Rugby Canada’s growth on the world stage
There is great excitement in the world of Canadian rugby. At the time of writing, the men’s fifteens team was preparing hard for Rugby World Cup qualifiers against the United States, on the back of jubilant success for both the women’s and men’s teams in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournaments.
Canadian rugby has long been a fixture on the global scene, the nation having participated in nine world cups since the first tournament hosted by Australia and New Zealand in 1987. Now, the teams are preparing to come to Tokyo in September 2019 and July 2020.
General Manager, Performance and Rugby Operations, Jim Dixon, together with Canadian National Team Head Coach Mark Anscombe, are preparing the teams for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Although the men’s team missed out on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, plans are in place for the team to rebound.
“We’ve been in a real rebuild phase with the men’s sevens; they had a very tough year last year,” Dixon explained. “We changed a lot of the infrastructure, coaching and support around that team.”
This year, the team has found success in Singapore, winning a Cup final in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, and making history by winning their first ever tournament.
Meanwhile, the women’s program has gone from success to success, with the fifteens team having reached the final of the Women’s Rugby World Cup in France in 2014, and the sevens team winning Olympic bronze in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Dixon is confident that they will continue to evolve and develop for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“The women’s team have been very strong historically,” Dixon said. “They’re excited about this year and have been performing pretty strongly as well . . . It’s a good pressure to have on your shoulders to drive a good result.”
With the men’s fifteens to play their Rugby World Cup qualifier games at the end of June, pressure is mounting. “Prior to the two games against the United States, we’ve got very tough test matches; we play Georgia and Romania, two very physical teams,” Dixon said.
The concept of professional rugby is relatively new to Canada, and its first major placing for the men’s fifteens was making the quarter-final in the 1991 Rugby World Cup. However, the move into the professional arena also brings its challenges.
“There isn’t a professional league in Canada, whereas a number of our competitors are now operating in professional competitions throughout the world,” Dixon said. “We are trying to keep pace on the world stage, and exporting our best players to professional clubs is our strongest option at the moment for the fifteens program. They go to Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, wherever they can ply their trade.”
While their Europe-based players are not on such a limited playing schedule, providing enough opportunity for domestic Canadian players to practice is another challenge. In addition, the stresses and strains of playing in a different environment need to be considered.
“We’re expecting a pretty humid environment when we’re in Japan, so both teams will spend time acclimatizing to the Asian climate at that time of year before both of those tournaments,” Dixon said.
This means visiting Japan and travelling to other parts of the world during the humid summer months prior to 2019 and 2020. Another concern is how to move a large number of people around Tokyo given the city’s already congested transportation system. And it’s not just the players who are preparing.
“Some of our staff have already been to Japan to visit. A number of the team were over there recently for the World Series women’s event, and staff travelled to several of the Olympic facilities and training options that have been put on the table for consideration,” Dixon explained.
Anscombe, national men’s fifteens head coach, said the main challenge for the team is modifying play.
“Getting them familiar with how we want to play, including the callings and systems, and then just getting the guys comfortable in the environment,” he said. “If we get the detail right, then we’re going to give ourselves a chance.”
In terms of competition for the Rugby World Cup, Dixon said it depends on what pool they end up in, one being a very physically dominant group, and the other a more “open, expansive-style rugby group,” he explained.
Anscombe echoed this, suggesting that adjustments must be made depending on the team. “With the World Cup, it’s such a vast range of styles of play,” he added. “You’ve got to have variation play.”
Teamwork also will be a vital consideration. A cohesive team is what Anscombe — also a former New Zealand rugby union coach — believes will put the team a step ahead.
“I’ve been involved in the game a long time and you can have your star players, but it’s about the squad and how they gel together and challenge each other,” he said.
Aside from ensuring key players are not injured between now and game day, Anscombe believes a key factor is confidence.
“The key for us is self-belief and having the confidence to close-off games,” he explained. “There’s a good positive attitude, there’s a bit of buzz about, and you want that excitement and energy. That’s all we can ask of the players.”
Japan and Canada are both considered tier-two nations. Maintaining that level and continuing to improve and compete on the international stage is a core concern for both Dixon and Anscombe. Further, there is much to be learned from the Japanese team’s efforts in the last Rugby World Cup.
“We have to fight similar challenges every year, but I think they have demonstrated that it can be done,” Dixon said.