough it was. Did the athletes feel the pressure of history, given Canada had never missed a World Cup before?
“We talked about it the whole time,” says DTH van der Merwe, the free-scoring wing who bagged five tries in the repechage event. “We all knew that the stakes were high.
“If we didn’t make it we’d be the first Canadian team not to go to the World Cup. That’s plain and simple. Then you lose all the funding which is massive for professional sports and for Rugby Canada. World Cup funding is huge and we don’t have massive backers who could pull us out of this rut. I’m happy we got there.”
According to Gareth Rees, a fly-half for Canada in the first four World Cups and now Rugby Canada’s director of commercial and program relations, qualification is a much-needed boon for a nation that has had real struggles of late.
“The invention of the World Cup was hugely important for Canadian rugby,” he explains. “It gave us a focal point every four years and when that opportunity was perhaps not there, it forced us to rethink a few things. “It would have been a big problem had we not made it to Japan.
“Firstly finances would have been up, out the door. There’s a lot of support that comes from World Rugby because you’re part of the World Cup family. And obviously for young athletes we compete with ice hockey and gridiron and soccer and every other sport in Canada. So to not have that showpiece every four years would not allow us to attract the best athletes and not allow us to grow the game as we want.”
‘We’ve been through a lean patch’
There has been a tightening of belts in the last few years.
You know of the floundering fortunes of the men’s 15s side. Then earlier this year, with the union taking the tough decision to merge resources from sevens and 15s, to make 15-a-side rugby its stated priority, there was friction.
Men’s sevens players refused to sign new deals. Sevens players who had historically featured for Canada in 15s World Cups and qualification, made themselves unavailable for this repechage event.
Issues have been resolved in Canada now and the Canucks will be at rugby’s biggest party once again, this time in Japan. However, there would have been serious questions asked about Canada’s rugby future had the outcome been different.
In September 2017, former Wales flanker and ex-Russia coach Kingsley Jones took up the reigns to try and guide Canada through an earlier qualifier that it ultimately lost to Uruguay. To the relief of a nation, Jones helped the team realize its dream at this last-chance event.
He lays out the size of the task: “You are where you are for a reason. I don’t think it’s dragging the team through it — we’ve been through a lean patch.
“A lot of very good players finished in 2015 and it leaves a hole. We’ve worked hard to create more depth, all down to the support of Rugby Canada, the support of all the local clubs in Canada to release players so they’re able to train, do extra conditioning sessions.
“It came through (at the repechage) and the whole country’s allowed these players to be here, to work hard and win three games on the trot.”
Asked immediately after qualification what this means for an upcoming Americas Rugby Championship tournament and then World Cup preparation, Jones laughs: “I haven’t got a clue!
“I’ve been to World Cups before but I’ve finished this, we got our season mapped out if this happened but it’s the wrong time to ask me.
“I’ll think about it on the journey home, I guess!”
Gathering his thoughts he continues: “It probably hasn’t hit me yet that we’re going. We’ll have a breathe, look forward to going to Japan. It will be great.
“I’m not focused on the All Blacks tonight! We’ve just had a big period, but it’ll be great to be in that group. We’ve got a good team, we’re growing. We’ve got a winning habit.”