When Ireland play Canada next Saturday in Cardiff, few will be expecting anything other than a green victory, but as 2007 proved when Ireland stuttered to victory over both Namibia and Georgia, nothing should be taken for granted, especially at Rugby World Cups.
The Canadians aren't likely to make it beyond the pool stages, but that doesn't mean that they don't have the capacity to send a few shocks waves. As their Team Manager Gareth Rees tells it, "typically they only have a week of preparation together before matches and tours." This time around however, they have been together for most of the last three months, enabling them to coalesce and progress to a much greater extent than their ranking suggests. Time together on the pitch isn't the only ingredient required for a successful team, but it is a colossal impediment when you don't have it. Just look at the Barbarians and how despite the strength of their parts, as a unit, they often fail miserably.
Photo by Ian Muir.
In preparing for the years tournament, the Canadians have travelled thousands of miles across their homeland, kindling the support and anticipation of the nation. Even their military were keen to help out as the squad went on training camp with a branch of the Special Forces. Given the sensitive nature of Special Forces, Rees wasn't free to discuss this in depth, nor how long it was for, but he was adamant that the experience was like no other, and of immense benefit, hinting at a newfound strength of character that might prove pivotal.
While it was only for a "short intense period," it managed to break down, and rebuild the group with a "greater understanding of real leadership," and instilled a confidence that "anything can be achieved together if they put their minds to it." Rees himself knows what he is talking about too. He was inducted into the World Rugby (formerly IRB) Hall of Fame in 2011 and has played at four World Cups.
In their Head Coach, Canada are again laden with experience and nous. Back in 2007 when Ireland floundered at the World Cup, Canada's current Head Coach Kieran Crowley had just coached the New Zealand U-19s to victory in the underage edition. This was his second triumph on the world stage. As a player, Crowley won the World Cup in 1987 with the All Blacks and featured again four years later in 1991, losing in the Dublin semi-final to eventual winners Australia.
On the playing front, Canada can also boast some familiar playing faces this side of the Atlantic. Few are more imposing than Jamie Cudmore, the giant abrasive second row who's had various run-ins with the Irish provinces throughout his career at Clermont Auvergne. Out wide there is danger in winger's Jeff Hassler and Daniel van der Merwe. Both are currently contracted in Wales with the Ospreys and Scarlets respectively, and both have proved to be lethal finishers throughout their careers.
In the backrow Canada might be able to field an impressive trio loaded with experience. Jebb Sinclair has played Super Rugby with the Stormers in South Africa and is currently with London Irish. Richard Thorpe previously played over 120 matches for London Irish and is currently with London Welsh, while Canadian captain Tyler Ardron has played over 45 times for the Ospreys.
Photo by Ian Muir.
While roughly half of the squad are amateur, this is misleading according to Thorpe. For him, "many of the guys are good enough to play professionally, but are just not on the radar and lacking in opportunity. If they go well at the World Cup, that may well change in their favour." For now, many continue to balance rugby with work, and this is something he well appreciates. Being back in the UK allows him to continue playing professionally and working with his brother in their property development company.
Like Rees, Thorpe can't talk about their training with the Special Forces, but suggests, "the experience might be worth two tries per game to our defence." For him and the squad, "there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain." Psychologically the Canadian squad seem to be in a good place going into the tournament. Surely they can't beat Ireland though, can they?