A rare air of optimism filtered through Toronto’s BMO Field on Saturday night.
If ever the Canadian men’s rugby team was going to break through and register a first ever win over Ireland at the sixth time of asking, this was surely its best chance.
The home side entered the match riding an all-too-rare four-game win streak, after registering impressive triumphs over Tonga, Fiji, the United States and Russia.
By contrast, Ireland was devoid of its biggest stars courtesy of the ongoing British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, including the likes of star fly half Jonathan Sexton and the imperious Brian O’Driscoll, whose 125 Test caps stood out in stark comparison to the 191 held by the entire Irish starting 15.
Eighty minutes later, and coach Kieran Crowley’s men were shown the size of the task facing them if they are to contend against Tier 1 nations at the 2015 World Cup, assuming they can first qualify.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Crowley afterwards. “We had a couple things we were trying to play but we couldn’t do it under the pressure they put on us.”
The 40-14 scoreline could in fact have been worse for the Canadians, especially since the Irish turned down numerous chances to turn the screw, particularly at the end of a first half when they opted to kick for the corner off a sequence of penalties rather than taking aim at the posts and going for the points with the scoreline only 12-9 in their favour at the time.
The opening quarter of the match had seen the Canadians more than hold their own thanks to good possession and forward play, with winger James Pritchard getting the Canadian record home crowd of 20,396 firmly behind the men in red with the opening penalty just six minutes in.
But Ireland responded quickly, with Sexton’s stand-in, Ian Madigan, continuing his strong play from Ireland’s 15-12 win over the U.S. last weekend, beginning the move that culminated with Andrew Trimble diving in at the corner, with Madigan promptly adding the convert as Ireland moved back in front.
Pritchard is not one to run for cover in the face of adversity though, and he promptly gave many in attendance exactly what they had come to see, converting two successive penalties to not only put Canada back in front, but also overhaul Gareth Rees’s all-time Canadian record of 491 points.
Still, the end result of the night was more than enough to take the gloss of the moment for the Australian-born winger who plies his trade for England’s Bedford Blues.
“It was nice that it happened, to get it out of the way,” Pritchard said of the record afterwards. “But this whole week has been concentrating on winning the game of rugby. That comes first for me. It’s a disappointing way to get that record, when we put a disappointing performance out on the field.”
While Canada gave a largely poor account of themselves, a big part of that was the sometimes inspired play of the European visitors, who were determined to keep the ball in hand and put on a display of running rugby. The prettiest move of the match got Ireland back in front going into the interval, with Fergus McFadden grabbing Madigan’s dinked kick over the top to canter in at the corner.
Tyler Ardron gave the home supporters a quick burst of inspiration early in the second half, taking the ball from the base of a ruck to drive over the line and put Canada back in front, but that was as good as it ever got for the home side.
Ireland clearly decided enough was enough, and went for the jugular, scoring a succession of tries through Darren Cave, Tommy O’Donnell and two more from McFadden to complete his hat trick as Ireland turned up the level of intensity to a level that Canada just couldn’t live with.
“We faded a little bit in that last 20 minutes and we felt momentum could have shifted,” said Canada captain Aaron Carpenter with the understatement of the evening.
Still, with games in Japan next week for the conclusion of the Pacific Nations Cup – in which Crowley’s team is in pole position to win with three wins out of three – followed by a two-match, total points series in August against the U.S. to ensure that it qualifies for the 2015 World Cup in England at the first time of asking, Canada has much to play for.
The look of despondency on the faces of Crowley, Pritchard and Carpenter after the defeat at the nominal home of Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC certainly showed that Canada as a rugby nation is no longer simply happy with the taking part.
“We were out to win that game, that’s what I told the boys,” Carpenter said. “We’re tired of being second-fiddle and coming close and being happy with coming close. We want to win, and that’s what we went out to do today.”