After recording a clean sweep in their four-match programme in March, Canada’s best young talent now contest the World Rugby u20 Trophy in Lisbon. The tournament represents the second tier of World Rugby’s annual junior competitions, with the big prize – the Championship – taking place in Italy starting on June 2. While lifting the Trophy is a laudable achievement in itself, it also guarantees an invite to next year’s first tier offering, a level that Canada has not reached since 2009.
It’s fair to say the results of the past five years have been underwhelming. That only 8 wins and a draw from 20 fixtures, and one finish above 5th place were achieved in that time leaves pause for thought. The best of the lot, a 2nd place ranking in 2013, was followed up with the worst last year, where the side narrowly avoided the bottom of the barrel with a desperate 3 point victory over Hong Kong to squeeze into 7th and avoid embarrassment.
The reasons for those difficulties are many – and coaching is not exempt from criticism – but at the end of the day it’s best to remember that ultimately the goal of the program is to act as a primary feeder for the national senior men’s team, and to a lesser extent the 7s program, though the recent priority given to the latter might suggest some debate. In any case, the rate of return looks a little more rosy when considered on those terms. Since 2010 there have been 20 players who have graduated to ARC level or higher in XVs, and another 9 capped by the 7s side. Names like Jeff Hassler, Connor Braid, and of course Tyler Ardron are among those, all of whom will be key components of this year’s World Cup squad and beyond.
This story is not about the past, however, and part of the allure of the tournament is that every year each team is essentially rebooted, with only a handful of returning players typically found in a given side. Harjun Gill and this year’s captain Lucas Rumball are the only remnants of last year’s troubled times, though thankfully neither have shown any ill effects. With the slate wiped clean and a new group of teammates, there is plenty of reasons to think this year might be one worth watching.
For those who did catch the March series, they would have noted a real progression in the team dynamic from the first to the last game. There were times early on where some players perhaps let themselves down – missing tackles, making simple unforced errors. By the final whistle of the dominant second half in the deciding fixture against the Americans, there was no doubting that pride had been returned to the jersey.
New coaching duo Jeff Williams and Kenny Goodland – names that should be familiar to Canadian rugby fans from coast to coast – have clearly instilled an identity in the squad that has perhaps been lacking in recent years. Success as a player does not by default translate into coaching, but it doesn’t hurt that both Williams and Goodland won senior caps and tasted the highest levels of Canadian rugby for many years. They know the history, they know the landscape, they have a good idea of what their players are coming from. Most importantly, they appear to be pretty decent selectors.
Of course it also helps to have standout players who pick themselves, and by and large this group has an established hierarchy. That said one of the impressive points of this team is the quality of players who didn’t make the final cut. With only 26 players allowed on the travelling roster there were always going to be disappointed players, but hopefully the likes of Dillon Goos, Tim Hart, and Brandon Waeyen are motivated and encouraged to keep fighting for a Canadian shirt in the future. In the short term, if injury strikes they could be on the next plane to Portugal.
The players that have made it look impressive, arguably more so than the 2013 group, and on paper it looks our strongest junior side since 2008, when Canada finished 12th out of 16 teams in the Championship. That team produced 10 full internationals, and could have added a couple more had they not moved on to other sports. It’s a bit too early to be prophetic, but early indications are that this could be another special group.
Rumball of course leads the way, showing street smarts and leadership attributes beyond his years, but the back row unit as a whole looks mightily impressive. Ollie Nott was arguably Canada’s best player over the four game set, showing exceptional fitness and a good rugby brain, while it was very hard to miss Luke Bradley bowling over would-be tacklers with his ginger beard both impressive and terrifying. None of the trio are the finished article yet but all look destined for bigger things.
Speaking of which one of the most gratifying sights of the March series was the performance of the scrum. Tighthead prop Matt Tierney is not yet 19 years old and already a great bulwark of a man, and behind driving the engine room are a couple Clydesdales of genuine international promise. Paul Ciulini could maybe use another inch in height but he is in no way short on grunt, and seems to hold his own in the lineout while Reegan O’Gorman, who has spent recent days in the rugby hotbed of Christchurch, looks a blue chip prospect both in the air and on the ground beside him. Adrian Wadden’s youth, lineout prowess, and ability to cover the back row appears to have given him the nod over Goos, but it’s a shame that room wasn’t found for both.
Paddy Finlay, one of three Ireland-based players in the group, caught more than a few eyes with some exceptional displays against the Americans, and with Ryan Hamilton’s recent retirement his name has been quietly whispered as a possibility for senior honours sooner rather than later. He will miss the first match with school commitments, however, meaning first crack at the hooker jersey will go to John Shaw, the Bytown product who aside from some wonky lineout throwing in the early games looks a tough customer himself. Similarly loosehead prop looks to be a decision between the well-rounded Brendan Blaikie and pocket dynamo Cali Martinez.
The backs have a settled look to them, with Irish halfback duo Dan Joyce and Dylan Horgan set to continue their partnership. Guiseppe du Toit looks likely to start at centre, moving to flyhalf later in the game, with the fancy footwork of Mitch Santilli outside him. Phil Berna is a hard midfield running option off the bench who can also cover flank, while Emil Sehic is very talented attacker whose chances have been limited due to injury. du Toit’s goal kicking has the potential to be a match winner, provided his sights are calibrated early. Distance is certainly not a problem.
Outside there is nice contrast with the hard running Karsten Leitner on the left wing and the pure speed and stepping of Theo Sauder on the right. At fullback is the golden boy. Andrew Coe has been on the radar since he was 17 and in March we saw why. He looks a supremely gifted footballer in virtually all facets of play, and another whose rise to senior colours looks destined to be quicker than most.
It’s hard not to be excited about this group of players, because the potential is there for them to do something special. Beating Namibia and Hong Kong is a must, though neither are pushovers. Tonga will be physically challenging, but smart rugby can get the job done. Should they make it to the final, beating the winner of the other pool, likely Fiji, will be another step up. Here’s hoping these young men rise to the occasion. In some ways, they already have.
05/12 – 16:00 GMT – vs Namibia
05/16 – 14:00 GMT – vs Hong Kong
05/20 – 18:00 GMT – vs Tonga
05/24 – t.b.d. – vs t.b.d.