Poor performances by Canadian men’s rugby team sets off debate on how to fix it

Concern voiced over Canada's men's rugby team

TORONTO — The ripple effect from Canada’s poor performance at the Americas Rugby Championship has been quickly felt by the rugby community back home.

Following a 24-23 loss to unheralded Brazil, Canada dropped to No. 23 in the World Rugby rankings — sandwiching Mark Anscombe’s team between Germany and Kenya. Canada started the tournament at No. 18. 

Chris Le Fevre, a former member of the Rugby Canada board and the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby) World Council, fired a loud salvo that quickly generated debate on social media.

“When I first joined the (Rugby Canada) board we had two employees and we were nudging the top 10,” the Victoria entrepreneur wrote in a letter to Rugby Canada chairman Tim Powers. “Today dozens and dozens of employees and (we are) heading into the abyss of third-world rugby.

“Clearly the administration has failed to have an adequate strategy to position Canada in the modern rugby world.”

Powers welcomes the debate.

“I’m pleased there’s such passion out there,” he said. “That’s a positive sign … And I think steps are being taken to get us there, though it’s ugly. We’re in a rebuilding phase, we’re in a development phase. Ugly. And you can’t make ugly pretty. But you can keep on a path to get you there.” 

Canada went 1-4-0 at the ARC, fielding a largely domestic developmental squad with a dozen or so top overseas pros left at their clubs. The Canadians downed Chile 36-15 but were beaten 20-6 by Argentina ‘A,’ 51-34 by the U.S. and 17-13 by Uruguay before falling on a last-minute try to Brazil (ranked 15 places below Canada at the time).

“The reality is that our men’s XV program is broken,” Mark Slay, a former Rugby Canada board member, said in a Facebook response to Le Fevre’s letter.

“We’re spiralling downwards, talking about sevens, talking about governance issues and missing the big picture,” Le Fevre lamented.

World Rugby confirmed that Canada’s current position of No. 23 is its worst since the rankings were introduced in October 2003. It also marks the first time Canada has dropped out of the top 20. Its highest perch was No. 11, for one week in September 2011. 

As it did after the Canadian men’s sevens team failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics, Rugby Canada issued a statement, saying it would learn from the ARC and make the “necessary adjustments.”

“It’s fair to say we are very disappointed with the results in this year’s ARC,” Jim Dixon, Rugby Canada’s general manager, rugby operations and performance, was quoted as saying.

“Our stated goal is to qualify for the 2019 World Cup and improve on our results,” he added. “We will not waiver from these objectives.”

Le Fevre says Canadian rugby is on a slippery international slope. A lower ranking means lesser opponents and could lead to less funding from World Rugby. The hammer blow financially would be failing to qualify for the Rugby World Cup, the effects of which could be disastrous, according to Le Fevre.

Not only did Canada lose at the ARC, it lost ugly. Canada gave up two tries in the first four minutes against the Americans, a team they will meet this summer at the first World Cup qualifying hurdle. The defence was porous in Brazil, which won on a last-minute try.

“We made some poor decisions and didn’t execute very well,” Anscombe said. “It’s like the theme of the whole tour, to be honest.”

“The reality is it’s disappointing,” he added. “There’s no hiding from the fact. That’s reality. You stand by your results. What we’ve got to do is look at it more in-depth and look at why.”

Anscombe says while all Tier 2 countries have challenges, Rugby Canada has “some internal things to sort out first before you’re going to get rugby going.” For the time being, he is keeping those in-house.

“One thing I know about this game (is) you can’t take hurdles as big as ours in one stride,” he said.

There’s no arguing that Canada is sliding down the world rankings. Canada was 15th in March 2008 when former All Black Kieran Crowley took over as coach. Eight years later, the Canadian men were 18th when Anscombe took the helm.

Both New Zealanders have impressive resumes. But they are coaches not magicians.

Canada’s top players earn their living in Europe where it is hard to separate them from their clubs. And without a pro league, Canada’s domestic players are playing club rugby miles below the level of international play.

“If you’re going to be in a Formula One race, you don’t want to be in a Mini-Minor, do you?” Anscombe said succinctly, referencing the original Mini. 

He says 18 of the 32 Canadian players used in the ARC had not had a game since November. Another seven or eight had had one or two.

Rugby at the test level is about “less time and better decision-making,” according to Anscombe. He says it’s no coincidence that his best players during the November tests were those playing in top-level competition that tests them week-in, week out.

The debate comes in a week where more than 70,000-plus will take in the Canada Sevens tournament at Vancouver’s B.C. Place Stadium.

The sevens versus 15s split has been an issue of late, especially with sevens now being an Olympic sport.

“A nation such as ours with inadequate depth gets our game diluted as a result of sevens and that’s played itself out now. We’ve seen it. Both have suffered … Other nations have felt it, but they have superior depth,” Le Fevre said.

Sevens coach Damian McGrath is on record saying his top seven or eight players can match up with any in the world. But he is searching for depth to support them.

Like its 15s counterpart, the men’s sevens team dropped down the world ladder in recent years. It stands 12th in the World Series standings and recently lost its Own The Podium funding for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Powers says the Vancouver sevens tournament is helping fund the 15s program. providing $430,000 to centralize 20 domestic-based players on the men’s 15s team.

And he says Rugby Canada is also scheduling more games, for all of its national teams, to give them better opposition. That will soon include having age-grade teams play in European competition.

Le Fevre wants Rugby Canada to resurrect the Pacific Pride program, which saw top under-23 talent training and playing together. He wants such a team playing regularly in a league and touring rather than “just hot-housed in a gym.”

Powers says that is essentially the same model as the centralized program.

Le Fevre believes a combination of the Pacific Pride program and Rugby Canada helping â€” and helping pay for — Canadians to play overseas would pay dividends.

“If you had the 23-year-olds playing together and you had an overseas program, I think the standard of rugby would be pulled up from the top. If we do it from the bottom up and think that we’re going to do it in time, it’s too late, because the ship’s already left the harbour.”

And he is confident that with the right plan, rugby benefactors in Canada will help pay for it.

Everyone agrees that pro rugby is desperately needed in Canada. Making it happen has proved elusive, with Rugby Canada opting last year not to join a fledgling U.S. circuit.

Said Powers: “We’re vigorously pursuing and being pursued by different organizations that are interested in having us be part of their professional rugby setups … We now are talking to other international leagues and we have major sports franchise and sports conglomerates in this country talking to us about their interest in professional rugby.”

Stay tuned.

Next up is a two-match playoff with the 17th-ranked Americans this summer — Canada’s first door to the World Cup. Should that fail, there is another chance via a playoff with the top-ranked South American team (excluding Argentina, which has already qualified). And there is one more chance for the loser of that series, via a repechage tournament.

Anscombe, who has drawn positive reviews from his players, remains confident.

“If we have all our players back, I’m confident with the right preparation that we are the equal of the U.S. team, without a doubt,” he said.


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter




Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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