Canada put honour on the line at Twickenham

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The Independent Online

There are no Saul Bellows among the Canadian squad - and no Joni Mitchells either, which is probably just as well - but the tourists, coached by an ice hockey fanatic, Ric Suggitt, and captained by an itinerant loose-head prop by the name of Kevin Tkachuk are still rather good with words.

"England have honoured us by picking a full-strength side," pronounced Tkachuk in respect of tomorrow's Test match at Twickenham, "so we must repay that honour by giving them a game. I could whine all day about our problems as a rugby nation, but we are just as proud as we ever were."

Spoken like a true rugby gentleman. And if Tkachuk's tree-trunk arms, honed during his days in semi-professional gridiron and top-class wrestling, are anything to go by, he is the kind of guy who means what he says. But the captain, of all players in a tour party, must recognise the realities of life, and as Tkachuk is nobody's fool - an Oxford Blue, he played in three Varsity showpieces while gaining a Master's degree in history - it is fatuous to believe that he holds out the slightest hope of victory.

"The gaps between the fully professional major unions and the rest have grown, though I hate to admit it," he acknowledged this week as the Canadians, licking the wounds suffered during a 50-point thumping in Italy last Saturday, congregated at their Heathrow Airport hotel - hardly the quietest place on God's earth, but handy for a quick getaway should things go seriously wrong at Twickers. "Everyone can see there has been a shift in balance towards the big teams. But hey, let's not dwell on it. Let's see this for the opportunity it is and embrace the experience."

Tkachuk can look after himself. A full-time professional with Glasgow and a valued member of the Scottish team's Heineken Cup squad, he knows what it is like to mix it with the Wallabies and the All Blacks, the French and the Argentinians. But he also happens to be one of the very few recognisable members of this current Canadian vintage.

When the Canucks asked serious questions of England in 1992 and 1999, they had some exceptional players: Scott Stewart and Gareth Rees, Norm Hadley and Gord MacKinnon, Rod Snow, Dan Baugh and Al Charron. Here, against the world champions, they have not even attempted to summon their most experienced performers.

Suggit, a salaried coach from Edmonton with a ready smile and a philosophical air, decided against calling up Mike James from Stade Français, Morgan Williams from Saracens and the ever-durable Snow from the Newport-Gwent Dragons on the grounds that repeated requests might antagonise the clubs just enough for them to play hardball when it comes to the really important matches, such as World Cup qualifiers. So he has settled for a squad of mid-20somethings, many of them students.

This may backfire in more ways than one. The Canadians could take a terrible thumping tomorrow, yet see one or two of their more talented youngsters - the strikingly athletic 22-year-old loose forward Stan McKeen, for instance - attract some heavy interest from British concerns. That would exacerbate Suggit's primary problem, which he described in typically eloquent terms.

"Our biggest concern is one of geographics, and it's not easy to change geography," he said. "Our home-based players travel vast distances to be a part of this squad, and if more and more players end up playing abroad, those distances will only be greater. Argentina know all about this problem. Italy, on the other hand, are in the right place to be a part of the Six Nations' Championship, with all the advantages that brings to their rugby. We would love that sort of exposure. England have done a great job in encouraging North American rugby by committing to the annual Churchill Cup tournament, but we need more. If we can get a round of the World 7s in Canada, maybe we'll start building a supporter base and then catch up in 15-a-side. We're open to ideas."

As things stand, Canada's home-based players get a smidgen of help from a nationally-financed athletes' assistance programme. "The money ranges from Can$900 to Can$1500 a month," said the reserve hooker, Mark Lawson.

"If you're a student in a bedsit, that's good pay; if you've left college and you're trying to build a life for yourself, it's not a lot."

Under the circumstances, it seems almost cruel that a team sponsor has offered a Can$100,000 hand-out in return for an unlikely victory tomorrow. "I'm not sure how to take it," admitted the irrigation specialist from North Vancouver with a shake of the head.

"Do we see it as a compliment, or not?"

CANADA (International v England, Twickenham, tomorrow): D Daypuck; D Moonlight, R Smith, M Di Girolamo, S Richmond; E Fairhurst, P Fleck; K Tkachuk, A Abrams, F Gainer, J Jackson, M Burak, J Cudmore, S McKeen, C Yukes. Replacements: M Lawson, G Cooke, D Pletch, C Strubin, D Spicer, J Cannon, S O'Leary.