At the 1991 Rugby World Cup, Canada made the quarter-finals. The nation’s finest ever rugby achievement.
They exited the competition respectably, losing 29-13 to none other than the All Blacks. Yet now in 2021, there’s doubt over whether the Canadians will even qualify for the 2023 World Cup edition.
Could Canada genuinely fail to qualify for a Rugby World Cup for the first time in their history?
Canada Rugby World Cup 2023 roadmap: Chile this weekend
After succumbing to their rivals USA for the Americas 1 qualification spot, Canada needs to defeat Chile in a two-leg series. Victory will give them the chance to play for the Americas 2 qualification spot.
Canada has never lost to the South Americans (ranking 28th in the World Rugby Rankings), usually thumping them by a decent margin. Yet in the home leg last weekend, Canada only managed to win by a single point; relying on a late penalty to get the win. Whilst officiating arguably went in Chile’s favor, Canada will rue a performance littered with handling errors.
Head coach Kingsley Jones’ side will now have to travel over 10,000 kilometers to Valparaiso, and face Chile in the 2nd leg. It’s still a game Canada will be heavy favorites to win, however, with an unconvincing win last weekend – and missing arguably their best player Tyler Ardron – Jones will be concerned.
Defeat here, and Canada’s Rugby World Cup journey will already be over.
Success leads to next RWC qualification challenge
Win this weekend, and Canada still has to beat the loser of the USA/Uruguay play-off to obtain the Americas 2 spot.
USA and Uruguay sit four and five places above Canada in the rankings respectively. If they lose the series for the Americas 2 spot, then they will have to win the Repechage, a four-team tournament for the final spot at Rugby World Cup 2023. This will include an emerging nation from both Africa and Asia, but the real threat would be the ‘Europe 3’ opponent. This is likely to be either Portugal or Romania. Again, both sit ahead of Canada in the World Rankings.
Some have asked recently, what problems has Canada faced to be in that position?
The Canadians had a quality side in the 1990s, defeating the likes of Wales, France, and even an England XV. Since professionalism, their development has failed to grow at the rate of other nations. Their biggest struggle is keeping players in the sport. This is partly natural, with the country’s sheer size and cold climate creating barriers for participation.
Even in 2007 (see main photo), the players were amateur when facing the likes of France, and even Japan – who they drew 12-12 at that tournament. But a major issue has been the lack of professional pathways for Canada’s youngsters.
For a telling perspective, listen to the passionate Canadian rugby fans in recent years. On forums, they tell of grim opportunities for young players. Some described how playing for Canada u20s is essentially self-funded. Not only this, but pathways are only in specific areas, leaving talented athletes with the choice of ridiculous travel times or relocating to take the next step. This is a big turn-off for the country’s mostly amateur player-base.
— The Province (@theprovince) January 25, 2017
It makes rugby a massive sacrifice for talented athletes, outside of those from already wealthy backgrounds. Other Tier 2 nations have employed better pathways. For example, Romania has seven professional teams, providing various clubs to develop their player pool. Success in Europe has been supported with participation in the Challenge Cup and popular wins at the 2015 tournament.
Crucial elements toward success – Toronto Arrows
In 2017, Major League Rugby (MLR) was founded, North America’s current professional league. This has provided hope to solve some of Rugby Canada’s woes as the league includes a Canadian team, the Toronto Arrows.
Finally, there are pathways for youngsters to continue their rugby journey. It’s so crucial that former head coach Mark Anscombe cheered on developments – like the Toronto Arrows – as the most important changes needed in Canadian rugby.
A massive problem for Canadian squads during his tenure was the lack of game-time for the players at a decent level. This can hopefully change with the Toronto Arrows being packed with Canadian prospects. Additionally, other Canadian players ply their trade with US-based MLR clubs.
Positives yes, although the effects of these successful elements will take some years to foster improvement. Years and time [relatively] which the national team does not have to guarantee Canada Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification.
The importance of RWC2023 qualification
This is not the first time Canada has been in this predicament. There were similar concerns over the 2019 World Cup. This prompted Rugby Canada to controversially increase registration fees for players across the country to fund the Men’s national side. The reason provided by the CEO was that, ‘not qualifying would cost the union a significant amount’ – suggested at £1 million in revenue.
If the same applies for this World Cup, the loss of funding could have repercussions not just for the national teams, but also for the grassroots.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images