The challenges of coaching Canada’s men’s rugby team are myriad, on and off the field.
While Tier 1 nations like England have a structure in place that allows them to assemble their top talent for February test matches during the international window, Canadian coach Mark Anscombe is forced to do a delicate dance in choosing his overseas players.
In selecting his squad for the Americas Rugby Championship, the New Zealand native has essentially elected not to summon players from top European leagues to avoid disrupting their club careers.
“We haven’t brought them all back. It’s a balancing act of making sure we’re competitive but looking where players are coming from,” said Anscombe.
He has been able to bring back prop Djustice Sears-Duru of the Glasgow Warriors, backs Taylor Paris and Conor Trainor from their French second-division clubs and Matt Tierney, Matt Beukeboom and George Barton from their French club academy sides.
Anscombe’s 29-man squad for the ARC, which runs Feb. 3 to March 3, contains just six of his starting 15 against Samoa in November as well as six of the reserves from that day.
Injuries are another stumbling block. But given much of the Canadian player pool is amateur, so are work and school.
“It’s very frustrating,” Anscombe said of the selection headaches. “It’s the reality of amateur rugby.
“Where I come from (in New Zealand), if you’re considering someone for an international, he’s a professional rugby player so there’s no question he’s available and he’s going to jump at the opportunity.
“But here the guys are amateur. They play club rugby and they go to school and they work. To take five weeks off to go and do something in a lot of cases is not their No. 1 priority.”
That is one of the reasons Anscombe has selected an extended 29-man ARC squad, which will be trimmed for the final two road games.
Canada, ranked 18th in the world, opens Feb. 4 against a second-tier Argentina ‘A’ side at Westhills Stadium in Langford, B.C., a game that does not have test status.
The next four games for the Canadians are all test matches: against No. 29 Chile on Feb. 11 in Langford, the 17th-ranked U.S. on Feb. 18 in Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, B.C., and road matches Feb. 25 against No. 21 Uruguay and March 4 against No. 36 Brazil.
Anscombe’s squad includes nine uncapped players: Beukeboom, Barton, Cole Keith, Conor Keys, Rory McDonell, Ollie Nott, Reegan O’Gorman, Carl Pocock and Robbie Povey
The 20 other players, who include veterans Ray Barkwill, Nick Blevins, Phil Mack and Pat Parfrey, have a combined 268 test caps.
Canada is coming off a bumpy November tour that saw a best available roster lose to fourth-ranked Ireland (52-21), No. 16 Romania (21-16) and No. 15 Samoa (25-23).
“It’s the old story,” said Anscombe. “We’re close and thereabouts all the time but don’t finish on the right side of the ledger.”
He pointed to a competitive 60 minutes against Ireland, before the bottom fell out.
“The November window, we had 18 domestic players in our squad. Now 18 domestic players playing international rugby takes its toll,” he said. “Each game you’re playing, you’re playing against a full squad of professional players that train and prepare every day. And that in a nutshell is your big difference.
“The U.S.A. is exactly the same. It’s just too big of a gap to go from club rugby to playing international rugby. And we need more of our guys in environments that can challenge them and they can work on it daily because that’s what the rest of the world is in the market we’re playing.
“An amateur can have the odd good day but he’s not going to be consistently performing in it, no matter what sport anywhere … Our challenge is to get our guys playing more competitively at better levels of rugby that’s going to give them preparation to handle international rugby better.”
Until that happens, Anscombe believes both North American teams will be hard-pressed to take the next step against world competition.
Canada’s top domestic players are centralized in Langford. But the lack of a pro league leaves only amateur competition.
The Canadian men are due to host No. 12 Georgia and No. 16 Romania in June with a home-and-away World Cup qualifying series against the 17th-ranked U.S. The loser of that tie gets another chance to qualify.
Ray Barkwill, Castaway Wanderers, Niagara Falls, Ont.; George Barton, Clermont academy (France), Duncan, B.C.; Nick Blevins, Calgary Hornets, Calgary; Matt Beukeboom, Section Paloise academy (France) Lindsay, Ont.; Rob Brouwer, Lindsay RFC, Lindsay, Ont.; Gradyn Bowd, UVIC Vikes, Red Deer, Alta.; Admir Cejvanovic, Burnaby Lake RFC, Burnaby, B.C.; Liam Chisholm, UVIC Vikes, Kenora, Ont.; Eric Howard, Brantford Harlequins, Ottawa; Conor Keys, UVic Vikes, Stittsville, Ont.; Cole Keith, James Bay AA, Sussex, N.B.; Ryan Kotlewski, Westshore RFC, Calgary; Phil Mack, James Bay AA, Victoria; Rory McDonell, Brantford Harlequins, Brantford, Ont.; Gordon McRorie, Calgary Hornets, Calgary; Dan Moor, Balmy Beach RFC, Toronto; Oliver Nott, UVIC Vikes; Qualicum, B.C.; Reegan O’Gorman, Marist Albion (New Zealand), Vancouver; Clay Panga, Westshore RFC, Calgary; Pat Parfrey, Swilers RFC, St. John’s, N.L.; Taylor Paris, Agen (France), Barrie, Ont.; Benoit Piffero, Blagnac Sporting Rugby Club (France), Montreal; Carl Pocock, Calgary Rams, Calgary; Robbie Povey, Bedford Athletic, Northampton, England; Lucas Rumball, Balmy Beach RFC, Toronto; Djustice Sears-Duru, Glasgow Warriors (Scotland), Oakville, Ont.; Brock Staller, UBC Thunderbirds, Vancouver; Matt Tierney, Section Paloise academy (France), Oakville, Ont.; Conor Trainor, RC Vannes (France), Vancouver.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press