Source: Boris Horvat AFP/ Getty Images
Canada is heading to the Rugby World Cup!
Canada defeated Hong Kong 27-10 in the final game of the Repechage Tournament to punch their ticket to Japan. The rain was pouring down in Marseille, creating horrendous field conditions throughout the 80 minutes of action. Hong Kong seemed to adjust to the conditions first as they stormed out the gate, thoroughly dominating Canada for the first 15 minutes. Hong Kong needed to apply pressure early to keep their Rugby World Cup dreams alive. Heading into the final game Hong Kong needed a bonus point victory, and to prevent Canada from earning any bonus points of their own. In simpler terms, Hong Kong needed 4 tries and to beat Canada by more than 7 (while not allowing Canada to score 4 tries) in order to win the tournament.
These difficult circumstances were reflected by Leigh Jones’ strategy in those 15 minutes. Hong Kong needed tries above all else in this game and passed up opportunities to kick at goal as their pressure on Canada began to turn into penalties. Hong Kong kept calling for scrums, as they had the upper hand on the Canadian pack early on. However, once the ball was in play Canada played masterful defense in these 15 minutes, and that was a trend that continued throughout the game. This was one of the best defensive performances I have seen from Canada in a very long time.
Although it was a terrific team defensive performance, there were three players that were particularly outstanding. The back row of Kyle Baille, Lucas Rumball, and Tyler Ardron were absolutely suffocating on defense. One or two of them were at every tackle and they wreaked havoc at the rucks, often poaching the ball or forcing a penalty. Hong Kong had 14 turnovers in the game and most of them were a direct result of the trio.
Two plays stick out in particular; With the score 14-3, and the clock ticking down on the first half, Hong Kong was building pressure on the Canadian try-line. The Canadian defense was holding when Ardron made a tackle, abling him to draw a penalty in the ruck to end the pressure and the half. The second play was the result of one of Hong Kong’s 4 line breaks (I told you Canada played great defense). Scrumhalf Liam Slatem found a hole in the Canadian defense and was one-on-one with fullback Theo Sauder. Sauder made an impressive tackle on Slatem, but Slatem managed to offload to Craig Lodge, Lodge was then promptly obliterated by Rumball (with some help from DTH van der Merwe). Rumball was then able to jackal and the ball came loose. Hubert Buydens pounced on it and Canada had possession. The ability of Rumball to get back, make the tackle and jackal the ball just metres from the try-line, was easily the most impressive play in the game. Rumball’s performance earned him high praise and comparisons to Richie McCaw from the commentators (for anyone new to rugby reading this, that’s like comparing a hockey player to Gordie Howe).
There are plenty of stats that can back up Canada’s defensive performance; Canada forced 14 turnovers and had 5 lineout won against the throw. Most impressively, Hong Kong had 58% territory, 63% possession, 11:46 time in opponents 22, and Canada only allowed 1 try and 10 points. Despite having the ball nearly the entire game, Hong Kong just couldn't find a way to penetrate the Canadian defense.
Although the numbers may be skewed in Hong Kong’s favour, I think that had more to do with the circumstances surrounding the game. Hong Kong had to pressure, as they needed the bonus point win. Canada played a more conservative game as they only needed to lose by 7 or less. Any penalty that Canada was awarded immediately brought out the kicking tee in order to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Every 3 points made it harder for Hong Kong to win by 8. Gordon McRorie had a successful kicking day going 5 for 6, and Scrumhalf Phil Mack did a great job controlling the pace of the game. When Canada had the ball he was excellent at letting time tick away and slowing the game down from the pace Hong Kong wanted.
When Canada did have the ball Theo Sauder and DTH van der Merwe were excellent. Sauder was able to give Canada some territory with plenty of excellent clearance kicks. After Canada was under siege for the first 15 minutes, it was Sauder’s kick that put the ball in Hong Kong’s end for the first time. Sauder had the line break that led directly to Ray Barkwill’s try to open the scoring and he set up van der Merwe’s highlight reel try to seal Canada’s place in the Rugby World Cup. On that try, van der Merwe receives Sauder’s pass then fends off three Hong Kong defenders to end any hope of a Hong Kong comeback. It was van der Merwe’s second try of the game after he charged down a kick and recovered the loose ball for a try just 30 seconds after Hong Kong finally got on the board.
Preparations for the Rugby World Cup will be in full swing now. Kingsley Jones has 10 months to prepare his squad for one of the most difficult pools in the tournament. Canada slots into pool B with Namibia, Italy, the Springboks, and the All Blacks. Canada is a combined 4-0-15 against these opponents. They have two wins against both Namibia (2-0-0) and Italy (2-0-7) and have never beaten the Springboks (0-0-2) or the All Blacks (0-0-6). However, one of their matches against the Springboks is pretty legendary. The “Battle of Boet Erasmus” was an intensely physical match during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The physicality eventually boiled over to a brawl at toward the end of the game. Canada’s roster for featured Gareth Rees and Al Charon who are now both Hall of Famers. The game is also featured in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. Hopefully, Canada has one or two more legendary games in them for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. After all, Japan did take down the Springboks before, perhaps it can be done again.
Namibia and Italy are both winnable games for Canada, however, they will need to use the next 10 months to improve their overall game and have a better understanding of Kingsley Jones’ system. Many Canadian players will feature in the MLR next year giving them more games than they have ever had before leading up the Rugby World Cup. They will need all the game time they can get in order to prepare to face two of the worlds best. That game time will also be vital if they hope to beat Namibia and Italy.
Ultimately, the victory means that Canada can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that they are in the Rugby World Cup. It might not have been pretty, but they got there and will continue to be one of the 11 teams to have participated in every single Rugby World Cup. Their qualification also eases the concern of funding cuts, considering all that has been going within the world of Rugby Canada.
Canada will open the Rugby World Cup against Italy September 26th, 2019.