It’s been a long and at times rocky road for Canada to qualify for Rugby World Cup 2019, but coach Kingsley Jones wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Having lost a home-and-away series to Uruguay for the Americas 2 play-off earlier in the year, Canada’s hopes of maintaining their ever-present Rugby World Cup record rested on them winning the repechage tournament in November.
And they came through under the most intense pressure imaginable, defeating Kenya, Germany and Hong Kong to complete the line-up at Japan 2019.
For Jones, who succeeded Mark Anscombe – father of Wales’ New Zealand-born fly-half Gareth – in September 2017, it has been an exhausting but memorable journey.
“It’s been a crazy 12 months, I think I’ve done 50,000 air miles,” said the man who coached Russia at RWC 2011.
“Obviously I’d have taken a win over Uruguay because, as a coach, you want to win every game, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“Anyway, I’d already told myself when I took this job that the best pathway for us, to be competitive at the World Cup, is through the repechage because it would give us a chance to play three games together as a group of core players which probably won’t happen again until July.
“It also gave us a chance to win something together and build as a team. I am hoping that it will stand us in good stead going forward.
“There is certainly a good feeling around here at the moment. We beat Tonga (in the final game of the World Rugby Americas Pacific Challenge) and then won two warm-up games before winning all three tests at the repechage.
“The habit of winning is starting to come, and the understanding of a winning strategy.
“Now we go to Uruguay, Brazil and Chile (in the Americas Rugby Championship) with a chance to win six tests on the trot.”
Moulding together the handful of players who play overseas professionally with those based in amateur domestic rugby has always been a challenge for Canada.
But Jones seems to have hit upon the magic formula and is thankful for the supporting role that Rugby Canada and the provincial set-ups have played in that.
A funded carded programme enabled up to 18 players to train as full-time professionals at Rugby Canada’s National Training Centre in Langford, from 12-6, four days a week, alongside their existing jobs or student commitments.
“The biggest thing was building the team culture. We’ve got half-a-dozen guys who play at the top level and other guys in Canadian club rugby who watch them on TV and want their autograph etc.” Jones pointed out.
“To get them together as a team, talking to each other on the same level and with the same level of respect for each other is a challenge and I think the carded programme helped in that respect.
“Players coming in from other environments saw that the likes of Kyle Baillie and Matt Heaton were as fit as them, as strong as them and playing as well as them, and that means the world.
“Kyle and others like Djustice Sears-Duru left England to come back and commit to the programme and those guys contributed substantially to us qualifying.
“You need competition for places and to be able to pick people on form, not just because they have a professional contract.
“The carded programme was supported by Rugby Canada and all the provinces who upped their membership fees to make it happen, and thankfully it paid off.”
Welshman Jones believes if his players can handle the pressure on their shoulders in Marseille, nothing will faze them in the future.
“You can’t get away from the fact that a place at the World Cup is worth $10 million to Rugby Canada, so there was a lot hinging on it,” he admitted.
“I don’t think this group of players will feel as much pressure as they did in those three games.
“I thought the players were exceptional; they stepped up, the leaders particularly, when they needed to step up.”
While Jones believes the repechage was a beneficial experience for his team, he hopes qualification for RWC 2023 will be more straightforward.
Victory at the repechage has placed Canada in Pool B alongside defending champions New Zealand, two-time winners South Africa, Italy and Namibia.
A third-place finish would guarantee them automatic qualification for the tournament in France in 2023.
“Let’s be realistic about it, we’ve got a chance of winning two games. But we’ll have to play at our best and have a bit of luck and have everyone in form.
“As far as I am concerned, our next target is to qualify for 2023 and the best opportunity to do that is in September and October.”