Canada Rugby World Cup Preview Pt.2

Source: Lorne Collicutt

The Build-Up

Canada has struggled on the pitch since qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Canada finished 5th at the 2019 edition of the ARC with their only win coming against Chile. After the ARC concluded, many of Canada’s players returned to North America to compete in Major League Rugby. The MLR has provided both Rugby Canada and USA Rugby with the first bona fide professional rugby union option in North America. Additionally, the 2019 season marked the inaugural season for the Toronto Arrows in MLR. The Arrows became the first professional rugby union team in Canada and provided many of Canada’s top players a place to play professionally. The ability to remain in a full-time professional environment and dedicate their time to training has been an invaluable resource for the Canadian national team. Most of the Arrows roster was Canadian and many of their players were able to use MLR as a way to raise their profile for national team selection in the build up to the RWC. Ultimately, when the long list for the Pacific Nations Cup was announced, the team featured 26 MLR players, 13 of which were Toronto Arrows. Many players such as Rob Brouwer, Mike Sheppard, and Andrew Quattrin were credited with outstanding MLR seasons earning them a chance with the national team. At this point the biggest exclusion on the squad was MLR leading scorer Brock Staller. Staller is a bit of a victim of circumstance with the wing being arguably Canada’s deepest position.

Still, it was a surprise that the MLR’s leading scorer was not even given an opportunity to make the squad. When it came time to name the 31-man squad for the PNC there were 15 MLR players and 8 Arrows on the squad. Nakai Penny, George Barton, Dan Moor, and Guiseppe du Toit were among the unlucky ones left off the squad.

At the PNC, Canada once again struggled. The USA outclassed Canada and handed them a 47-19 defeat (Conor Trainor scored a try in the 80th minute to bring it to 19, so that made it look a little better). After that match on American soil, Canada flew to Fiji for the last 2 games of the tournament. Against Fiji, the Canadian set piece left a lot to be desired. Fiji repeatedly halted the Canadian lineout, yet Canada kept trying the same plays. The scrum also took a beating and ultimately Canada lost 38-13. With 9 players (Rob Brouwer, Djustice Sears-Duru, Hubert Buydens, Benoit Piffero, Andrew Quattrin, Eric Howard, (Jake Ilnicki, Matt Tierney, and Cole Keith) all fighting for positions on the front row, no one really raised their hand significantly higher than the others. The front row was quickly becoming one of Canada’s most intriguing positional battles. Canada struggled out of the gate against Tonga who jumped out to a huge early lead. However, a Jeff Hassler try right on the halftime whistle would provide some momentum. In the 61st minute, Patrick Parfrey would enter the game and take over. Parfrey scored a try on his first touch of the ball. He followed that up by setting up tries for van der Merwe and Hassler’s 2nd of the match. However, Tonga also managed 2 tries in the 2nd half and won the game 33-23. The Canadians would return home to play 3 games on home soil. At this point, Andrew Coe would join the squad from the Sevens program and dynamic fullback Theo Sauder would return from a shoulder injury suffered during the Arrows season.

The first match on home soil was against Irish powerhouse Leinster in Hamilton. Canada would again have a slow start and Leinster would jump out to a 19-0 lead. However, a strong second half led by two tries from Parfrey would allow Canada to take the lead. With the clock reading 80:00, Leinster was pressing on the Canadian line. Hugo Keenan would crush the hearts of everyone in attendance and score the game winning try for Leinster. Canada would then head out west and first meet up with the BC All Stars. Canada rested most of their big stars for this match. BC put up a good fight to keep the game close in the first half, however the national side filled with mostly full-time professionals would illustrate their superior fitness and pull away in the 2nd half to claim a 45-13 victory. Following this match, Jones announced his 31-man squad he was bringing to Japan. Theo Sauder and Rob Brouwer were the shock exclusions. The front row was a huge battle as selection neared. Kingsley Jones opted to take just 2 loosehead props (Buydens and Sears-Duru) to Japan. Sauder had an outstanding Repechage Tournament, and looked to be solidifying his spot as the squad’s fullback. However, his injury suffered during the MLR season opened a door. A few outstanding games at fullback from Parfrey, and Sauder found himself left off the squad.

