From the Canadian-rugby-record crowd of 20,396 to the Rob Ford-themed Irish T-shirts bearing the slogan “The craic is mighty, just ask the mayor,” there was a lot to make this country’s rugby fans smile during Saturday’s men’s national team Test match against Ireland.
Unfortunately the scoreline wasn’t one of them, as a youthful Irish team, shorn of most of its leading lights thanks to the ongoing British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, still romped to a 40-14 victory at Toronto’s BMO Field. While the discrepancy in the final score left the Canadian players despondent, having previously entertained thoughts that this was the perfect opportunity to grab Canada’s first Test win over the Six Nations powerhouse, they can take heart that they were very much in the running. Canada was leading as late as the 55-minute mark, at which point the Europeans broke the game wide open with a barrage of tries.
The margin of defeat also took the sheen off James Pritchard’s day, as the Australian-born winger/fullback eclipsed Gareth Rees’s Canadian point-scoring record of 491 with three penalties in the first half.
“It was nice that it happened, to get it out of the way,” Pritchard said of the record afterward. “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 Pritchard’s career may be winding down – at 33 he was the oldest player on the field Saturday and is considering hanging up his boots after the 2015 Rugby World Cup – the future success of Canadian rugby will depend on finding more of his ilk, players who are fully dedicated to their craft and able to ply their trade in the world’s best leagues in Europe and the southern hemisphere.
Unfortunately Pritchard, who plays for Bedford Blues in the second tier of English rugby, is more the exception than the norm. He was just one of five players in Saturday’s starting 15 currently playing club rugby outside Canada, although the lone Canadian try scorer, Tyler Ardron, has signed on to play for Welsh club Ospreys for the 2013-14 season, where he will also be joined by Canadian winger Jeff Hassler, who wasn’t in Saturday’s squad.
It’s a situation that Canadian players know has to be rectified for them to take the next step in their development as a national team, although it is also the cause of considerable consternation.
“Every one of these guys should have contracts in Europe, not just the handful of us that do,” said Canadian lock Jebb Sinclair, who plays for London Irish in England’s Aviva Premiership, on Friday. “I come back and you see the guys who are playing domestically, and they’re fit, strong and they don’t have the miles put on them yet and just the speed in which they’re developing and growing, just out of the Centre of Excellence [in Langford, B.C.] and just out of playing domestically in Canada, it’s phenomenal.
“There’s no drop off any more between the pros and the amateurs, these guys are freak-show athletes. Obviously what they need now is experience, 20, 30, 40 games a year at a professional level.”
Unfortunately, mandates that reward clubs financially for developing domestic players for their national teams, and the Kolpak agreement, which affords players from rugby-playing nations such as South Africa, Fiji and Tonga, among others, the same rights as European Union citizens while playing in an EU league, make it tougher for Canadian players, as well as their American, Australian and New Zealand counterparts, to get a break across the pond.
“Here, guys have to get 10, 15, 20 caps against Tier 1 opponents for any coaches to take a look at them,” Sinclair said. “And then these guys who try to sign contracts are getting undercut: ‘Oh, well, you’re Canadian. We can’t play you every week so we’ll give you a smaller contract,’ which is bull. You’ve seen the last two weeks, we’re on the climb and on the up and up.”