On September 20, 2019, the rugby world will descend upon Tokyo as Japan and Russia square off in the opening match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Twenty nations will then battle for a month in hopes of lifting the famed Webb Ellis Cup. Preparations for the event are well underway, however, there is one small matter that that still needs to be resolved.
As it stands, we know 19 of the 20 nations that will compete at the Rugby World Cup next year. This weekend Canada, Kenya, Hong Kong, and Germany will head to France and begin playing in a 3-week round robin Repechage Tournament for the 20th and final spot at the Rugby World Cup. Each team will play each other once. Whoever is at the top of the table after the 3rd week of games will join New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, and Namibia in Pool B.
The tournament will be played using the same scoring system as the Rugby World Cup. A win will earn you 4 points and a draw will be 2 points. Score often, as there is a bonus point for scoring 4 tries in a match. If you are going to lose, at least keep it tight. A defeat by less than 7 is still worth a point, but losing by more than 7 earns you nothing.
So how will the tournament play out? To determine that, we must take a closer look at the 4 teams.
How they got here:
On September 19th, 2011, Canada opened their 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign with a match against Tonga at Okara Park in Whangarei, New Zealand. Jebb Sinclair opened the scoring with a try in the 12th minute, Phil Mackenzie and Aaron Carpenter would add tries of their own. James Pritchard had 10 points off his boot and Canada defeated Tonga 25-20. The victory would see Canada move up to 11th in the IRB world rankings. This is the highest ranking the Canadian men’s team has ever achieved. Just 7 years ago Canada was 1-0 at the Rugby World Cup and on the cusp of being a top 10 team in the world. The victory over Tonga would be Canada’s only win as they failed to make it out of the group stage.
Since that game, Canada has been slowly dropping down the world rankings. Canada currently sits 23rd in the world, not even good enough to be the highest ranked team at the Repechage Tournament. That honour goes to Hong Kong who sits at 21st. It is no secret that Canada has struggled in recent years. There are many theories as to why Canada has struggled, most notably the development structure and a lack of professional opportunities for players. The debates have drawn on over the years as frustrated Canadian rugby fans have watched loss after loss after loss. The Repechage Tournament is now Canada’s 3rd and final chance to qualify for the Rugby World Cup.
In the summer of 2017, Canada fell to the USA in a two-game aggregate series. The first game was a 28-28 draw forcing a winner take all second game. In the second game, the USA dominated as they handed Canada a 52-16 loss and plane tickets to Uruguay. The head coach Mark Anscombe was fired as a result of the USA series. Kingsley Jones was hired as his replacement with one goal in mind; qualify for the Rugby World Cup. The next opportunity to qualify came in another 2 game aggregate series with Uruguay. Uruguay would win both games (38-29 and 32-31) to punch their ticket to Japan. The Repechage Tournament is Canada’s final chance at qualification. Canada is one of 12 teams to have participated in every Rugby World Cup, a streak they would love to keep alive.
One great thing about Canada’s 2018 rugby season is that everyone is remarkably healthy. Kingsley Jones has everyone at his disposal and the team hitting the pitch will be Canada’s best possible team. Of course, that statement is debatable. The Sevens team is still boycotting practice over the structural changes Rugby Canada has implemented. As a result, none of those players will be available to Jones, but it is unclear how many Sevens players would have been on this team or how they would have been utilized.
The key thing for Canada is that all of the overseas players are available. The overseas professionals are always a big boost to the Canadian roster that so often includes USports and amateur domestic competition players. Second row Evan Olmstead is coming off the best game of his life. Olmstead earned Man of the Match honours as he played all 100 minutes of Auckland’s historic comeback win over Canterbury to claim the Mitre 10 Cup title. Olmstead was instrumental in extra time, coming up with 3 big steals to help Auckland seal their victory.
Of course, the biggest name on the Canadian roster is DTH van der Merwe. The winger is Canada’s all-time leading try scorer (32) and a big part of the Canadian offense. Quite simply, van der Merwe is an elite player. In addition to being Canada’s all-time leading try scorer, he also holds that title for the Glasgow Warriors. Van der Merwe has 51 tries in 103 caps for the Warriors. This also puts him 3rd all-time amongst try scorers in the Pro 14. So yeah, he is pretty good. The Canadian offense operates on an entirely different level with van der Merwe in the lineup. He is without a doubt the best player in the Repechage Tournament and Canada will need to take full advantage of his skill set if they are going to win this tournament.
How they got here:
After going 4-0 Rugby Africa Gold Cup, Kenya met Namibia in the fifth and final game of the round robin tournament. Namibia was also 4-0 setting up a tournament deciding game. Namibia was victorious by a score of 53-28, earning them their place in the Rugby World Cup and Kenya’s consolation prize was the Repechage tournament.
The Kenyan team heading into the Repechage Tournament looks very different than the team heading to France. Kenya welcomes the return of former captain Wilson Kopondo to the squad. Kopondo, a lock, has 2 tries in 11 caps for the Simbas (Kenya’s amazing nickname). He is one of Kenya’s best players and will be a strong addition to their pack. Kopondo is just one of many reinforcements the Simbas are receiving for the tournament. Most of these players are coming from the Sevens team. It is always difficult to gauge how well Sevens players will transition to the 15 man game, more than doubling the number of players on the field takes away a lot of time and space. Fancy offloads and long passes occur much less frequently and players generally have to play a more straightforward game with less creativity. However, if you are going to add Sevens players to the lineup, adding one of the best Sevens players in history is definitely the way to go. Collins Injera has scored 271 tires on the Sevens World Series. This puts him second on the all-time try-scoring list behind England’s Dan Norton’s 299. Injera is absolutely an elite talent in the Sevens game, however, he only has one 15s test cap under his belt. That cap came back in 2014. Injera started at wing and didn’t factor into the scoring as Kenya defeated Namibia 29-22. Other members of the Sevens team that are making the trip to France include; Andrew Amonde and Willy Ambaka.
