One game. One win. One berth in the 2015 Rugby World Cup successfully earned.
If only raising the profile of rugby union in this hockey-centric country were quite as simple.
For Brian Burke, Rugby Canada’s newest board member, Saturday’s 13-11 qualifying win over the United States was most definitely the easy part. Trying to help the Canadian men’s national team make a splash in England in two years’ time will be a far harder proposition for the former NHL executive, who has pledged to try to help his second-favourite sport gain a better foothold in Canada in any way he can.
While he maintains that a professional league is “coming at some point,” it’s not going to arrive in time to help Canada’s players prepare for another crack at the Webb Ellis Cup in the country that invented the sport.
However, Saturday’s victory, which completed a home-and-home qualifying sweep over the United States, came at the first time of asking, which will certainly boost Canada’s players financially. The International Rugby Board can now give Canada its high-performance grant for reaching the World Cup once again to help the players put in the kind of intense training needed to compete at the sharp end of the sport.
“It’s about getting that money for the World Cup a little sooner and planning our own trip into the World Cup,” said Canadian captain Aaron Carpenter. “… That’s why we wanted to win and that’s why we got it done and it’s just better to get it done over the USA rather than waiting another year and having to play Uruguay twice.”
That’s the fate that now faces the United States, while Canada can sit back and prepare for the tournament, fully aware of the tough tests that will await them in England. While Canadian head coach Kieran Crowley said he hadn’t even begun to think about taking on 2011 runner-up France, Ireland, Italy and another European qualifier in Pool D, Carpenter is keenly aware of the size of the task facing his men.
“France, anything can happen,” he said. “We ran them close two years ago in 2011, so maybe we get a more favourable turnaround this time around and go for the full 80 and see what happens. You see they lost to Tonga in that World Cup, so it’s doable.
“Ireland, we played them in June and again we [stayed with them for] 60 minutes, but their professionalism paid off in the end, so we’re hoping we can get up for that World Cup and play the full 80 minutes against them.
“And then obviously you’re looking at European qualifiers 1 and Italy, so there’s not going to be any easy games. We’re just happy to know who we’re going against and we can start preparing for them and watching our video.”
Canada will also be buoyed by getting more players competing in the top European leagues. Eight of Saturday’s 23-man roster ply their trade overseas, and the more players with experience of top-level rugby, the better for Canada’s World Cup preparations.
“There’s a few new guys that have picked up contracts over in Europe and it will be great for them to get some experience, especially the likes of [winger] Jeff Hassler, who scored a try in his Ospreys debut [on Saturday],” said fullback James Pritchard, who, along with prop Jason Marshall, scored Canada’s two tries against the United States.
“That is only going to help Canadian rugby, getting the young fellas over there and experiencing that top-flight competition and then they can come back and work with the home-based players here.”
In the meantime, the Australian-born Pritchard, Canada’s career scoring leader, is excited to see what Burke can bring to the table.
“I really don’t see how, if it’s done properly, with someone like Brian leading the charge for us, how [rugby] can’t take off [in Canada], … I honestly can’t wait to see what impact he has on the sport.”