A new addition to the Rugby Canada calendar, and a very welcome one at that, is the imminent Pacific Challenge taking part in Fiji over the next two weeks. Previously known as the Pacific Rugby Cup, the newly re-branded tournament has in the past been used primarily as a development tool for the Pacific island nations of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, pitting their best domestic players against a variety of teams, most recently Super Rugby reserve squads from Australia and New Zealand. In an effort to increase international opportunities to Tier 2 sides below senior level, it will now include the ‘second senior’ sides of six major rugby nations, with Canada joining Argentina and Japan, who both competed last year.
For Canada this is a significant boost to a severely limited development calendar that at present includes only the internal Canadian Rugby Championship and a very brief Americas Rugby Championship in November. This new tournament is effectively the same level as the ARC, but with four games instead of three and played over 13 days instead of 8. For coaches mindful of the impending World Cup, it gives them 3 intensive weeks to work with the best domestic players, some of whom will go on to take part in September. This kind of preparation time does not come easily for Tier 2 nations.
With that in mind, Kieran Crowley has selected his best available side including 19 fully capped players, 11 of whom took part on the senior European tour this past November. Hubert Buydens captains the side and will get help up front from national 7s captain John Moonlight and veteran Adam Kleeberger, fully fit once again but under serious pressure to retain his spot in the World Cup squad. It’s a relatively inexperienced pack in terms of test caps, but with plenty of miles on the meter at provincial and ‘A’ level.
Back rower Thyssen de Goede is a slight surprise though he has been near selection before and has seen action previously with the 7s side. The squad bolster is prop Ryan Kotlewski. The Wolf Pack reserve tighthead is currently spending time with the Canberra Royals in Australia, and with James Smith unavailable with professional commitments he is next in line. Kotlewski has never officially been selected for a Canadian squad before but was part of the extended ARC training group.
The backs boast huge experience, with only Pat Kay uncapped, and feature a number of players in contention for match day status in the test side. With Phil Mack still nursing a knee injury, Gordon McRorie has a chance to nail down the no9 jersey, and possibly cement a new-look starting halfback duo. Liam Underwood returned to the field at the Wellington 7s after a year out of international rugby and by the end of the Las Vegas event looked as comfortable as we could have hoped. Most eyes will now be on him as he takes the next step back to full test rugby.
Phil Mackenzie is another returnee, having last featured in November of 2013. His absence has been due to a lack of game time at Sale Sharks, who have graciously allowed him to take part in the tournament. Mackenzie was a standout in 2011 but has lost ground in recent years, he will need to make a big statement to fight his way back into the senior side, especially with the likes of Taylor Paris and Jeff Hassler in strong form for both club and country.
Canada’s first match is against Junior Japan, and it will be frustrating. For the second year in a row Japan have opted to field their u20 side instead of a proper senior ‘A’ side, the only team in the tournament to do so. The Japanese officials are claiming that this is to boost their chances at the Junior World Championship in June and the 2019 World Cup, which they are hosting. The excuse is nothing short of preposterous, and frankly an insult to the rest of the competitors. When asked to comment, a World Rugby spokesmen had this to say:
“It is a hybrid team of senior and u20 (all adult) players and as a development event
it is a great platform for Rugby World Cup 2019.”
There are two problems with this. Firstly, it is factually incorrect – this is Japan’s entire u20 side. They have selected a hybrid side in the past, why not this time? Only one player will have celebrated his 20th birthday as of kickoff, and the youngest member of the squad is not 18 until June. There are 7 players still in high school, and the average weight of the forwards, if their statistics are accurate – Japan is usually meticulous in this regard – is around 96 kg (210 lbs). Outside of the front row there is only one player who tops 100 kg (220 lbs), a Tongan born no8. By contrast, Canada’s pack will average in the ballpark of 109 kg (240 lbs). They will have had tougher contests in training runs.
Size isn’t everything, but that kind of start difference combined with the massive disparity in experience is worrying. Last year’s entry were outscored 241-26 over three games and suffered a number of injuries, including one to their star midfielder Yusuke Kajimura, who coincidentally also misses this tournament due to injury. For an organization such as World Rugby to on one hand proclaim their concern for proper concussion protocol, then on the other allow this mismatch to happen for a second time seems inexcusably poor judgement bordering on incompetence. If this were a boxing match, no athletic commission of any professional standard would sanction it.
The second problem with that statement is one of principal. Why should the other sides field appropriate senior sides if Japan is not going to honour the agreement? The Canadian u20 side has arranged matches against other u20 sides, should they have been sent to the tournament instead? If this tournament is only to prepare Japan for 2019, should Japan then send their u23 side to this year’s World Cup? It beggars belief that the decision makers at World Rugby have allowed this to happen. If Japan are not willing to send their proper ‘A’ side to compete, they should be tossed out and the United States brought in to replace them.
Thankfully the other participants have not acted so offensively. Most of Samoa’s test stars are tied up with professional contracts, but they still have 10 capped players available and several graduates of their u20 program. Andrew Williams has been around the test side for 5 years and the back row features several dynamic options, including hefty ball carrier Pita Semeane and speedy openside Oneone Fa’afou, a standout on the 7s circuit.
All three of their scrumhalf options have test experience, with Pele Cowley most recently included on the bench against Canada in Colwyn Bay. Flyhalf Patrick Fa’apale has been in the senior squad for a couple years, and big fullback Titi Esau has four test caps and a massive right boot on him. Kaino Thomsen is a Taekwondo Olympian and his likely midfield partner Rudolf Meredith has professional experience in the UK. As always, they will be a very physical side.
Argentina, of course, are the defending tournament champions and favorites once again. They have named a very strong team with 14 members of the Rugby Championship training squad included. Muscular lock Matías Alemanno spearheads the forwards ahead of an outstanding back row trio of Javier Ortega Desio, Pablo Matera, and Facundo Isa. Of course they also have depth at every position, with only four uncapped forwards in the squad.
The backs are led by captains Tomás Cubelli and Martín Landajo, the first choice scrumhalves with more than 30 caps each, and the very solid Santiago González Iglesias at flyhalf. Centre Jerónimo de la Fuente played a role in the victory over Australia in the Gold Coast, as did dynamite winger Manuel Montero. Santiago Cordero is another notable out wide, a deadly stepper who can play wing or fullback.
It’s a tricky tournament for Canada, but exactly the kind of competition needed to help bridge the gap between provincial and test rugby. Getting a couple wins would be nice, but ultimately it’s individual performance that is most important. Who will put their hand up for the World Cup? Who will crack under pressure? Who might be a surprise package? Questions that will be answered over the next two weeks.
March 9 – 21:00 EST – vs Junior Japan
March 13 – 21:00 EST – vs Samoa ‘A’
March 17 – 23:00 EST – vs Argentina Pampas
March 22/23 – T.B.D.
*Canadian time zone
*Fijian time zone (GMT +12)