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Kelly: Men’s rugby must get over being nice Canadian losers

Canada’s captain Tyler Ardron, top left, wins the ball in a line out during the Rugby World Cup Pool D match between Italy and Canada at Elland Road, Leeds, England on Sept. 26, 2015. Canadian forward Tyler Ardron is set to join Super Rugby’s Chiefs in New Zealand. (Alastair Grant/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Three months ago, Mark Anscombe, the New Zealander who recently took control of Canada’s senior men’s rugby union team, gave a depressing assessment of where the program stands.

Speaking to an audience at Rugby Canada’s annual general meeting, he notched off which of his charges were playing professional club rugby at what he called “a reasonable level.” He came up almost empty. On one 29-man squad, he judged that three men hit the bar. Many were coming into the team having not played at all in the weeks and even months previous.

“We keep bringing out the same old guy that we know is not good enough to play rugby at the high level, but because we have to make the numbers to get the squad together, we keep throwing out names that get found out time and time again,” