TEN WEEKS ago in Markham, a one-horse sporting town in the general vicinity of Niagara Falls, the waters closed in on Canadian rugby. The Canucks are as tough as old boots and can cope with pretty much anything - swamp battles with the All Blacks and bare-knuckle fights with the Springboks leave no discernible mark on some of the grittiest Test players in the world game - but their narrow Epson Cup defeat by the United States left them in pieces. Indeed, they have only just emerged from hiding.
On the face of it, then, this evening's visit to Twickenham is an almighty waste of time. By putting a three-figure total on the US Eagles in last weekend's World Cup warm-up, England made the kind of mocking statement about American rugby that Kitty Muggeridge once aimed at David Frost by commenting: "He has risen without trace." If the Yanks leaked 106 points at 1.32 points a minute, heaven help their recently defeated neighbours.
Except that the calamity in Markham said far more about Canada than about the United States. It underlined the fact that Gareth Rees and company play up - or in this case, play down - to the level of rugby required of them. Put them against another "emerging" nation, as the younger members of the union family are so patronisingly described, and they as often as not disappear into their own nether regions. Put them against a class act and they raise themselves to another altitude altogether.
"We won't lie down like the USA did last Saturday," promised Rees, the 32-year-old Canada captain who is fast closing in on his fourth World Cup out of four. "If you defend like them, you're going to find trouble. They stopped playing for each other, but that will not be a problem for my team. We'll make our first-up tackles count and we certainly aim to cause problems for the English defence by keeping the ball and making their back three turn. We'll enter the contest full of determination to play above ourselves, to play with defiance and create history."
All of which will have come as heavenly music to the ears of England's coach, Clive Woodward, and captain, Martin Johnson, who made all the right diplomatic noises in the aftermath of the USA circus but were clearly unfulfilled by the experience. Having watched the footage of last weekend's Wales-Canada Test in Cardiff, in which the visitors gave Graham Henry's men a hurry-up of significant proportions, both coach and captain are fully aware that tonight's little skirmish will draw blood, certainly in literal terms and, most likely, in figurative terms too.
The difference between Canada and the USA is one of ambition. While Jack Clark, the American coach, freely admits that his side will be on the flight home at the end of the World Cup pool stage in mid-October, Rees and his colleagues are planning on staying a whole lot longer. They earned themselves a place in the quarter-final limelight in 1991, and while the 1995 draw was cruel in the extreme, pitching them in with South Africa and Australia, they fired some meaningful right hooks at both. This time, they will back themselves to beat both Fiji and Namibia and win, at the very least, a last-eight play-off appearance.
"We've prepared for this as we would a World Cup fixture," said Woodward yesterday. "We're saying to ourselves: `Imagine if we all had to go home on Monday after losing this Test.' Because that is what will happen if we're knocked out of the competition in October. We have to picture a situation - and then try to avoid it - of losing a big game, being eliminated and then having to go our separate ways. There is no point thinking in terms of watching the video on the Monday morning to see how things can be improved. If we're knocked out, there won't be a video."
The Canadians go in with a revamped front row, although the unforgiving Rod Snow is still there to test England's enthusiastic and ambitious trio. They have a handy scrum-half in Morgan Williams, a no-nonsense midfield presence in Dave Lougheed and some real rough-and-tumble merchants in the back row. Plus, of course, their foursquare captain, who misses kicks about as often as he misses meals. That is to say, very rarely indeed.
ENGLAND v CANADA
M Perry Bath 15 S Stewart Bedford
D Luger Saracens 14 W Stanley James Bay
W Greenwood Leicester 13 D Lougheed Leicester
J Guscott Bath 12 S Bryan Balmy Beach
A Healey Leicester 11 C Smith Meraloma
J Wilkinson Newcastle 10 G Rees Bedford, capt
M Dawson Northampton 9 M Williams Pacific Pride
G Rowntree Leicester 1 R Snow Newport
P Greening Sale 2 P Dunkley James Bay
P Vickery Gloucester 3 J Thiel James Bay
M Johnson Leicester, capt 4 J Tait Cardiff
D Grewcock Saracens 5 M James Perpignan
R Hill Saracens 6 R Banks Bedford
L Dallaglio Wasps 8 A Charron Bristol
N Back Leicester 7 D Baugh Cardiff
Referee: J Dume (France). Kick-off: 7.0 (Sky Sports 2)
Replacements: 16 N Beal (Northampton); 17 T Stimpson (Leicester); 18 M Catt (Bath); 19 M Corry (Leicester); 20 J Leonard (Harlequins); 21 D Garforth (Leicester); 22 R Cockerill (Leicester).
Replacements: 16 R Ross (James Bay), 17 J Graf (UBC Old Boys), 18 J Hutchinson (Suntory), 19 M Schmid (Rotherham), 20 D Penny (Henley), 21 D Major (Burnside New Zealand), 22 M Cardinal James Bay).
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