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Rugby Union: Canada ripe for the picking

IT HAS been a rough few weeks for Canada's pipe and slippers brigade, writes Chris Hewett. Five straight defeats in the recent Pacific Rim Championship suggest that time has finally overtaken the most arthritic of this year's World Cup outfits. The team named to face Wales at the Millennium Stadium today is, collectively, 438 years old, suggesting that Gareth Rees and company are leaving the era of the spin pass for the era of the bus pass.

The portents are not good for this afternoon's rumble with the Red Dragons. Wales may be no spring chickens themselves - Allan Bateman is attempting to forge a new career on the left wing at 34, Shane Howarth is 31 and Jon Humphreys has just crested 30 - but under the inspired stewardship of Graham Henry, their performances are more in tune with the Manic Street Preachers than the Treorchy Male Voice Choir.

Six years ago, the Canadians accelerated what was already a precipitous Welsh decline by winning 26-24 at the old Arms Park; indeed, Rees kicked the winning conversion with the clock ticking down. But those Canucks were still basking in the glory of their tremendous tussle with New Zealand in the quarter-finals of the 1991 World Cup, and were operating at a pitch comfortably beyond anything they can be expected to reach on this occasion.

Sadly, their latest forays into the international arena have been miserably inept. Confidently expected to take the Pac-Rim title, they lost all three home matches. On the face of it, a 40-point shellacking from Fiji was the low point, but most proud Canadians single out the single-point defeat by the United States as the nadir.

They are not entirely without class. Dave Lougheed, the Leicester wing, will involve himself in proceedings in his unfamiliar position of outside centre, and if the Welsh back row make the mistake of putting their feet up for 10 minutes, Dan Baugh will make them suffer. But Wales have won six on the trot - France, England and South Africa are among the more recent scalps - and it will be a real slap in the face for a rejuvenated rugby nation if they fail to maintain their World Cup momentum.

"I played in the centre when Canada beat us in '93; we didn't really compete against them and they scored two tries to none," recalled Neil Jenkins, the unerring Welsh goal-kicker, yesterday. "They'll be physical this time, too, but we have a game plan now and if we knuckle down in the scrums and line-outs and stick to our guns, we'll achieve our objective." Comfortably, in all likelihood.

WALES: S Howarth (Newport); N Walne (Cardiff), L Davies (Cardiff), S Gibbs (Swansea), A Bateman (Northampton); N Jenkins (Cardiff), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); P Rogers (Newport), J Humphreys (Cardiff), B Evans (Swansea), C Quinnell (Cardiff), A Moore (Swansea), G Lewis (Pontypridd), M Williams (Cardiff), S Quinnell (Llanelli). Replacements: N Boobyer (Llanelli), S Jones (Llanelli), D Llewellyn (Newport), C Wyatt (Llanelli), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), D Young (Cardiff), A Lewis (Cardiff).

CANADA: S Stewart (Bedford); W Stanley (James Bay), D Lougheed (Leicester), S Bryan (Balmy Beach), C Smith (Meraloma); G Rees (Bedford, capt), M Williams (Pacific Pride); R Snow (Newport), M Cardinal (James Bay), R Bice (Vancouver Rowing), J Tait (Cardiff), M James (Perpignan), J Hutchinson (Suntory, Japan), D Baugh (Canada), A Charron (Bristol). Replacements: B Ross (James Bay), J Loveday (Calgary Irish), J Thiel (James Bay), D Burleigh (Toronto Irish), B McCarthy (Calgary Irish), M Schmid (Rotherham), R Banks (Bedford).

Referee: David McHugh (Ireland).