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More than games are on the line when Canada faces Uruguay in World Cup qualifier

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Taylor Paris
Canada's Taylor Paris prepares for Saturday's first leg of the Rugby World Cup qualifier series against Uruguay. (Rugby Canada photo)

The stakes are high on and off the field Saturday as Canada takes on Uruguay in the opening leg of a crucial Rugby World Cup qualifier.

Failure to make the sport’s showcase tournament means less money from the governing body of world rugby. According to Rugby Canada’s 2015 annual report, World Rugby provided $3.7 million of its $16.1 million revenue — the largest contributor, with Sport Canada second at some $3 million.

“This isn’t just an important match on the field for moving up in the rankings, it’s an important match for the organization as whole,” said Rugby Canada board chairman Tim Powers.

“We don’t want to put too much pressure on the players but I think anybody in the sphere of Rugby Canada and the Canadian rugby community knows it’s not just what’s at stake on the field this week but in some ways it’s operations of the organization, depending on how we do.

“Because the funding structure still in most major rugby nations is geared towards how the men’s 15s team performs. That may be a bit antiquated but that’s a battle for another day.”

Powers said Rugby Canada’s current budget is in the range of $17 million to $20 million with some 13 to 15 percent coming from World Rugby.

The 21st-ranked Canadian men have never missed a World Cup, qualifying on the first try in each of the previous eight tournaments. But they stumbled at the first obstacle this time out, losing 80-44 last summer to the 17th-ranked United States in a two-game total-points series.

In the first leg, Canada squandered a first-half lead but reeled off 10 late points to tie the U.S. 28-28 in Hamilton. The rematch in San Diego was all U.S.A. as the physical Eagles won by a convincing 52-16 margin.

That set up the second-chance series with No. 18 Uruguay. Game 1 goes Saturday at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver while Game 2 is Feb. 3 in Montevideo.

The winner slots into Group D at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, alongside No. 4 Australia, No. 7 Wales, No. 10 Fiji and No. 12 Georgia.

The loser has one final shot to make the field via a four-team repechage round-robin tournament later this year.

“Nobody at Rugby Canada wants to go to that repechage route,” said Powers. “That’s not to say we don’t have tremendous respect for Uruguay but we’re putting everything we can into making sure we win now.”

Powers said Rugby Canada chose BC Place over its home base in Langford, B.C., is to take advantage of a “more predictable weather environment” — read roof — that will allow its top pros to flourish.

“For us it’s crucial that we win now, although we will deal with the circumstances if we don’t.”

To that end, Rugby Canada took the team to London to scrimmage with Harlequins and Oxford ahead of the Uruguay series.

“All of that has been part and parcel of the investment made to give our team the best shot and we know our players are fully into this,” said Powers.

Winning now means the team can start planning for the World Cup. It would also mean an immediate injection of $448,000 in World Cup preparation money from World Rugby.

It’s money that will be lost if Canada fails to qualify. And the World Rugby cheque will be cut further as the world governing body reviews other funding formula.

The drop in funding caused by a World Cup miss would be significant, said Powers — “potentially, depending on how you calculate it, in the millions of dollars.” Canada’s loss would be another team’s gain as World Rugby shuffles its budget to reward the team that qualifies at its expense.

“They have won a lot of games recently and we know they’re going to be ready for the challenge of this two-game series,” Canada coach Kingsley Jones said about Uruguay. “We know we have to match them physically and, more importantly, play as a team. We have some quality on the field but they will only be able to show their class if we play as a team. It’s a unique and exciting challenge, we have to deliver full-80 minute performances over two legs in order to qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but we’re confident we can get the job done.”

While Canada has been able to assemble all its healthy overseas pros, it will still be without the injured Matt Evans, Conor Trainor, Kyle Baillie, Shane O’Leary, Andrew Coe and Ciaran Hearn on the weekend.

Organizers said 13,000 tickets had been sold as of Thursday with the hope that number will rise to 15,000 game day.

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