After the announcement of the squad, Canada was given one last test against the Americans. Kingsley Jones put Canada' At BC Place, Canada came out of the gate guns blazing as McRorie opened the scoring with a try 90 seconds into the game. Peter Nelson would add another and Canada jumped out to a 12-0 lead. It was the best half of rugby Canada has played all year (although far from perfect), however 2 2nd half tries for the American’s propelled them to the lead and Canada was defeated 20-15. Ultimately, since defeating Hong Kong to win the Repechage Tournament Canada has gone 2-0-9 (1-0-8 matches). Those two wins came against Chile and the BC All Stars. Despite the losses, Canada has been improving with each game. However, you can only take pride in moral victories for so long. Eventually, you need to start putting results on the board. There would be no better time to do that than in Japan.

The Squad

Head Coach: Kingsley Jones Captain: Tyler Ardron

Canada’s full 31-man roster for the 2019 Rugby World Cup can be found here.

The introduction of MLR has been a massive boost for Rugby Canada. When the 31-man RWC squad was announced 15 of the 31 players on the roster were from MLR. In the final tune-up game against the USA Justin Blanchet suffered an injury that will unfortunately keep him out of the tournament. Blanchet’s replacement will be New England Free Jack’s lock Josh Larsen, who now brings the MLR total to 16 players. With over half the roster comprised of MLR players, Kingsley Jones has been given an opportunity that no other Canadian coach has had; the chance to field an RWC squad of mostly professionals. Of course, the MLR players are reinforced by the overseas pros such as captain Tyler Ardron, who became the first Canadian to play in Super Rugby, and DTH van der Merwe, the 3rd leading try scorer in Pro14 history.

However, Jones’ squad selection has been met with some criticism from both media and fans. Most notably, with the option of fielding a roster made up entirely of professionals, why opt to have amateur players on the squad? Scrumhalf Gordon McRorie, and centres Ben LeSage and Nick Blevins are all amateur players. With many quality MLR pros such as Andrew Ferguson, Dan Moor, George Barton, and Guiseppe du Toit sitting at home, it left many fans scratching their heads. Based on their usage during the warm-up games, McRorie and LeSage will be looked to play a major role for this team at the Rugby World Cup. McRorie has frequently donned the 9 jersey and looks to be Jones choice selection at scrumhalf. However, Phil Mack just had a baby so he did miss some games for personal reasons. LeSage has been a mainstay at centre as well. The centre position (LeSage, Blevins, Ciaran Hearn, and Conor Trainor) have been one of the weaker areas for the team in the build up to the RWC.

Kingsley Jones’ squad will be led by captain Tyler Ardron. Ardron had an outstanding year for the Chiefs. Ardron often found himself playing lock alongside Brodie Retallick, a top 5 player in the world at the moment. Ardron’s strong season earned him a nomination for the Chiefs’ Fan Player of the Year Award at the end of the season. Game in and game out, Ardron is noticeably the best player on the pitch for Canada. In most cases, Ardron will be the best player on the pitch when you consider the opponent as well. Obviously, that will change when Canada takes on the Springboks and All Blacks. Ardron will take his spot at the back of the scrum in the number 8 jersey. He will be joined by Arrows’ star Lucas Rumball and Matt Heaton, newly signed to the expansion team Rugby ATL, will make up the back row. The injury to Blanchet created the opportunity for Heaton to slot into the starting XV. Luke Campbell will fall in as option to come off the bench.

There are options in the 2nd row with Evan Olmstead, Kyle Baillie, and Mike Sheppard all playing well enough to earn starting spots. Unfortunately, one of them must come off the bench. Baillie suffered an injury against the USA, and although he is still making the trip to Japan, it is unknown if he will start against Italy. Baillie is a key player for Canada and is in charge of calling the lineout plays. Sheppard is coming off a man-of-the-match performance (and a stellar MLR season) and is more than capable of starting RWC games. Olmstead will own the number 4 jersey, unless Jones decides to give him some rest. If Baillie can’t play, it will be Sheppard and Olmstead in the starting XV with one of Josh Larsen or Connor Keys on the reserve bench. If Baillie is fit, Sheppard will be on the bench.

