The date is likely etched in the brains of every single member of the Canadian men’s rugby team: Sept. 19, 2015.
It marks the day that Canada will begin its Rugby World Cup campaign, at Cardiff’s 72,500-seater Millennium Stadium, against reigning Six Nations champion Ireland.
It must also mark the occasion that Canada stops letting opponents off the hook if it is to have any chance of advancing out of a pool that also includes France, Italy and Romania to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time since 1991.
The past fortnight has starkly illustrated the yin and yang of Canadian rugby. Ten days ago, in Burnaby, B.C., Canada allowed Japan to overturn a 25-9 halftime deficit and skip town with a 34-25 victory. Last Saturday at Toronto’s BMO Field, the home side traded leads with Scotland for much of the game before finally capitulating to the more vaunted European visitors in a 19-17 defeat, Scotland's first win on Canadian soil.
Though Canada can point to a controversial red card shown to loose forward Jebb Sinclair with five minutes remaining in addition to a couple of wayward kicks from the usually reliable James Pritchard as mitigating reasons for the loss, those excuses will hold little water in a best-on-best tournament such as the World Cup. When head coach Kieran Crowley’s side has a team on the ropes, it has to learn to kill off the game as a contest. Slow and frustrating though the journey is, his players are starting to get the message.
“It’s the same feeling,” said captain Tyler Ardron of the difference between the manner of the two defeats. “I think we feel we should have won both of those games but it’s no longer good enough for us to sit back and say we should have won those games.
“We have to win them and if we want to get to where we believe we should be that’s got to be our attitude.”
As trying as these growing pains are though, Canada’s rugby programs are undeniably starting to turn the corner. Recent deals with DHL Express as a sponsor and with Under Armour as official kit and equipment manufacturer show the rising reputation that they are enjoying, buoyed partly by the success of the men’s sevens team and the presence of that version of the sport in next year’s Pan Am Games in the GTA and the Rio Olympics the year after.
Saturday’s contest was observed by 18,788 fans, a solid turnout following on from last year’s matches against Ireland and the Maori All Blacks, which both attracted more than 20,000. But while Canada hung with an inexperienced Ireland team for the first 55 minutes last year – its best players were on the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia – it never seriously threatened to chalk up a victory against the Tier 1 country.
The Scotland game was a realistic chance to take the scalp of the world’s eighth-ranked team and throw down the gauntlet to the rest of Canada’s World Cup Pool C rivals that Crowley’s men aren’t just heading to the England and Wales simply to make up the numbers. That it was against a lineup that featured eight players who were in the squad for Scotland’s final Six Nations match earlier this year, plus the experience of 88-times-capped Sean Lamont, made it an even bigger missed opportunity.
Still, as disappointing as the result was, it was a far cry from the 41-0 scoreline that Scotland enjoyed the last time the teams met in Aberdeen in 2008. And with 15 months until the World Cup kicks off in anger, Crowley and his 16th-ranked squad have been clearly shown the scale of the task in front of them and have time to put it right, starting this Saturday against the United States in Sacramento.
“Our program is slowly getting better and better and I think we’re at the point where we can start taking a win from these top-tier teams,” said Jeff Hassler, Canada’s lone try scorer against Scotland. “These are the ones we need to push over in the last minutes and as it gets closer to the World Cup I think we will be someone to be reckoned with.”