VANCOUVER — By putting an emphasis on the basics, Rugby Canada head coach Kingsley Jones believes he has laid a foundation for success as the national team heads into one of its most important matches in recent history.
Canada plays Uruguay on Saturday at BC Place Stadium in the first game of a two-leg World Cup qualifier. The winner of the total-point series advances to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
“Confidence is the biggest thing,” Jones said after a practice this week at the University of British Columbia. “I’m seeing confidence in the group.
“I’m a big believer in empowering the players, giving them some ownership, and also making sure they are confident. To win … it’s important to see ourselves winning and we have a good chance of doing that.”
Jones took over the national team in late October when Mark Anscombe was fired after Canada lost 80-44 on aggregate to the United States in their first attempt at World Cup qualifying. That series included an embarrassing 52-16 loss in July.
Jones had little time to prepare for a Nov. 3 game against the New Zealand Maori All Blacks that Canada lost 51-9. Canada played three more games in November under Jones, sandwiching a 37-27 win over Spain between a 54-22 loss to Georgia and a 57-17 defeat at the hands of Fiji.
Heading into the crucial series against Uruguay, Jones and his players believe the coach has finally been able to put his fingerprints on the team.
“I think we are starting to see evidence of that in the practice sessions,” said Jones, a former Welsh international flanker.
“We need to play with pace. The first thing we worked on … was ball retention. We can’t talk about pace, we can’t talk about our back three, if we can’t manufacture opportunities for them.”
Jones oversaw a long training camp that included spending a week in the United Kingdom training with English side London Harlequins.
Veteran flying winger DTH van der Merwe said Jones has preached honing the same basic skills that young players are taught.
“We concentrate on simple stuff,” said van der Merwe, whose 28 tries is the most by a Canadian player. “Catch and pass, rolling in the tackle, placement of the ball. Those are just simple things a lot of people forget about when they get to the higher leagues.”
Captain Phil Mack said any team that strays from the basics enters dangerous territory.
“As soon as you get tired and the pressure comes on, mostly the first thing to go are the basics,” he said. “He (Jones) explained to us that at the end of the day the teams that win at this level are the ones that do the really little things really well.
“We have put a lot of focus on that. I can see it benefitting. I feel pretty comfortable where we are at.”
Jones has also assembled one of the most talented teams in recent history. Not only are players returning from professional clubs across the globe, he also has dipped into the Rugby Sevens ranks.
“We’ve had the luxury of having access to a lot of our professionals,” said Mack. “Those guys bring so much experience and confidence into the group.
“If we do all the little things we want to do well we should be OK.”
Canada is currently ranked 21st in the world while Uruguay is 18th.
The second leg of the series will be played Feb. 3 in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Canada lost 17-13 the last time the teams met but has an 8-2 record against Uruguay in 10 games dating back to 1995.
If Canada losses the series against Uruguay the team has one more chance to qualify for the World Cup through a repechage series.
Canada has never failed to qualify for a World Cup since entering the international stage in 1932. Failing to do so now would not only hurt the program’s prestige but also have an impact on funding and sponsorships.
Van der Merwe said this team doesn’t want to be remembered for the wrong reasons.
“It’s probably one of the most important two games that I have been involved with with this team,” he said.
“We’ve never not got to the World Cup, so we certainly don’t want to be part of the team that doesn’t get there.”
Jeff Hassler returns for Canada
Canada will be boosted by the return of dangerous winger Jeff Hassler when it takes on Uruguay.
The Ospreys winger missed Canada’s qualifying loss to the U.S. last summer because of an Achilles problem and battled a knee injury before that. Restored to health, he’s part of a Canadian backline that also features captain Mack, Connor Braid, van der Merwe and Taylor Paris.
It marks Hassler’s first appearance for Canada since the 2015 World Cup.
But Canada’s depth in the backs is tested by injuries to Matt Evans, Conor Trainor, Shane O’Leary, Andrew Coe and Ciaran Hearn.
Still Hassler, fellow winger van der Merwe and Paris, shifting to fullback from his normal win position, give Canada a world-class back three.
Forward Kyle Baillie is also unavailable due to injury although he and O’Leary may be available for the second leg Feb. 3 in Montevideo.
Jones’ starting 15 features five changes from the squad that started the opening game against the U.S. at Tim Hortons Field. Hubert Buydens and Josh Larsen draw in the pack while Hassler, Nick Blevins and Ben Lesage come into the backline.
Mack, in his 45th test match, will partner fly half Braid, who is back from the sevens squad.
The Canada-Uruguay series 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.
“We know their threats and if we have discipline and don’t give more than five penalties away, we don’t see ourselves struggling for possession,” Jones said in a statement.
“Controlling the possession and improving the transitions between defence and attack will be key for us,” he added.
Saturday’s game doubles as the first fixture of the 2018 Americas Rugby Championship.
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