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Canadian rugby forward Evan Olmstead is shown in a handout photo. Born in Vancouver but raised in Australia, Olmstead is being counted on to add physicality to Canada’s Rugby World Cup campaign.Ian Muir/The Canadian Press

Canada was ranked 12th in the world heading into the 2007 Rugby World Cup and 14th going into the 2011 competition.

The Canadian men are No. 18 as they prepare to open the 2015 tournament against sixth-ranked Ireland in Cardiff on Saturday. Canada is a 66-1 underdog to upset the Irish, according to British bookmaker William Hill.

Despite the long odds and a bumpy road to the tournament, Canada's spirit is strong.

"When we've got all our best players healthy and on the pitch, we're here to upset some people," veteran lock Jamie Cudmore said on the eve of his fourth World Cup. "We're not here to make up the numbers.

"As tough as it's been this summer. I know the quality and the fight that's in this squad ... I think it's going to be a really positive World Cup for us."

Hurt by injuries and players unavailable, Canada has gone 2-11-0 in Test play since the start of 2014. Only No. 19 Uruguay and No. 20 Namibia are ranked lower than Canada at the tournament.

The rankings slide comes despite better Canadian coaching and facilities. While Canada has progressed, other countries have done more.

"We are only just hanging on and we're going to get further behind unless we get some sort of professional environment in North America, some professional competition," Canadian coach Kieran Crowley said.

Crowley points to 17th-ranked Romania, whom his team will face on Oct. 6.

"They've got seven professional clubs in Bucharest. Those players are training like our carded players every day. Georgia has got the same. All their club players get paid to play."

"Don't get me wrong," added Crowley, a former all Black who took over the Canadian side in 2008. "There's a hell of a lot of good stuff going on in Canada ... but we're not going to make the next step until we get that (pro) system going."

Canada also shares talent between the seven- and 15-man teams, something that doesn't happen in Tier 1 countries.

"To be fair, it doesn't do either program any good," said Crowley.

Crowley's biggest fear is Canada will lose funding from World Rugby, the sport's governing body, if it continues to fall in the rankings. Domestic funding is largely focused on sevens these days, given its Olympic participation.

In seven previous World Cups, Canada has only made it out of the first round once — in 1991 when it was beaten 29-13 by New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

Canada's World Cup record is a combined 7-16-2.

Its all-time mark against its Pool D rivals — No. 6 Ireland, No. 7 France, No. 13 Italy and No. 17 Romania — in 2015 is 5-20-1 in all competitions.

Canada's goal in Britain will likely be to finish third in its pool, which does not advance the team but secures automatic qualification to the next tournament. Crowley reckons that will take two wins, with Romania and Italy the likely targets.

On the plus side this year, the depth of the Canadian squad has made for some interesting selection decisions.

"There's not a lot between the starting group and the next group ... I don't see a lot between the whole 31 in this particular case," said Crowley.

That was not the case four years ago.

"Personally it's probably one of the times I've been most nervous about World Cup selection," winger DTV van der Merwe said of the depth.

"All 31 guys can start on any given day," he added.

The kicking of scrum half Gord McRorie allowed Crowley to forgo picking 36-year-old fullback James Pritchard, Canada's all-time leading scorer.

The Canadian squad will survive injuries to props Jason Marshall and Tom Dolezel and winger Taylor Paris.

Canada has depth on the wing with van der Merwe, Jeff Hassler and Phil Mackenzie, all of whom play professionally. Nick Blevins has proved to be a bulldozer at centre.

Liam Underwood and Nathan Hirayama will have to step up at fly half.

In the forwards, Cudmore and Jebb Sinclair bring veteran poise while 24-year-old lock Evan Olmstead has turned heads in warmup matches. Captain Tyler Ardron has not played since injuring his knee July 29 against Samoa, with Canadian officials holding their breath to see if he recovers in time for the Ireland game.

If not, Aaron Carpenter will fill in at No. 8 while Cudmore takes over as captain.

Sevens skipper John Moonlight is a force to be reckoned with at flanker.

"If you had a heap of him you'd be laughing." Crowley said approvingly.

Still Canada's set pieces have been unsteady going into the tournament.

"We're going to be the shortest lineout in the World Cup, by a long way. We haven't got anyone over 6-5 basically," said Crowley.

"It's the old adage if you can't get your own set ball well you can't win games. It's a major focus for us."

The coach has also been concerned by Canada's inability to execute.

"We've had some really good progress but what we haven't done is we haven't treasured the ball enough."

Rugby is a game of possession. Give the ball away to a talented team at your peril.

The tournament could be Crowley's Canada coaching swan song. His contract runs out in January and he may step aside if he believes it's someone else's turn.

The 54-year-old Kiwi is much appreciated by Rugby Canada, which could find him another role if he wanted to stay on.