ARC – A Missed Opportunity

Evan Olmstead Canada Americas Rugby Championship ARCHaving had a few days to digest the undeniably poor results of the ARC, it’s time to run the rule over what, if anything, can be taken out of the wreckage. From the casual observer’s perspective, one look at the scorelines tells the story. An underwhelming win over a severely weakened Uruguayan team, a predictable but lop-sided loss to Argentina (ignoring the circumstances), and the kicker – an embarrassing near shutout against the Americans on our own turf. There’s no two ways about it. From a team perspective it was about as bad as it gets.

The caveat, of course, is that this is a development tournament, where the results don’t matter so much as individual performance on a more challenging level. It’s about bridging the gap between domestic and international rugby, and finding the next Jeff Hassler rather than raising some silverware. In the past teams have littered their sides with young, untested hopefuls looking to take their next step on the climb towards the international arena.

This year had a slightly different feel to it with the World Cup looming in the background. Both Argentina and the United States opted to field a mix of test players and fringe domestic stars, serving both as trial matches as well as getting quality game time for some veterans. Canada seemed a bit confused about its purpose in the selection process, and even more so in its utterly perplexing match day decisions.

Each side was faced with difficulties in terms of conflicting schedules. Uruguay was playing for a spot in England, while the other three sides were affected by the Gold Coast 7s. Argentina opted to keep their sides entirely seperate, and with the exception of Santiago Cordero appeared to put the priority on the ARC. The Americans took a slightly different approach, choosing to add three players from the 7s side following their return. It should be noted that this intention was included in the original squad announcement. Of the three, only Folau Niua would be considered a likely candidate for the World Cup, the other two have barely played any XVs at all in the last couple years and were essentially thrown in as wild card x-factor selections.

Canada lie on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. In Canadian rugby, 7s takes priority. That fact becomes clear when you look at the national selection policy, especially surrounding the ARC. Last year Canada showed up with Jack Fitzpatrick and Guiseppe du Toit playing flyhalf, one a specialist fullback and the other 18 years old. Meanwhile with the 7s side were Connor Braid, Nathan Hirayama, Harry Jones, and Patrick Parfrey, all of whom had previously been capped, and in fact Parfrey was parachuted into the side once the selectors owned up to their blunder. Pat Key and Sean Ferguson were also in Australia, either of whom would have been preferrable options. Surely one of those six could have been left behind from the outset.

Moving on to this season, we had Justin Douglas, Mike Fuailefau, Lucas Hammond, Ciaran Hearn, Conor Trainor, Jake Webster, Jordan Wilson-Ross and Adam Zaruba with the 7s team, having all played at least some part in the CRC. Sean Duke and Harry Jones missed the regional tournament but were two more test backs made unavailable for the ARC. With Phil Mack and Nathan Hirayama out with injury it’s fair enough to say that the 7s side needed some help, but surely it would have been better off for a couple of those guys to get some time playing XVs ahead of the November tour.

That the 7s side should have first choice seems backwards given that most players outside of Fiji dream of playing in a World Cup and indeed when one thinks of rugby, it’s the full version of the game that they’re generally referring to. The status appears to be awarded based on two facts: Canada’s current world rankings and their primary source of athlete funding. It doesn’t seem too unreasonable to want to maintain the 6th place finish of last season’s IRB circuit, though whether that could be achieved with different players is a point of debate.

The money, however, is not up for discussion. Our carded players, that is our domestic players who are paid to play rugby, receive the majority of their funding through the Own The Podium program, geared specifically torwards the development of Olympic athletes. It means that our best backs and loose forwards have to play 7s to justify their funding. It’s not at all ideal and in the long run probably detrimental to our national side’s chances in XVs. Certainly the ARC supports that theory.

Getting back to the matter at hand, the overwhelming weakness of Canada’s ARC performance was its backfield. With so many front line players committed to the 7s, the cupboard was bare and made worse by dubious game-day selections that have already been covered ad nauseum. Duke and Wilson-Ross were called into the side late when it was obvious that more firepower was required.

