There were joyous scenes amidst Toronto’s CNE grounds on Saturday evening, and it wasn’t just for those who had successfully navigated the 1,100-foot zipline without losing their lunch.
Canada downed the United States and qualified for the rugby World Cup at the first time of asking, and can now spend the next two years preparing for a much bigger showcase than the Canadian National Exhibition when the world's third biggest sporting event descends on England, the country that invented the sport of rugby union.
Saturday’s 13-11 win wrapped up a two-game, total-points series against the U.S. with a comprehensive 40-20 aggregate score, meaning Canada can rest easy knowing that its proud record of competing in every rugby World Cup – which began in 1987 – is firmly intact.
Canadian head coach Kieran Crowley, who played in, and won, that first World Cup in his native New Zealand as an All Black, knows that the hard work is just beginning though. Despite the previous week’s 27-9 win in Charleston, S.C., Crowley was far from happy heading into Saturday’s decisive second leg at Toronto’s BMO Field on the CNE grounds, feeling quite rightly that his team had struggled at times, failing to impose itself, particularly at the set-pieces such as lineouts and scrums.
And though the main of goal of qualifying for the World Cup was achieved with this Saturday’s victory, he wasn’t exactly glowing in his praise of his men.
“It was ugly, but it was a win,” he said. “We gutsed it out, and it was a test win, so you know, we’re in the World Cup now.”
And Crowley was equally puzzled as to the lacklustre performance put on by his charges.
“I’ll have to review the film,” he said when asked why. “We got our game going twice I think or three times, the kind of game we wanted to play. That try of Jason Marshall’s I thought was an outstanding try, and he had the kind of game where he had a try to bring, but we only got our game going one other time.
“It’s a cliché, but give the States credit, they threw everything at it and we’re very disappointed, but like I say, we’re going to the World Cup.”
And while a tough test in the form of France, Ireland, Italy and another yet-to-be-decided European qualifier await Canada in Pool D of the 2015 World Cup, Canadian fans must surely be hoping that the entertainment factor can be improved in the intervening years.
For much of the match, those in attendance Saturday would have been thankful for the live music being pumped into the stadium courtesy of the funfair CNE atmosphere outside BMO Field, with neither team showing any signs of wanting to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
“It’s always a big battle against them, we know what they’re going to bring and they certainly brought it today,” said Canadian captain Aaron Carpenter. “I thought they were a little light last week in South Carolina so that’s what we expected from them last week and we certainly got it this week so there’s no surprises there.
“Again, we got done what we needed to accomplish, but if you can win on a bad day it’s good to see.”
What was also good to see was someone finally taking some ownership on the outcome of Saturday’s game. What was a little more surprising was that it was left to a prop forward of all players to give Canada some breathing room late on, as Marshall seized the ball from the base of a ruck and crossed over to restore the home side’s lead. Though James Pritchard failed to convert, a 13-8 lead all but killed off the contest with less than 20 minutes to play and the U.S. needing 23 points just to force extra time.
The U.S. certainly came into the match with a very different attitude. Knowing that scoring tries was likely to be key in making up the 18-point deficit they entered the match with, the visitors pinned Canada inside its 22-metre line for much of the first quarter of the game.
“Our backs were against the wall,” said U.S. head coach Mike Tolkin. “We knew we had to come out and prove something to ourselves, prove that we could play the game, and we did.
“We played with guts, with determination, we came out of the box strong, had Canada on the ropes for a while and spent a good deal of time in their territory, but we just needed to capitalize a lot more.”
The visitors looked like they did cash in early on though when Chris Biller appeared to have crossed the line and touched down following a twisting run through the Canadian defence. But a lengthy delay while the replay official looked at the video evidence determined that the American hooker had actually been held up and unable to touch the ball down and Canada was able to clear its lines from the resulting five-metre scrum.
Canada did itself no favours either, with lacklustre set-piece play leaving a lot to be desired, with persistent errors at the lineout and new scrimmaging laws leading to frequently running afoul of referee JP Doyle.
But it was Canada’s sloppy tackling that led to the first score of the match, with a series of missed opportunities finally allowing winger Takudzwa Ngwenya to cross in the corner, although Chris Wyles was unable to add the convert from a difficult angle.
The home side wasn’t down for long with Pritchard, ever the man for the big occasion as Canada’s leading career points scorer, stepping up confidently to nail a penalty from the halfway line to bring the hosts to within two points of the visitors. He went even better minutes later, taking a simple feed from man of the match Ciaran Hearn to finish off a well-worked move off a lineout with a five-pointer, although like Wyles, he couldn’t add the conversion from out wide.
The American kicker made up for his earlier miss with the last kick of the first half, with his penalty goal sending the two sides to the dressing room level on 8-8, albeit trailing by 18 on aggregate, but he missed a far bigger penalty with just over a minute to play.
With Canada home and dry and certain to qualify for the World Cup barring a mirable, Wyles had a chance to win the game and end a six-game losing streak against Canada. But his kick was narrowly wide, handing the States a seventh consecutive loss to Canada and staring down another two-game qualifying series against Uruguay next summer.