Some two weeks before Canada’s opening match at the Rugby World Cup, coach Kingsley Jones is already having to shuffle the deck.
Flanker Justin Blanchet was replaced on the 31-man roster by Josh Larsen after suffering a concussion in Canada’s final warmup game against the United States. last Saturday. Lock/back-rower Kyle Baillie got on the plane to Japan, but will likely have to sit out Canada’s first two games after injuring his knee in the 20-15 loss to the Americans in Vancouver.
While Jones has assembled a forward pack with players able to function in different positions, the injuries mean fewer options and more decisions — at least until Baillie is fit to return.
Ahead of the tournament, Evan Olmstead and Baillie appeared to be Canada’s first-choice second row. Baillie was also an option at blind-side flanker, but Blanchet seemed to have taken over that role, lining up at No. 6 alongside No. 8/captain Tyler Ardron and open-side flanker Lucas Rumball.
Olmstead will likely serve as Canada’s main ball-carrying lock — a big unit who looks to batter tacklers and break the gain-line — with Conor Keys and Mike Sheppard other options. Jones sees Larsen as helping take over Baillie’s lineout leadership role.
Ardron has also played in the second row in the past.
Sheppard, Olmstead, Luke Campbell and Matt Heaton can also play at blind-side flanker.
Blanchet was injured in a collision at the breakdown in the ninth minute of the U.S. game. He did not pass an in-game head injury assessment and the decision was then made to replace him on the roster, given there is no timeline for his return.
“There’s no saying any longer when that person will be fit — one week, three weeks, we don’t know,” Jones said from Japan. “It was a common-sense decision, although, a real tough one for him to withdraw himself at this moment.”
Baillie, who has made himself an important piece of the Canadian puzzle over the past year, strained his knee and is expected to return in two to four weeks. That should make him available for Canada’s final two pool games against South Africa and Namibia.
Canada, ranked 22nd in the world, opens Pool B play on Sept. 26 against No. 14 Italy in Fukuoka City. The Canadian men then play No. 2 New Zealand on Oct. 2 in Oita, No. 4 South Africa on Oct. 8 in Kobe City and No. 23 Namibia on Oct. 13 in Kamaishi City.
The 20-team tournament opens Sept. 20 when No. 10 Japan plays No. 20 Russia.