Rugby Union: Canadians have the travel bug: Tim Glover reports on a transatlantic challenge for the men from the tundra

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ROSSLYN PARK, a club losing touch with the mainstream of English rugby, served a useful purpose on Tuesday night when they entertained Canada. It was designed to be a run-out for the Canadians before they meet England in a full international at Wembley on Saturday. After a 'game' of four quarters, in which the London club gave as good as they got, a Park official saw enough to make a considered judgement on Canada. 'They've got no chance.'

They certainly did not look like the Canada who made such a big impression in the last World Cup. In the last two years a country, once considered to be the tundra of international rugby, enjoyed an unprecedented run. They beat Argentina twice (once in the cock pit of Buenos Aires) and recorded their first success over a home country, beating Scotland 24-19 at Saint John in New Brunswick. As most of the Canadian players had further to travel than their opponents, they are tempted to consider this as an away victory.

Based in France for the World Cup 12 months ago, the Canadian Rugby Union excelled itself. The team beat Fiji at Bayonne, Romania at Toulouse and gave France a fright at Agen, going down 19-13. In the quarter-finals at Lille, Canada were given a standing ovation after losing to New Zealand 26-13. Their forwards gave the All Blacks hell.

Those performances persuaded England to extend a unique invitation to Canada: an all-expenses- paid trip for one match. As warm- up opposition before the visit of South Africa, Canada would fit the bill and the RFU, for its part, would foot the bill.

As guests, the Canadians, even if they have been denied the opportunity to play at Twickenham where a new East stand is going up, have a responsibility to give England a run for their money. Money, and the atlas, are Canada's great bugbears. They have too little of the former and cover too much of the latter.

A nation that spans a continent, Canada is the world's second largest country. Bigger than the United States, its population is about a tenth of America's. Halifax on the Atlantic is closer to Britain than to Vancouver on the Pacific. When the sun rises over Newfoundland it is still midnight in Yukon.

Travel, even within its own boundaries, can be prohibitive and there is little financial support for the Canadian RU from the government. In the current squad, there are only 11 survivors from the World Cup. Some players, even for only a one-week trip, cannot get time off work; some have retired, including the captain and full-back, Mark Wyatt, and others are injured. 'We are in another building stage,' Ian Birtwell, the coach, said. Birtwell, a fisheries scientist employed by the government, is a product of Manchester University. Keith Wilkinson, the manager, is a college instructor who played for Cambridge University and the RAF. Both emigrated to Canada in the early 1970s and are carrying on the work begun by British pioneers more than 100 years ago.

The Army and the Navy set the ball rolling and as early as 1863 there is a record of a match between McGill University and a British Army XV. In 1868 Montreal FC was formed and British Columbia in the west became, and still is, the bedrock of rugby in Canada.

Today Canada has 11,670 senior players and 18,225 under the age of 19. The inter-provincial championship, formerly for the Carling Bowl now the Labatt Trophy, has been played on 28 occasions. British Columbia has won it 24 times (the 24th was last weekend) and Ontario four which makes life easy for those selling rosettes. There was, however, a bit of a shock last year when Newfoundland reached the final. They were handsomely defeated so it was still 1991 BC

Rugby is not big in Canada. Norm Hadley is. A BC man, Hadley, 6ft 7in and 20 stone, is the new captain. An ice hockey star, he swapped the puck for a ruck. 'I grew too big to get drafted by a professional team,' he said. 'In retrospect, when I look at their salaries, I should have stayed with ice hockey.'

Instead he was sitting in the cold stand at Rosslyn Park. Norm's home club is the University of British Columbia Old Boys. 'On a good day we might get 100 people watching us,' he said, 'and that includes mothers and girlfriends.' A Rosslyn Park supporter, sitting in front, intercepted Big Norm's drift. 'That's about how many we get on a Saturday.'

The Canadian captain, a 27- year-old with a degree in business administration, played with Tokyo's Suntory club after the World Cup. No shortage of money there and at his height Big Norm would have been positively enormous in Japan. 'Some of our guys have to fight to get overseas,' he said. 'Employers are not generally sympathetic and we get the minimum backing from the government, a pittance. We can't get a corporate sponsor. There have been missed opportunities.'

Saturday offers another chance. 'The days when we played just for respect or to avoid an horrific defeat are gone,' Hadley said. 'We have tremendous heart.' At Roehampton they presented Rosslyn Park with Canadian smoked salmon and a plaque, on the cover of which was a killer whale. Not for one moment do they expect to become England's whitebait.

CANADA (v England, Wembley, Saturday): S Stewart; S Gray, M Williams, I Stuart (all British Colombia), D Lougheed (Ontario); G Rees, J Graf; D Jackart (all BC), K Svoboda (Ontario), E Evans, J Knauer, N Hadley (capt), I Gordon, C McKenzie, G MacKinnon (all BC).

Comments