Tuesday, June 17, 2014

International Rugby: Q & A with Patrick Johnston

Canada was breathtakingly close to completing a famous win over Scotland on Saturday. Canada gave the Scots a run for their money in a contest won 19-17 by the Europeans. The signs are there to suggest that Canada may well be more competitive at Rugby World Cup 2015 than has been the case in recent tournaments. Canada will face France, Ireland, Italy and Romania and be looking for no fewer than two victories. Argentina 2023 caught up with Patrick Johnston to get his views on the current state of the Canadian test team and what the future may hold.   

Having held a strong half time advantage Canada failed to score in the second half against Japan who finished with a 34-25 victory.  What went wrong?

All about defensive focus. All three tries came from simple back line moves, the Canadian defenders (chiefly Jones, Blevins and Ardron) simply missed their assignments, offering the Japanese runners gaps to run into. Both players and coach spoke about ‘little errors’ they could fix vs Scotland; for the most part, they did that.

The Canadians regathered and pushed Scotland to the limit - in a 19-17 loss. Did the better team win?

No. Canada were better, though not as dominant as perhaps some said. Scotland were truly woeful in attack, but had plenty of moments where they should have broken the game wide open but instead a misplaced pass or another error killed their attack. Like against Japan, Canada struggled again to make try-scoring use of their possession inside the opponent’s 22. In the first half, they scored just one try when they should have had two or three more. The good news: the opportunities are there.

Some would say the red card was a bad call. Did it factor in to Scotland closing out the win?

My reaction at the time was the officials over reacted. Sinclair squared up for contact, and Jackson made a horrific attempt at a tackle, putting his noggin in harm’s way. If he had his head on the left instead of squarely in Sinclair’s midsection- is that even a penalty? I think we know the answer, and that’s a problem.

It absolutely factored in the win, as it reversed a penalty that James Pritchard was stepping up to take. Had he made it, Canada would have been in the lead with just a few minutes left. Even so, as Tyler Ardron pointed out after the game, it should not have come down to a red card for Canada to win. Pritchard’s only miss from the tee was one of his easiest attempts on the day. There was all that unexploited possession, especially in the first half. There were several lazy penalties which lead to very easy penalty kicks for Scottish kickers Greig Laidlaw and Stuart Hogg. 

The fixture was Canada's second and last home fixture for the year. Surely Canada should be hosting more test rugby the year before the World Cup?

I am surprised at the lightness of the summer schedule this year. It’s a shame that the PNC wasn’t run as the fuller round robin we saw a year ago. At the same time, from a player welfare standpoint, you don’t want to tax them too much. This is a mostly professional squad and these players have played a lot of rugby this year. You’d rather they get some rest now, and save themselves for the coming build up.

There’s another November tour to the UK, too.

A good crowd of 18,788 attended the match in Toronto. A decade ago this was not possible. What would you attribute the increased interest to?

That’s a very good question. Partly it’s simply having a venue. There’s not been a grass surfaced stadium with 10,000 plus capacity in Canada, other than Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, in decades. Much of that is down to the challenges of being a winter country. But Toronto FC’s decision to go to a grass surface at BMO meant Rugby Canada could move in. Now, there are rumblings that BC Place in Vancouver will get a new artificial surface ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year, one that rugby could use. RC is so confident of this happening that they are assembling a serious bid to add an IRB Sevens stop. There are very strong indications Vancouver is a leading contender to win. 

Toronto is one of North America’s biggest cities; it’s cosmopolitan and it’s sports obsessed. Credit Rugby Ontario for the work they’ve done in the last decade to build up grassroots rugby in Ontario. Where once the strength of the game lay in B.C., it’s hard to say that’s still the case. Ontario has masses of players and has built a solid level of interest in the game. Plus, Toronto has been branded as ‘home town for Team Canada’ by Soccer Canada, it’s hard to think RC isn’t borrowing from some of that momentum.

Do you feel that Canada could replicate USA rugby and host the All Blacks in Toronto or Vancouver in 2016 or 2017 and what is your view on the possibility?

They certainly could, but given that AIG money is driving the Chicago matchup, it’s hard to see it happening. Canada is a funny place. We’re massively international. We love sports. We’ve got a strong sense of our ability in the world. But we’re not exactly a major financial centre on the global stage. Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, Singapore are all places with significance when it comes to the business angle of sport. Both Canadian cities have cachet, but from a TV/Advertising/Marketing growth angle, we’re not the USA and it’s as simple as that.

This time four years ago Canada’s professional players at the elite level was limited to Cudmore and van der Merwe. Both remain at the same clubs while many others are also now playing in elite leagues – Ardron, Buydens, Hassler, MacKenzie, Marshall and Sinclair. Is this the way forward to edge closer towards Tier 1 nations?

Kieran Crowley would argue that, yes, this is a way into Tier 1. But he’ll also point out that this is only a beginning. Canada will remain hamstrung by a lack of domestic professional profile. The Canadian Rugby Championship seems to have found the right cord in scale and ability to attract Canada’s elite players. But there’s still no money in it, nor is there any reason to think that money is even nearing the horizon.

Canada produces excellent rugby players. The development of the Sevens team shows how much skill we can assemble, if these athletes are given the kind of training time that professional rugby demands. If Conor Trainor or John Moonlight were NZ-eligible, it’s hard to see them not being Super Rugby players and that’s just the tip of the ice berg.

Making Tier 1 isn’t a pipe dream, but it’s a long way down the yellow brick road.

Sevens captain John Moonlight has arguably been the best forward Canadian forward so far this month. Which other Canadian based players have a bright future?

John Moonlight is possibly Canada’s best player, not just forward. 

Harry Jones has taken a big step forward. He seems settled as a fly half – he’d been tried as a centre before – and has a real rhythm with his back line. He’s still just 24 and looks to rounding nicely into his prime.

Scrum half Phil Mack has had his career-best season. At 28, he’s thriving in his prime and if he wants to keep at it, has plenty of rugby left.

Both wingers – Jeff Hassler and Taylor Paris – have had strong seasons and excellent moments in the first two tests of the year. Big futures beckon for those two.

The other guy to watch is young prop Jake Ilnicki. The guy just loves the game, has spent a couple seasons playing Auckland club rugby but is the kind of player who could find himself playing ITM Cup rugby. He’s becoming a favourite of Crowley and is scrummaging well, despite his youth.
Looking ahead to the 2015 World Cup Canada has a tough task – Ireland, Italy, France and finally Romania. France, Italy and Ireland all have five more days than Canada. What is the reaction to this from a Canadian rugby perspective?

Shoulder-shrug? It’s not great that Canada loses out on the schedule, but we’re used to not being taken seriously. It is what it is. Canada will be focused on the must-win game with Romania, plus are targeting Italy. Given their work against Scotland, there’s good reason to think that it could happen.
Canada is to play in Pool D’s opening fixture v Ireland but will do so outside of England. Like 2007 Canada will be back in Cardiff despite England having no shortage of stadiums. Should Canada v Ireland be played there instead of in England?

I’ve always thought it was funny how rugby likes to play pretend with its hosting nations. I attended the ’99 RWC, held in ‘Wales’. Of course, Canada spent their entire campaign in the south of France. It was a lovely place to visit but the World Cup did feel like a bit of a side point to daily life. 

Putting this game in Cardiff, away from the main hosting grounds, is pretty disappointing. Outstanding venue, though.

Would you support a bid from Argentina to host Rugby World Cup 2023?

How much wine is in it for me?

Of course I’d support such a bid, it would be a great place to host the RWC. 

Patrick Johnston is a rugby writer and digital editor for The Province. He can be followed on twitter @risingaction 

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