They say good things come in threes, and for the Canadian men’s rugby team, the old adage certainly rings true.
Canada is riding high after consecutive wins over the United States, Fiji and, most recently, Tonga, and on each occasion turned to a different outside half to get the job done.
While squad depth has long been one of the program’s chief concerns when matching up with the big boys of world rugby, the trio of Harry Jones, Liam Underwood and Nathan Hiriyama has given Canadian head coach Kieran Crowley something of a headache heading into Saturday’s Test match with Ireland at BMO Field in Toronto.
“If you look at the last game, Nathan Hiriyama, he takes the ball to the line really well, he’s a sevens players and he has that sort of game,” Crowley said on Tuesday. “Liam Underwood … I thought he brought a calm disposition to the game, and Harry in the first game, I thought he was a combination of both of them.
“So they’ve all brought something a little bit different and it’s put the pressure back on us for selection, which is great.”
While wingers get the lion’s share of the glory when it comes to scoring tries, fly half is in many ways the glamour position of the sport, and the bearer of the No. 10 shirt plays a vital role in directing the line of attack and affecting the outcomes of games. Just ask any New Zealander or Englishman how his team would have fared without the on-field presence of Dan Carter and Jonny Wilkinson, respectively, for much of the last 10 years.
“I always use the analogy of a quarterback and I still think there’s an element of that, although it’s less and less as the teams are more and more organized and better drilled, but it’s still the player who can dictate or decide where the ball’s going to go,” said former fly half Gareth Rees, Canada’s leading scorer.
“So they’re charged with carrying out the game plan, but there’s still decisions to make along the way. It’s different than when I played, but it’s still challenging, I think. There’s a lot of components to it. Defence now, you can’t hide a player in defence now, you have to play a full role there, and if you don’t, teams will find you out.”
Case in point was the 22-year-old Underwood, who made a phenomenal 13 tackles in his first start for Canada in the win over Fiji, lending a physical presence that Rees considered vital to the 20-18 win over the hard-tackling Pacific Islanders. But the current Canadian team manager was in no way stockpiling all the praise for the newcomer.
“I look at games we’ve won in the last couple of years and a better performance by our fly half than theirs has generally contributed to that,” Rees said.
Whoever is selected to start on Saturday will be in tough against his opposite number from the Emerald Isle. With star fly half Jonathan Sexton one of 10 Irish regulars involved with the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, 24-year-old Ian Madigan had big shoes to fill in his first start for Ireland last weekend, but did so with aplomb, kicking all his country’s points in a hard-fought 15-12 win over the United States.
“Mads is a super footballer,” Peter O’Mahoney, Ireland’s tour captain, said. “He was Leinster’s player of the year this year and he got into a couple of Tests.
“I think he was really cool under pressure last week, obviously the game ended up quite close, but between himself, myself [and a few others], there was a never a sense that anyone was getting panicked.”
Exactly the kind of qualities Crowley will need from his own No. 10, and many around him, if Canada is to pull off a surprise first Test win over Ireland.