The Langford-based Canadian rugby team could save itself a lot of aggravation over the next four years with a victory against Italy in the 2019 World Cup early Thursday morning in Fukuoka, Japan (12:45 a.m. on TSN).
The top two spots in Pool B, and advancement to the quarter-finals, appear reserved for mega powers New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa Springboks. But there is a major perk for the top-three finishers in each pool — automatic qualification for the next World Cup in 2023 at France.
Since Italy and Canada are both likely destined to lose to New Zealand and South Africa, and beat minnow Namibia, third place in Pool B will likely be decided by the Canada-Italy game.
It won’t be easy for Canada. The Italians do more than just play soccer. They are ranked No. 14 in rugby to Canada’s No. 22 and are an annual Six Nations competitor against the big rugby nations of Europe.
But Canada believes it has put in the hard yards in training at Westhills Stadium.
“It’s a tough pool we’re facing, but we’ve worked a long while toward this and this first one is going to be a huge game for us,” said Canadian head coach Kingsley Jones.
This is Canada’s first game, while Italy opened with a 47-22 victory over Namibia. The All Blacks defeated the Springboks 23-13 in the only other Pool B game played to date.
“We got a look at Italy in their match against Namibia and we’re excited to get on the pitch and have a crack at them,” said Jones, a former Welsh international, who resides in Sooke.
Ten players will be making their World Cup debuts for Canada in Fukuoka, including Josh Larsen of Parksville and University of Victoria Vikes product Conor Keys starting in the second row and Luke Campbell of Victoria dressing in reserve.
At the other end of the experience scale, all-time Canadian tries leader DTH van der Merwe will play in his fourth World Cup with a large supporters section of family and friends from the Island cheering him on in Japan. Van der Merwe has six career World Cup tries.
Former Castaway Wanderers great Ciaran Hearn has gone from those days at Windsor Park in Oak Bay to this third World Cup and will dress in reserve against Italy. Former CW stalwart Hubert Buydens will start on the front row with Tyler Ardron captaining from the No. 8 slot.
Also starting with Buydens, Ardron, Larsen and Keys will be Eric Howard, Matthew Tierney, Mike Sheppard, Lucas Rumball, Gord McRorie, Peter Nelson, Nick Blevins, Ben LeSage, Jeff Hassler and Pat Parfrey. Those available off the bench will be Campbell, Hearn, former CW and UVic player Jake Ilnicki and former UVic Vikes star Jamie Mackenzie. Among the eight players on the 31-man Canadian World Cup roster not dressed will be former captain and veteran scrum-half Phil Mack of Victoria, who recently became a father.
There are concerns, however, especially in the second row. An injury to Justin Blanchet will keep him out of the World Cup while Kyle Baillie will miss at least the first two games, giving Parksville’s Larsen and UVic-product Keys their big openings. But with it comes pressure. At six-foot-six, Keys has the physicality for the challenge. Larsen has already shown he belongs. The Nanaimo native played all three games when Canada beat Kenya, Germany and Hong Kong to claim the 20th and final berth into the 2019 World Cup in the last-chance qualifier last November in Marseille. Canada has gone 1-7 in Test matches since then, with that lone win a 56-0 result against Chile in February at Westhills Stadium in Langford.
A turnabout in form will be required. But Canada’s injury situation might make that a difficult proposition. Taylor Paris and Evan Olmstead join Baillie in nursing lower-body injuries, although Paris and Olmstead could be ready soon.
“Unfortunately for Taylor Paris and Evan Olmstead, they’ve missed out on selection [against Italy] through slight low-body injuries,” said Jones.
“It’s nothing that’s going to keep them out long term, but they’re not quite ready for this one.”
Canada has qualified for all eight World Cups. But its depth will be severely tested in this World Cup.
“Overall, we’re pleased with the combinations we have,” said Jones.
The Canadian team alighted their bus this week dressed in Japanese yukata robes, but with several of the players struggling with the traditional wooden sandals. It’s back to cleats now to ready for Italy and a game that could define the trajectory of the next four years at Westhills Stadium.
That will be followed by two formidable pool matches against the No. 2-ranked All Blacks on Oct. 2 at Oita and the No. 4 Springboks on Oct. 8 at Kobe. Canada’s final Pool B match is against No. 23 Namibia on Oct. 13 at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium in Iwate prefecture, of which Victoria’s sister city Morioka is the capital, with special Canadian-themed ceremonies planned for the game because of that connection.