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Written By: Mark Janzen
Kingsley Jones had a week to get a young Canadian team prepared for a hungry Maori All Blacks side that was intent on proving a point.
For the first 25 minutes, it looked like maybe, just maybe, the Canadian contingent – long on enthusiasm and raw talent but short on experience – could hang with a Maori side that was still seething from a disappointing 22-point loss four months prior against the British and Irish Lions.
Then, the boys from New Zealand took over. Exciting some while silencing others amongst the nearly 30,000 in attendance at Vancouver’s BC Place, the crowd witnessed a classic Maori display of rugby offence and wizardry.
For Jones, who was named Canada’s head coach in late September but only took the reins in the week leading up to the match with the Maoris, the contest marked an eye-opening first step. Those first 25 minutes – and at spot stages throughout the final 55 minutes –showed a glimmer of the potential that exists within the Canadian ranks. The loss – a 51-9 setback in which the Maoris tallied seven tries while holding Canada to just three penalties – exhibited the work Jones has before him over the next two months as he prepares Canada for their two-legged World Cup qualification series with Uruguay.
With his inauguration out of the way, the hard yards begin.
With Canada mired in an international slump, which saw former coach Mark Anscombe earn only two wins from 14 outings while Canada fell to No. 24 in the World Rugby rankings, Rugby Canada has put the turnaround task on the plate of Jones – a man who has both Welsh pedigree and a Kiwi-centric rugby education.
The son of Phil Kingsley Jones – a former Tonga coach and, more famously, the long-time agent of legendary All Black Jonah Lomu – Jones takes over Canada’s program with one key mantra. Simplify. While his father was coaching in South Auckland during the mid-1980s, the now Canadian head coach was a young teenager getting a firsthand look at some of the best rugby New Zealand had on offer.
“People wonder why the All Blacks do so well,” says Jones, who will be based out of Langford, B.C., where Canada’s senior men’s centralized program is located. “They do the basic things well and they focus on those things.”
In his first week with the club, simplicity was a repeated gong, especially with such a short window before Canada embarks on their November Tour to Europe and, ultimately, their series with Uruguay.
“I try to make it simple and give the players confidence,” says Jones, whose head coaching experience includes shifts with the Sale Sharks (Premiership Rugby), the Russian national team and, most recently, the Dragons (Pro14). “I rely on certain individuals within the group to lead the team. They play the game. I don’t play the game. I try to be clear on my expectations. My style is to set things up clearly and let the players deliver it.
“In the short term, we’ll be simplifying our game plan, improving our defence. The short-term goal is to achieve World Cup qualification by beating Uruguay. After that, we’ll certainly be looking to broaden our game plan and broaden our player pool.”
Canada’s contest with the Maori’s won’t be used as any sort of early measuring stick. However, with the losses already creating a rather untidy pile in the years since the Rugby World Cup in 2015, the upcoming tour could well provide a narrow window into Canada under Jones. With matches against Georgia, Spain and Fiji, Canada will get three test opportunities against three varying styles: the burly Georgians, the ever-creative Fijians and a Spanish side that might be somewhere in between.
With that as his first major challenge, Jones might just be the perfect antidotal cocktail for Canada – a well-mixed blend of the creativity and inventiveness that runs through the Kiwi game, combined with hard-charging and gritty style that has stereotypically draped the Northern Hemisphere product.
Certainly Jones’ playing and coaching career has largely been Northern Hemispheric – he earned 10 caps as an international flanker for Wales from 1996 to 1998 and played professionally for a number of clubs in England, including Worcester Warriors, Gloucester and Doncaster – he’s found Southern Hemispheric instruction to be from some of the best.
Along with his father, Jones also names the likes of both Sir Graham Henry, who was the All Blacks coach from 2004 to 2011, and current All Blacks boss Steve Hansen as two influential coaches in his career.
Further to that, he has a bevy of relatives who all have Maori ancestry – a step-mother, a brother-in-law, a nephew and a niece – which made his inbox all the livelier in the lead-up to his Canadian debut.
“A lot of my rugby education has been in New Zealand,” Jones says. “I’ve been heavily influenced by people there. If you ask my philosophy, it might be a little more Southern Hemisphere. Having said that, in the Northern Hemisphere, we have different weather conditions and we do tend to drive a lot more. I like to think I can bring some expertise in the tight play, particularly defensive mauls. In the big picture, in the next 20 months, it’s got to be something that’s in our armoury. We have to be able to score seven to 10 points from a driving maul. We have to have a mixed bag in our game.”
That’s down the road a bit. That’s the kind of thing that will become a focus once qualification has been secured.
For now, Jones has his eyes locked on the next two months and early on, the new coach is excited about what he’s seeing.
“I’m pleasantly surprised with the level of some of the players,” he says, mentioning the likes of youngsters Ben Le Sage, Guiseppe du Toit, Andrew Coe, and Kainoa Lloyd. “There are a lot of things these guys can do. They’re very bright guys as well and very coachable. They really have a thirst for information.
“We have some very good young players. They need work and experience and they need to be exposed to that high level, but they’re very good individuals.”
This, of course, is all before Jones sets his eyes on the nearly 10 Canadian regulars who weren’t part of his team’s date with the Maoris – chief among that group is the likes of DTH van der Merwe, Taylor Paris, Ciaran Hearn, Jake Ilnicki and Brett Beukeboom.
“The team has a good platform to play from and a good set piece. We just need to make sure we have enough creativity. We have some really good players in the back three and obviously we need to create space for those players to have a go – not just to throw them the ball and expect them to beat people. That’s the challenge.”
Beyond that, the other challenge Jones faces is winning.
“Sometimes when you have defeat after defeat, you get into a bit of a rut and lose a bit of confidence. We’re just trying to build that confidence. Of course it’s a bit chicken or egg. You have to win to get confidence and you have to have confidence to win. But I think the easiest way to start is with clarity and simplify things. They’ll be more precise and we’ll gain confidence as an outcome.”
When Canada takes to the field against Georgia on November 11 to open their November Tour in Europe, Jones has a plan.
“While we always go out to win – it’s test match rugby and that’s what my job is about – I have to have one eye on the future, first on Uruguay and then secondly, once we’re in that World Cup, we need to become a more complete team.”
That will help feed the excitement and pride around the men’s side that has been less than resounding in recent years – something Jones’ believes is paramount to the team’s long-term success.
“We need to make sure everybody wants to play for Canada and they’ll walk to the end of the earth to play for Canada,” he says. “It’s not an option to decide which games you’ll play. You can’t be half-pregnant. You’re either in or you’re not.”
With the test window opening in just a few short days, Jones’ next exam has arrived.