It’s finally down to business for Canada’s national men’s rugby team.
After being nothing more than interested observers to the first three days of action at the Rugby World Cup, Canada opens its quest for world supremacy on Wednesday (12:30 a.m. ET, TSN) against Tonga at the Northland Events Centre in Whangarei, New Zealand.
Tonga, ranked No. 12 by the International Rugby Board, is coming off a 41-10 trouncing at the hands of the host New Zealand All Blacks. The Tongans’ roster is made up of players from the Super 15 league and European teams.
“The set play is crucial, you’ve got to get good platform ball so that will be a massive challenge for the guys around the scrum and the lineout,” said coach Kieran Crowley of the 14th-ranked Canadians. “Obviously the contact area, Tonga bring a real physical game to the table and we’ve got to match that.”
The Canadian team has some experience of its own, including captain and starting hooker Pat Riordan, who will pick up his 40th international cap for Canada, as well as fullback James Pritchard.
Veteran scrum half Ed Fairhurst, with more than 50 caps, will also be counted on by the Canadians, who are coming off 28-22 and 27-7 victories over the United States and a 38-14 loss to the Australian Barbarians in three test matches last month.
“We’ve worked guys in throughout preparation and picked what we think is the strongest team,” Crowley said. “We’ve hopefully given them enough game time together so they’ll be right. We look at who were playing against and what team we think is best to face Tonga and we consider this is the best possible team to do that and that’s where the selections have come from.”
Canada defeated Tonga 24-7 in the last World Cup meeting between the two sides back in 2003. Four players remain from that Canadian team — centre Ryan Smith, Pritchard, Fairhurst and second row Jamie Cudmore.
Crowley is especially looking forward to Cudmore’s leadership. The 33-year-old Winnipeg native hasn’t played for the Canadian team in nearly four years due to an assortment of injuries and his lack of availability from his club team, Clermont Auvergne in France.
“He brings great experience, there is only him and DTH Van Der Merwe who play in the top leagues in the world — then we have three players who have Division 1 in England and the rest of the guys are locals,” Crowley told the Rugby News Service. “He brings experience at that level and he brings the attitude of a hardened professional player.
“He’s adapted to the team very well — he’s just one of the guys.”
Following Wednesday’s opener, Canada faces No. 4 France. Top-ranked New Zealand and No. 13 Japan round out Pool A. The top two teams in each pool advance to the tournament’s knockout phase.
Canada has played in all seven Rugby World Cups since the event was established in 1987. Only once, in 1991, when it lost 29-13 to New Zealand in the quarter-finals, has it advanced out of the pool stage.