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Written by: Mark Janzen
Photo: Ashley Nixon
Mired in a difficult run of poor results, perhaps the World Rugby Americas Pacific Challenge couldn’t come at a better time for Canada.
A recent string of disappointing losses on the test stage, capped by a defeat against the United States in this past summer’s World Cup qualifier, has Canada looking for answers.
With the lack of any sort of sustained professional rugby in North America to this stage – indeed, Major League Rugby could be the start of an altered landscape, but for now, there’s not much – and with Canada’s tumbling in the World Rugby rankings, the APC might just be a step toward uncovering a solution.
“Over the last number of years, we’ve seen some disappointing results for our senior team,” says Mike Shelley, who is coaching Canada’s team at the APC in Montevideo, Uruguay. “This tournament is giving opportunities for players to push their way into that team if they perform well. For every position, there is an opportunity to play in a World Cup qualifier, or in the November tour.”
With teams in the tournament largely sending domestic-based sides, the event is a chance for all nations involved, including both Canada and the United States, to test their developmental system, while giving players an opportunity to compete under the bright lights of international competition.
For Canada, the roster features youngsters moving up the senior ladder, including the likes of Cole Keith, Aidan McMullan and Liam Murray, who all played for Canada’s U20 team this past summer, alongside veteran talent like Hubert Buydens, Ray Barkwill and Kyle Gilmour.
This year’s APC is the younger player’s best bet to put in a tidy resume in an effort to earn a spot on the senior roster this Fall and, more importantly, next Spring when Canada takes on Uruguay for their last chance at a spot in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
“It’s the trial before the test,” Shelley says. “Anyone who is aspiring to be in that test side needs testing. Some of our problems or our downfalls is that we’re often testing players in the full test environment. So, tours like this are invaluable to us. We can take a player and put him in and really ask questions of those players.”
The story is similar with the Americans, where the likes of Pete Malcolm, 23, who has seven caps, leads the squad, while Ben Cima, 21, who also has seven caps is the type of young up-and-coming player who could take large strides through this year’s APC.
“It's all part of the development process,” USA coach Scott Lawrence said in a recent USA Rugby press release. “(We have) the right mix for the outcome we're after at an average age of 23."
Evidenced by the opening round of the tournament – Canada A lost 71-17 to Argentina XV and USA Select XV dropped a 48-26 decision against Samoa A – the competition will provide plenty of the required testing.
“It’s really about seeing if these individuals are ready to go and be part of the test team,” Shelley says. “We have to accelerate the development of the players who are centralized in Langford (B.C.), and this is part of that.”
Canada A played Tonga A on Wednesday in a valiant effort. They had a strong second half, but sadly lost 31-15. Both Patrick Parfrey and the aforementioned Kyle Gilmour scored tries. Canada closes out the APC on Sunday October 15 when they take on the USA Select XV (1pm ET/10am PT). Prior to their tilt with Canada, the Americans will play Uruguay A.
The USA Eagles are preparing for their November Tour, which will see them play against Germany on November 18 in Frankfurt, and Georgia on November 25 in Tbilisi.
Canada is set to host the Maori All Blacks again on November 3 in Vancouver, before going to Europe to play Georgia on November 11 in Tbilisi, Spain November 18 in Madrid, and Fiji on November 25.