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Reeling Rugby Canada looks to rebuild starting with two Tests next month in Europe

Canada has fallen from the second tier of rugby nations to the third
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United States' Martin Iosefo (12) vies for the ball against Canada's Andrew Coe, right, and Josiah Morra, back, during HSBC Canada Sevens rugby action, in Vancouver, on September 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

It’s going to be a long wait, and a brutal reckoning, until Canada’s next chance to play in a rugby World Cup in 2027.

The rebuilding process begins with Test matches against Portugal on Nov. 6 in Lisbon and Nov. 13 in Brussels against Belgium. They are the first Tests since Langford-based Canada was eliminated in regional qualifying for World Cup 2023 France to miss the sport’s global showcase for the first time after qualifying for all nine previous World Cups.

In an open letter, former Rugby Canada and World Rugby board member Chris Le Fevre said: “It is sadly the final nail in the coffin of Canada’s collapse in men’s international rugby.” Le Fevre, a Victoria developer, doesn’t blame the players, but calls for an executive-level “rebuild from the ground up to start the long climb back” and to “learn from other sports such as tennis. Outside help will be required.”

Rugby Canada is preferring to stay in-house right now, but says it understands the roiling emotions in the close-knit Canadian rugby community.

“It’s a difficult burden to carry and the players are devastated we didn’t qualify,” said Canadian head coach Kingsley Jones of Sooke, the former Welsh international, in a Rugby Canada video released this week.

“They are scars we’ll carry around for a long time to be the first Canadian group not to qualify for a World Cup. It’s a real disappointment for us and our fans. Everyone’s hurt. That’s why I’m so keen to see these guys bounce back. The only thing we can do is learn from it and make sure we’re in a really good position whenever the next qualification period is [for 2027] to make sure we qualify as Americas 1 and that’s our target.”

But it won’t be easy.

“The reality of world rugby now, particularly in South America, is they have their act in order,” said Jones.

“The world is changing. Eight to 10 teams are now fighting for those final two spots into the World Cup. The biggest change is the strength of the world top 24. It used to be the top 18, and we fell short.”

It’s clear the rebuild, after falling from the second tier of rugby nations to the third tier, must begin now. Younger players have to be given almost all of the Test match playing time, ­beginning with the Tests against No. 19 Portugal and No. 28 Belgium. The roster announced Wednesday for the Portugal and Belgium Tests reflects that reality. No. 23 Canada fielded a young squad in 2023 World Cup qualifying, so the process has already begun, and it can only be hoped the players learned a valuable, if harsh, lesson in the failed bid.

“It’s largely a young team, which is what we’ve been working with,” said Jones

“The age of the group is exciting. Our oldest player is 27 and that’s unheard of. The average age of the team is 23 and that bodes well. We need to keep investing in the [Langford-based national U-23] Pacific Pride program. Six players in 2023 qualifying came through the Pride program. We need to continue with that group and grow the depth. The future is bright, but we really need to get those guys playing in meaningful competition. [The national team program] needs a player pool of 200 players with a realistic target to get 80 to 100 players in Major League Rugby.”

Island players selected for the November Tests include Foster Dewitt of Courtenay from Pacific Pride, Josh Larsen of Nanaimo from the New England Free Jacks of MLR, Jake Ilnicki out of the University of Victoria Vikes and Castaway Wanderers, Lachlan Kratz of Victoria from New Orleans Gold of MLR, Quinn Ngawati of Victoria from United New York of MLR, Isaac Olson of Victoria and Kainoa Lloyd from James Bay.

Jones pointed to Kratz, 21, Ngawati, 22, and MLR San Diego Legion flanker Michael Smith, 23, as being projected building blocks to the future: “All three of those guys will feature and I’m excited to see them have a run.”

The process needs to begin immediately with consistent results against mid-to-lower range national sides such as the ones to be faced next month.

“We need to target wins in Portugal and Belgium,” said Jones. “I want to see our players bounce back.”

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com