Qualifier against Uruguay the most important game for Canada in a Decade
Written By: Doug Crosse (with notes from Frankie Deges)
It would not be hyperbole to state that the Canadian men’s national rugby team is on the precipice of its most important pair of games in a couple of generations.
Waiting for Canada in Vancouver on January 27th is an Uruguay team that has been improving year over year with four players who ply their trade in Europe, and 12 players that were involved in the last World Cup.
And it is a team that has an impressive 9-2 record in the 2017 calendar year, including a 17-13 win over Canada in the Americas Rugby Championship.
Can Canada match up physically with this team and do it twice in two weeks, under the tutelage of a new coach, and missing first-choice starters in several key positions? It is a tall ask, and will be pivotal to the Canadian fifteen-a-side rugby’s future. Win, and participate in the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Lose, and get into a dogfight with three other teams in a last-chance repechage, in what would be a first for Canada in terms of World Cup qualifying.
Canada needs to take maximum points away in this first contest in Vancouver, as playing Uruguay in Montevideo will be tough, with Canada’s last trip to Punte de l’Este (PUNTA DEL ESTE) resulting in just its second loss to Los Teros, 17-13.
Let’s look at this first contest in broad strokes: Kingsley Jones has taken the team to England to prepare for this home game. Logistically it makes sense to have quicker access to the large number of overseas players made available from their pro clubs. As part of the training, Canada has been working with the Harlequins and also a controlled scrimmage with Oxford. When it was completed, the team had to get on a jet for a 10-hour flight with the players catching up on an eight hour time difference.
In contrast, Uruguay landed in Houston ten days ahead of the match, playing a warm-up game against the Houston Sabercats of the new Major League Rugby competition. Los Teros won an entertaining contest 32-24 and got to try out some of their second choice players, while also breaking up a nearly 24 hour travel day and just a five hour time difference (Vancouver to Montevideo).
Important as well in the Houston contest was getting the team used to artificial turf, which they will play on at BC Place. While it is all World Rugby rated, Uruguay has had limited game time on an artificial surface.
Of course, games are not won or lost on the tarmac of international airports, so let's get down to the minutiae of how these teams match up.
Canada vs Uruguay - The Front Rows
In terms of professional experience and head-to-head competitiveness, the advantage has to go to Uruguay.
Mario Sagario, who has played for Munster in recent years and was a key player at RWC 2015, will spearhead Uruguay's scrum. He will be joined by loose head Mateo Sanguinetti, and at hooker Germán Kessler, who returns after an injury-ridden 2017.
Hubert Buydens, who has been training with his new MLR team the New Orleans Gold, will be a key component, working with veteran hooker Ray Barkwill. Other choices include Djustice Sears-Duru, Jake Ilnicki, Matt Tierney, and Benoit Pifféro. All quality players, but the cracks will emerge in minutes 60 to 80, and that is where Uruguay can really start to punish Canada, once Canada makes changes.
Advantage - Uruguay
Flankers Juan Manuel Gaminara and Franco Lamanna can tackle all day long and are terriers getting to the breakdown. Alejandro Nieto is a solid choice at No. 8.
Canada has No. 8/flanker Tyler Ardron back from New Zealand where he has been playing top-level rugby in the back row. Coupled with Admir Cejvanovic and Newcastle’s Evan Olmstead, this will make for a sizeable unit for the South Americans to deal with.
Advantage - Canada
Santiago Arata is just 21 and already has 22 caps under his belt. He is firm around the rucks and mauls and directs traffic well, working in partnership with Felipe Berchesi at number 10, who brings all his experience of playing in Europe since 2013. He has a metronomic boot.
Canada features a revitalized Phil Mack and Gordon McRorie, just back from injury, to fight it out for the starting scrum-half spot. Critically, McRorie does offer solid placekicking and against Uruguay, this could be vital. Brock Staller is also a placekicker, giving Canada choices from long range – and if he is on the field, may either share those duties or defer depending on the situation. Fly-half offers up Patrick Parfrey, who has taken on the role since the November test series. Connor Braid and Guiseppe du Toit could also be pressed into action at the 10 spot, but may need to be in the lineup in the centres.
Advantage - Uruguay
Uruguay is pleased with its centre pairing of Andres Vilaseca and Juan Manuel Cat Piccardo. Vilaseca can break and tackle with the best and opens spaces for the young Cat to tear the defence.