It’s always difficult to tell how well Sevens players will fair in a 15 a side game. However, Kenya possesses plenty of speed and Injera’s deadly finishing touch could cause a lot of problems for opponents.
How they got here:
While most teams would be disappointed to be in the Repechage Tournament, Germany must be absolutely ecstatic. The Germans find themselves with a final shot at the Rugby World Cup as a result of the aftermath of the Spain-Belgium-Romania drama this summer. For those that don’t know, toward the end of a match between Spain and Belgium, the Spanish players began attacking the referee after a string of unfair calls. Belgium was about to score a big upset victory over Spain that would send Romania to the Rugby World Cup. The referee for that match was Romanian, leading to all sorts of accusations and an investigation. The investigation determined that the referee was fine and that there was no evidence of match-fixing or that he was actively trying to get his home nation through to the Rugby World Cup.
That same investigation determined that Spain, Belgium, and Romania were all using ineligible players during the tournament. As a result, they were all fined and docked points in the standings. This resulted in 3rd place Russia and 5th place Germany moving up to 1st and 2nd in the standings. Russia automatically qualified and Germany received a one-game playoff with Portugal for a spot in the Repechage Tournament. Germany won 16-13 on a 72nd-minute penalty from Raynor Parkinson. Germany is the 29th ranked team in the world, the lowest of the 4 teams in the Repechage Tournament.
The German squad is a mix of professional and amateur players. The vast majority of the German play domestically, but there is a handful of players with other international experience. Ayron Schramm, originally born in South Africa, was brought up through the Cell C Sharks system. Schramm saw time with the big club in 2016 suiting up at No.8 in a strong pack that featured Thomas Du Toit, Tendai Mtawarira, and Marcell Coetzee. North American fans will want to keep an eye on Schramm as he just signed with MLR’s Houston Sabercats or the 2019 season.
How they got here:
Hong Kong is another nation that will be happy to find themselves in the Repechage tournament. Hong Kong actually earned their right to be here through of the Asian Rugby Championship. The Asian Rugby Championship excluded Japan who automatically qualified by virtue of being the host nation. Hong Kong defeated South Korea and Malaysia twice each to win the Championship, this got them a home-and-home playoff with the Cook Islands. Hong Kong took the first game 26-3 and then headed back to Hong Kong for the second game. In the second game, Alexander Post led the way with a 2 try performance and Hong Kong won 51-0.
Hong Kong is led by head coach Leigh Jones. Originally from Wales, Jones was the defensive coach for Japan during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Of course, that was when Japan were able to defeat the Springboks in the biggest upset in rugby history. Jones then went on to create Hong Kong’s Elite Rugby Program in 2016. The Elite Rugby Program was the first program to allow athletes to play rugby professionally in Hong Kong. As a result, nearly all of the players are part of the Elite Rugby Program. In fact, there is only one exception; hooker Alexander Post who plays for the Toronto Arrows. Post has featured in a handful of games for the Arrows but was not one of the 12 players who have been announced with MLR contracts. However, only one hooker was among those 12. This gives Canadian and Arrows fans a reason to watch all the Hong Kong games at the Repechage tournament.
Despite not being the highest ranked team, Canada seems to be the betting favourite at the Repechage Tournament. However, their poor form as of late may leave the door open for an upset at the hands of Hong Kong. Although can you really call it an upset if Hong Kong is ranked higher? The Germans will most likely finish last. Sure, they earned their way here by beating Portugal but needed a major stroke of luck mixed with utter chaos to even get to this point. Kenya could surprise, but a lot of their team has yet to play a 15s game. Obviously, with players like Injera, the skill set is there but it remains to be seen if it will translate to the 15s game. Ultimately, this tournament should come down to Canada vs Hong Kong. Overall, players such as DTH van der Merwe, Evan Olmstead and Tyler Ardron whom all have a wealth of experience playing in the world’s top leagues should lead Canada past Hong Kong.
Ultimately, this is how I see the tournament playing out. Canada will go 3-0-0 with 2 bonus point victories over Kenya and Germany. Hong Kong will also pick up those bonus point victories but I think the match with Canada will be tight and they will earn their 3rd bonus point. Kenya’s lone win will come against Germany. I’m giving Kenya 2 bonus points. The win against Germany will be a bonus point victory and I think they will be able to scare either Hong Kong or Canada with a close game. Germany will fail to win a game at the tournament, but I have faith they can keep at least one game close enough to avoid the bagel on the table.
Canada is the only Tier 2 nation at the Repechage Tournament. Hong Kong Kenya and Germany are all Tier 3 Developmental nations. All things considered, Canada should win this tournament and punch their ticket to Japan. However, this is rugby and anything can happen. Kingsley Jones has the best possible squad available to him and the Canadians will need to take advantage of it. Canada has never missed a Rugby World Cup. Three games against Kenya, Hong Kong, and Germany are all that stands in their way of continuing the streak.