The last time Canada and Namibia squared off at the Rugby World Cup, there was a whole lot on the line for the Canadians — a potential spot in the playoff rounds.
On Oct. 14, 1999, Canada tackled Namibia in Toulouse, the final match for Pool C at that year’s Rugby World Cup.
This Sunday in Kamaishi, Canada will face Namibia again, for just the second time in RWC action (TSN, 8:15 p.m., Saturday). And yes, it’s just two days shy of the 20th anniversary of the last match.
The Canadians needed to win big that night in 1999 to have any hope of advancing to the qualifying round, where they would have fought Ireland for a chance to play in the quarter-finals.
On that night in Toulouse, the Canadians won 72-11, including four tries in the game’s final 10 minutes, but it was all a moot point after Samoa upset Wales earlier in the day, knocking the Canadians out of contention.
“We were really frustrated and wanted to make somebody pay,” former Canadian national team forward Mike James said this week, looking back at a match he played from start to finish as a second-rower.
This year’s match is all about pride, of finishing on a high note.
The 1999 edition was the first to feature 20 teams, but unlike every tournament that followed, organizers created five groups of four teams. Every tournament since has featured four five-team groups.
James and his mates found themselves that year matched up against a clear favourite (France), a clear rival (Fiji) and a clear minnow (Namibia) making their RWC debut.
All of the group’s games were played in the south of France, far from the centre of that year’s tournament in Wales.
“We were kind of an afterthought,” James said, when asked if it felt like they were part of the Rugby World Cup. And on personal terms, the Burnaby born-and-raised James was into his third year of playing pro rugby in France.
“We were playing 90 minutes from my home,” he joked.
The Canadians opened against France and performed well, losing 33-20 in Beziers. The Canadians battled hard but the French where too powerful. The French would go on to lose to Australia in the final.
The second match was against Fiji in Bordeaux. In James’ mind the Canadians should have performed better, perhaps even won that match. But the Fijians capitalized on Canadian mistakes in the second half, winning 38-22. The score at halftime was 22-16 for the Pacific Islanders.
Which led to the final match against Namibia. The country had been independent of South African rule for only nine years and there were plenty of connections with South African rugby.
The team’s preparation was disrupted by government intervention amid allegations of racism by non-white rugby clubs in the country. The Namibians were a low-powered outfit and looked second-best for much of the night.
This rematch is assuming the game isn’t cancelled because of heavy rains and winds caused by typhoon Hagibis, which is set to make landfall sometime Friday.
Tournament organizers have already cancelled a pair of matches for Saturday — New Zealand vs. Italy and France vs. England — while Sunday’s Japan vs. Scotland match is in doubt.
Canadian officials say they’re preparing as if the game will be played, but the official decision will be made Sunday morning.
Canada is looking to prove they should still be considered a Tier 2 rugby country. The Namibians have never won a Rugby World Cup match, but Canada hasn’t won a RWC match since the 2011 tournament, when they knocked off Tonga.
Off the field, James has been one of many voices speaking up saying a better job needs to be done in how young players are supported through their developing years, by Rugby Canada, by clubs and, hopefully, professional clubs.
The writing was on the wall 20 years ago, he said. The ’99 RWC was the first fully professional tournament.
“The professional game was taking off at Mach 1 everywhere,” James said. “And we kept driving around in a ’72 Pinto.”
As for this weekend’s match, he’s taking an optimistic view. There’s plenty of talent in the Canadian lineup, even if wins have been elusive in 2019.
“I would be flabbergasted if Canada got to 72 points, but It’s an opportunity to regain some pride,” he said.
DROP-KICKS: Second-rower Josh Larsen was suspended for three weeks after being shown a red card for foul play during Tuesday’s 66-7 loss to South Africa … Second-rower Mike Sheppard sustained a concussion in Tuesday’s match. His spot in Canada’s 31-man roster has been filled by Dustin Dobravsky.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019