Nick Blevins is working his way back into the Canada lineup and could be a partnership choice with Connor Braid. DTH van der Merwe should be a lock on the outside spot, where has played for Canada previously, but may need to be considered on the wing.
Advantage - Canada
Leandro Leivas, Nicolas Freitas and Rodrigo Silva provide a solid defensive structure and some counter-attack pace. Freitas, the first Uruguayan professional player hired by his national union, spent all of last year with the Super Rugby outfit Jaguares and having missed out in RWC 2015 is desperate to play in 2019.
A big question for Canada will be who fills the fullback spot. Andrew Coe was cementing a place for himself in the lineup, but he got injured against Fiji in November, leaving Kingsley Jones to figure out whether moving Taylor Paris from the wing to 15 is the way to go, or to go with Brock Staller, with less test experience.
The ideal scenario would be to put Paris and van der Merwe on the wings, with Staller at the 15 spot. But you also have Jeff Hassler, who is dangerous on the wing, and potentially Paris at fullback with DTH at the 15 spot. Any way you draw it up, it's some great news for Canada despite not having a first choice at fullback. This combo would be potent and a job for the Uruguay backs to hem in.
Advantage - Canada
Canada Coach Kingsley Jones: “We have some quality on the field but they will only be able to show their class if we play as a team. It’s a unique and exciting challenge – we have to deliver full-80 minute performances over two legs in order to qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but we’re confident we can get the job done.”
Uruguay Coach Esteban Meneses: “(The team) must raise their mental effort now, so they can succeed against Canada. This is a dream of any rugby player in Uruguay from a young age. In training, in the gym is where these players will be able to raise their game and deal with any issues with confidence on the pitch. "
Canada, with home pitch advantage and the gravitas of playing indoors to a large crowd, should get its competitive juices flowing, but a win will likely be six points or less. Staying on the right side of the referee, precise kicking from hand, and strategic use of the bench can see a victory for Canada. Mess up any of those caveats and it will be a win for the visitors.
Tyler Ardron (Chiefs, NZ), Ray Barkwill (Seattle Seawolves, US), Brett Beukeboom (Cornish Pirates, UK), Hubert Buydens (New Orleans Gold, US), Admir Cejvanovic (Burnaby Lake), Luke Campbell (James Bay), Matt Heaton (Darlington Mowden Park, UK), Jake Ilnicki (Newcastle Falcons, UK), Cole Keith (James Bay), Martial Lagain (Westshore), Josh Larsen (Northland, NZ), Anthony Luca (Burnaby Lake), Evan Olmstead (Newcastle Falcons, UK), Benoît Pifféro (Blagnac, FR), Lucas Rumball (James Bay), Djustice Sears-Duru (Ealing Trailfinders, UK), Matt Tierney (Pau, FR)
Connor Braid (James Bay), Nick Blevins (Calgary Hornets), Guiseppe du Toit (UVic Vikes), Andrew Ferguson (Westshore), Jeff Hassler (Ospreys, UK), Ben LeSage (UBC Thunderbirds), Kainoa Lloyd (Mississauga Blues), Phil Mack (capt., Seattle Seawolves, US), Gordon McRorie (Calgary Hornets), Patrick Parfrey (James Bay), Taylor Paris (Castres, FR), Brock Staller (Seattle Seawolves, US), DTH van der Merwe (Newcastle Falcons, UK)
Matías Benítez (Champagnat), Mateo Sanguinetti (Los Cuervos), Germán Kessler (Los Cuervos), Carlos Pombo (Old Boys), Juan Echeverría (Old Christians), Mario Sagario (Carrasco Polo), Rodrigo Capó Ortega (Castres, FR), Ignacio Dotti (Los Cuervos), Manuel Leindekar (Oyonnax, FR), Diego Magno (MVCC), Juan Manuel Gaminara (capt., Old Boys), Rodolfo Garese (Carrasco Polo), Franco Lammana (Mazamet, FR), Manuel Diana (Old Christians), Alejandro Nieto (Champagnat)
Santiago Arata (Old Christians), Agustín Ormaechea (Strasbourg, FR), Germán Albanell (Old Boys), Felipe Berchesi (Dax, FR), Juan Manuel Cat (Old Boys), Joaquín Prada (Los Cuervos), Andrés Vilaseca (Old Boys), Nicolás Freitas (Carrasco Polo), Gastón Mieres (Lobos), Rodrigo Silva (Carrasco Polo)