There was quite the positional battle for jobs in the front row in the build up to the RWC and Brouwer ends up being the odd man out. Although there has not been much separating the front row players it appears Jones’ starting front row will be Hubert Buydens, Eric Howard, and Matt Tierney. Buydens’ veteran presence seems to have been a large deciding factor in his inclusion. He will be joined by his NOLA Gold teammate/captain Howard in the front row which provides plenty of chemistry in a crucial area of the pitch. It’s an all-MLR bench for the front row as Djustice Sears-Duru, Andrew Quattrin, and Jake Ilnicki will provide a big 2nd half push. Sears-Duru and Ilnicki were both part of the Seawolves Championship team this year and were big factors in their strong set piece. Quattrin is perhaps the player that has benefited most from MLR. Quattrin’s play during the year was sensational and grabbed Kingsley Jones’ attention. Quattrin earned his first cap for Canada during the PNC and will now be playing in his first RWC. Cole Keith and Benoit Piffero will be the reserved front rowers heading to Japan. Keith finds himself with the reserves due to strong performances from Tierney and Ilnicki. Piffero struggled throughout the PNC and it became clear Howard and Quattrin would be the first 2 hookers on the depth chart.

Kingsley Jones is faced with some interesting options with the backs. There are many players who are capable of playing multiple positions and there has been some experimentation. McRorie can play scrumhalf and flyhalf. Peter Nelson can play flyhalf and fullback. Van der Merwe can play wing and centre. Conor Trainor can play wing and centre. Parfrey can play basically anywhere. However, the last few games have allowed us to see where Jones is leaning. Ultimately, I believe the backs will line up like this at the RWC: 9 McRorie, 10 Nelson, 11 van der Merwe, 12 Hearn, 13 LeSage, 14 Hassler, 15 Parfrey. Hassler and van der Merwe have always been locks for the starting XV. Unfortunately, that means that a quality winger like Taylor Paris and Andrew Coe will be on the bench or left out entirely. Similarly, Hearn and LeSage have become the go-to centre combination for Jones. Blevins and Trainor remain the other two primary options for the bench. Nelson strongest position is fullback. However, with Parfrey playing out of his mind in the last 3 games (vs Tonga, vs Leinster, and vs USA), he solidified himself as the team’s starting fullback. Parfrey’s play is what gave Jones the flexibility to cut Sauder in the first place.

The interesting thing with this lineup is with Parfrey starting at fullback, that shifts Nelson to flyhalf, which means Canada’s best pure flyhalf, Shane O’Leary, will be coming off the bench. O’Leary led the RFU Championship in scoring last year and is an excellent goal kicker. To be honest, he is Canada’s best goal kicker. However, based on his play time, it appears Jones prefers Nelson on the pitch. And that’s perfectly fine. Nelson is a quality player who has spent much of his career with Ulster. He qualifies for Canada based on a Canadian-born grandmother and will be making his first RWC appearance. Nelson has a bit more versatility than O’Leary, but sometimes the specialist is the best option. It will be interesting to see how Jones opts to use Nelson and O’Leary over the course of the tournament. However, fans could soon grow restless if Nelson’s (or McRorie’s) kicks start missing the mark knowing that O’Leary’s boot is on the bench. O’Leary will most likely be joined on the bench by Phil Mack as it looks like Jamie Mackenzie may be the third-choice scrumhalf. Mack and O’Leary will wear the 21 and 22 jerseys with the final bench spot going to one of Blevins, Trainor, Coe, or Paris depending on what Jones feels is the best option at the time. Blevins was the man in the lineup in the final tune-up match against the USA.

Well there you have it, the entire 31-man squad that will attempt to bring Canada to glory in Japan. How will they fair? Find out in Part 3 of the Layman’s Sports Canada Rugby World Cup preview as we take a look at the rest of Group B and make some predictions for the tournament.

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