Email Canadians emerge as underdogs' underdog

Dave Hadfield looks at a side who only met a week before taking on the world
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Those who think that they have seen some of rugby league's minnows, teams who have had to struggle just to get on the pitch in the main World Cup tournament, have not yet met Canada.

Those who think that they have seen some of rugby league's minnows, teams who have had to struggle just to get on the pitch in the main World Cup tournament, have not yet met Canada.

Mind you, until this weekend some of Canada's players had not met each other. The side, who facethe USA in the opening game of the Emerging Nations' World Championship in Oxford tomorrow, assembled and trained together for the first time yesterday.

"We call them the team of the future, and this must be the first rugby league team to have got to know each other through email and the internet," says Stuart Stanton, a Welshman from Halifax who has been Canada's self-appointed link with Europe since last year's Independent Student Rugby World Cup. The Ontario-based nucleus of that team is back, but there is also a contingent from Vancouver, a Kenyan from Winnipeg and two Widnes players who qualify through grand-parents, Jason Demitriou and Phil Coussons.

These disparate groups met each other and their coach for the first time yesterday. The involvement of the former Wigan coach and New Zealand Test captain Graeme West is the result of an approach from Stanton, whose other activities on their behalf included planning a fund-raising bike ride from Victoria (as in British Colombia) to Halifax (as in Nova Scotia).

"That would have been 3,500 miles, so I did it from Victoria, a village near Ebbw Vale, to Halifax in West Yorkshire, which was only 226," says Stanton, who will also be using his training as a Shiatsu masseur in the Canadian cause.

They will, even this staunchest of allies admits, need all the help they can get. International rugby league is like a food chain; the USA might be the prey when they are beaten 110-0 by England, but they were the predators when they put 62 points past their northern neighbours last year.

The imbalance could be similar tomorrow. "They have full-time professionals. If you'd just started playing rugby league and you saw Vila Matautia or Julian O'Neill coming towards you, your first instinct would be to dig a hole and die," says Stanton, whose realistic assessment is that it is against Italy in their next match that his adopted Canadians have a real chance.

With the 1995 finalists, the Cook Islands and Ireland, now graduated to the World Cup proper, sides like Japan and Morocco, who are in the other pool with the British amateurs of Barla, will also believe they have the opportunity to make a small mark for themselves.

"At least all the other sides have been able to train together," says Stanton, who has also been raising funds for the Canadians by marketingT-shirts. "I've never been to Canada and I've got no Canadian connections. I just latched on to them because I liked their approach."

A health club in Rochdale has offered them its facilities for the duration of their stay, even if that stay is unlikely to bring them much tangible success. "The rule is that the teams can only have five professionals in their squad and three in the 17 for a particular game, so that will balance things up a little bit," says Stanton hopefully.

However, given their unorthodox preparation, with faxes across the prairie taking the place of squad sessions, he admits that they could be in for a tough time. "But we call this the group of the future and it can set things up for the long term," he says. "We've been in touch with the Canadian High Commission, and the deputy high commissioner is coming to the match in Oxford. I don't think any other team can match that, and it's so important that they get official recognition."

Canada already runs to an eight-club competition in Ontario, where the sides are spin-offs from rugby union clubs, an annual sevens and a North Ontario v South Ontario fixture.

It is a huge step up from that to even an Emerging Nations' World Championship, and they are unlikely to get anywhere near the final at Rochdale on 20 November. But, if you are looking for the underdogs' underdog, Stuart Stanton will tell you that his Canadians are well worth supporting.