Frustratingly both spent more time off the field than on it in Australia. Could they not have simply sat that one out?Surely Andrew Coe and Guiseppe du Toit, who combined for 15 minutes at best, would have enjoyed a trip south. Or Caleb Hansen, the speedy winger who impressed with the BC Bears. Or Chase Kelliher, the livewire flanker probably best suited for 7s given his size who instead wasted his time training with the ARC side but not playing.

No doubt there are other circumstances unbeknownst to the punters that contributed to these decisions, but the result is that we’ve basically come away with nothing new or positive from numbers 9-15 over three games. Derek Daypuck is past his best. Nick Blevins isn’t a winger. Pat Kay isn’t a fullback. Gordon McRorie isn’t a flyhalf. Yes yes, but… we already knew all of that, didn’t we? Wasn’t this supposed to be a learning exercise?

Slightly less frustrating were the forwards. Slightly because they played better, still a bit discouraging that we didn’t see enough of players we wanted to see more of. Ryan Hamilton should have been handed a start. If he’s going to challenge for a World Cup spot he needs to find some form quickly, and jogging on for a few minutes at the end of the match isn’t going to get him there. Likewise for Admir Cejvanovic, who barely got a look-in after impressing both with Burnaby Lake in the CDI Premier League and with the BC Bears.

Callum Morrison, one of the standout forwards in the CRC, got a half against the Americans. Kyle Baillie impressed enough in the opening match to get another 20 minutes against a rampant Argentina. Peter Houlihan would have been happy just with the 20 minutes. And all that is to say nothing about poor Clay Panga, the Wolf Pack back row whose only contribution to the tournament was to hang out on the wing for 5 minutes against Uruguay. If he wasn’t on Kieran Crowley’s radar, why was he there in the first place?

There were some happier stories. Aside from some spotty throwing against the United States, Ray Barkwill was Canada’s best player throughout. Kyle Gilmour led by example and looks ready to fill the gap left by the absence of Adam Kleeberger and Chauncey O’Toole, which looks all but permanent at this stage. Nanyak Dala was his usual self, though he started to tire a bit against the Jaguars. Sadly none of that information is revelatory in any way.

Of the ‘new’ players, Evan Olmstead looks to have benefited the most. He’s not quite big enough to start as a test lock, but his ability to cover second and back row, to go with his useful lineout height and high work rate mark him as a player of promise. He should have done enough to force his way onto the November tour.

The second Australo-Canuck, prop James Smith, also came through fairly well. For a stocky fellow he moves quite well, and his ability to play both sides of the scrum, and reportedly hooker as well, is a useful feature in a squad with limited spots available. He’s in a tough spot in that Canada now have four front-line professionals at prop and two domestic heavyweights in Tom Dolezel and Doug Wooldridge all fighting for about five spots. Smith is probably the odd man out for now, but he’s worth keeping tabs on should more opportunities arise.

It’s hard to guage where Aaron Flagg stands at this point. He’s not really tall enough to be a front line lock, but he does bring a lot of grunt and, as Argentina found out, he likes to tackle. His fitness is a question mark as much as his long-term position. Seb Pearson is another who looked good at times, less so at others. He’ll want to forget the American match, along with just about everyone, but showed that he can win the collisions both in the tackle and with ball in hand.

So a couple new forwards have put their hands up for selection. Is that a good return from three games and a squad of 25 plus? Interestingly both Argentina and Uruguay sent development coaches along with their playing squad. Given the same group of players to work with, would a different coach have found out more by distributing the playing time more evenly?

Things to consider for the next tournament, which won’t take place until 2016 with the World Cup in the way next year, and from the sound of things won’t take place in Victoria either. In theory it remains a vital cog in the domestic pathway to national selection, despite the parochial protests of some folks on the other side of the rockies. In practice, it appears to be very much a work in progress.

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