Canada has been a second-tier rugby power in the World Cup era. Always qualifying for competition, always good for a win in preliminary action, but advancing to the quarterfinals only once. Not on the level of the Five Nations (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France), or the Southern Tri-Nations (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), but in the mix with the Argentinas, the Fijis and Tongas, always tough, always liable to cause an upset.
And every World Cup I come away optimistic for the future, how all these young bucks are destined to great things, how the grassroots programs will pay dividends, how Canada could solidify its status and one day be a legitimate challenge for the traditional powers.
Except this year, we come into the World Cup reeling. The Pacific Nations tournament was a disaster for Canada, failing to win a match against any of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, even Japan or the U.S., which are traditionally easy fodder for us. While the U.S. and Japan are improving, we're at a standstill and maybe even regressing.
I always wonder how much better we could be if our boys didn't waste their time playing football, if we played hockey in winter and rugby in summer. They're both sports that require strength and stamina and teamwork and dedication, they complement each other, much more than ridiculous basketball or effete soccer.
But the progress those latter sports are making is possibly coming at the expense of rugby. Even with the good/great showings by our Sevens sides, it seems we're getting passed by in the fifteen-a-side original version.
Aside from 37-year-old Jamie Cudmore and maybe DTH van der Merwe and John Moonlight, I didn't recognize many of the players on the pitch today. There isn't that year-to-year, World Cup-to-World Cup consistency in our squad. Where did all the kids from 2011 go? I recognized more faces on the Irish side than ours it seemed, their skip Paul O'Connell front and centre.
Ireland was a fourty-point favourite, which seemed outlandish at the outset, and I would have bet money on Canada to cover that huge a gap. Even if we'd been playing so poorly, and even though Ireland has won the Six Nations two years in a row. Even if they greatly outweighed us in the pack. That's just too many points to concede, right?
The game followed the usual script when Canada is over its head. They started out well, standing up to a bigger, better, stronger side by playing ferociously, with lots of heart. They tackled relentlessly, showed passion and courage, caused breakdowns, attacked and threatened to score on a couple of occasions.
Usually that lasts until the second half, when the opponents usually find their bearings, and after weathering the storm their greater preparation and depth of talent and experience starts to turn the tide, and they finish with a few tries to win going away, with Canada getting plaudits from the analysts and a moral victory. We gave them all they could handle, we mutter.
This time, the tide started shifting after ten or fifteen minutes, if there was a tide. Captain Jamie Cudmore*, a great beast of a second-rower but frightfully undisciplined, gave away a cheap penalty to Ireland, earning a yellow card and forcing Canada to play 14 against 15. It wasn't a fair fight, and Ireland scored three quick tries during his ten-minute absence. A fourth try late in the half gave Ireland its sought-after bonus point.
(* Fun fact: Jamie Cudmore is the older brother of Daniel Cudmore, the actor who played Collossus in the 'X-Men' franchise.)
Canada came close in the dying seconds of the first half, scoring a try of their own which was rightfully overturned on review due to a forward pass. Close but no cigar, but again, kudos for not giving up and trying to send a message before the end of the half. Which finished 29-0 in favour of the other guys...
Surprisingly, the boys came charging out in the second half, coming close on a few occasions, with many phases right near the opponent goal line. Unfortunately, they kept getting blown back by the ferocious Irish defence, and instead of advancing the ball they'd stumble backwards. Many early chances were unrealized, and again as the half wore on the Irish put things together and overcame the gallant resistance of the Canadians. Eventually, the green squad poured on three more late tries, on clear runs following breakdowns, for a final score of 50-7.
The lone Canadian try came when an Irish back tried to get fancy and attempted a grubber kick which popped right into DTH van der Merwe hands. He ran it in easily for a very small consolation for the good guys.
What can we say about this loss? We should probably be as forgiving as if the Irish national hockey team had lost by twenty to a Sidney Crosby-led Canadian team, something like that. The Canadian side did well in terms of never admitting defeat, playing hard until the very last couple of minutes, when they fiercely defended their goal line to prevent a crowning Irish try. Their scrum was surprisingly effective, cohesive and reliable, winning all its put-ins and never being driven back by the bigger Irish pack. This came as a surprise after the shoddy performance in scrummages during the Pacific Nations Cup.
The big negative was in the lineouts, in my opinion. Canada lost the first one on a questionable call by the referee, who judged the throw as not straight. From then, Ireland easily won its throw-ins, with Canada often choosing not to try to spoil, conceding the ball, and just getting ready to defend, which I hate. Giving the Irish a clean ball is not sound strategy in my unschooled mind, and sends the wrong message. Further, Canada lost a number of its own throw-ins, due to lack of cohesion, and trying fancy plays, instead of relying on Brett Beukeboom's jumping ability to win its balls.
So Ireland narrowly beats the 42 point spread, putting up a 43 point win on the good guys. And Canada has to convince itself that it earned some moral victory, had some bright points in a thorough defeat, as it readies for a more realistic challenge against Italy.