The Canadian men’s rugby coach says his players are still learning how to win.
They passed a pretty big test Wednesday night.
Canada played an inspired second half then dug in its heels to prevent a late comeback in a 20-18 win over Fiji in Pacific Nations Cup play.
It was Canada’s first win over Fiji since 1995, and the first ever on Canadian soil.
“It’s about learning how to win,” said Canada head coach Kieran Crowley. “A few years ago we might have lost that one because maybe we didn’t have the physical fitness or physicality that the others had, but we certainly ground it out today and learning how to win is a big thing.”
With so few opportunities to compete in front of its fans, Canada was determined to give the home crowd something to cheer about. The Canadians didn’t disappoint.
Fiji appeared to have the physical advantage entering the game, but Canada managed to match their size and strength right from the start.
“We stuck to the game plan, we focused early that we were going to cut them low and if you don’t have your legs underneath you then even the biggest guys come down,” said Canada’s Aaron Carpenter. “We stuck to it and they only made a couple breaks off our silly mistakes, but other than that we stuck to it the whole game and it paid off.”
Canada was solid from start to finish, but their best effort came in the second half.
Canada trailed 11-10 heading into halftime, but quickly regained momentum after scoring in the opening minutes of the second half. Connor Braid punted the ball into the try zone and Harry Jones rushed in and claimed the ball to score five points.
The Canadians appeared poised to take complete control of the game after Taylor Paris ran the length of the field, but a last second change of direction in his trajectory led to Canada being called for a forward pass.
Ray Barkwill made no mistake minutes later, running into the try zone after some great passing to give Canada a 20-11 lead.
It proved to be the winning play of the game.
“It was good,” Crowley said. “The boys dug deep. The guys went 80 minutes and that’s what it takes to gut it out in the end.”
The Fijians made it close, mounting a late rush to win the game. With Canada leading 20-11 Qera Akapusi punched his way across the try line and Jiuta Lutumailagi scored on the conversion to make it 20-18. But Canada managed to hold on for the win to the delight of the 4,548 on hand.
Fiji head coach Inoke Male admitted fatigue may have been a factor in his team’s play. Fiji played in Japan over the weekend and crossed 16 time zones before arriving in Canada.
“We were maybe a little jet-lagged, but it’s no excuse,” Male said. “It’s about international rugby and we praise Canada and they played really well.”
Due to their extended travel Male said they also had little time to prepare for Canada and its style of play.
“We didn’t have good preparation when we came here,” Male said. “It’s time for us to go back to the blackboard and see what went wrong.”
After a number of close chances Canada opened the scoring early in the first half as Carpenter clawed his way across the try zone. Braid was successful on the conversion kick giving Canada a 7-0 lead.
Scoring first was crucial for Canada as it got the home crowd into the game.
“As you could hear they were the 16th man and they gave us that extra little push,” Carpenter said. “It’s always good to win on home soil.”
Minutes later Fiji’s Nadola Nemani managed to weave his way through traffic and found an open lane on the outside to run into the try zone. Koroilagilagi Setareki’s conversion attempt went just wide making it 7-5.
The two teams then went on to exchange penalties. The Fijians took their first lead of the game as Setareki converted his first penalty kick.
Braid split the uprights to reclaim the lead, however it was short lived as Canada took another penalty and Setareki made the most of his opportunity giving Fiji an 11-10 halftime lead.
Canada’s Phil Mack was named the man of the match.
The Canadians will now return to Kingston, Ont., where they have been training since late May, to face Tonga on Saturday. After a non-tournament match against Ireland in Toronto on June 15, they will make the trip to Japan to wrap-up Pacific Nations Cup play on June 19.
Crowley has enjoyed having an opportunity to play in Canada and expects it to pay dividends down the road.
“I think it’s massive and the fact we could get the win was the icing on the cake for our group,” said Crowley. “It’s about exposing the game and growing the game and these sorts of game are massive.”
Fiji will next play against the U.S. June 19 and against Tonga June 23. Both games will be in Japan.
While claiming the Pacific Nations Cup would be nice, Rugby Canada has set its sights on a two-game, total-point series against the U.S. in August. The series winner will clinch a spot in the 2015 World Cup in England, while the loser will be forced into a secondary qualifying process.
Fiji is now 1-1 in Cup play, while the Canadians are 2-0.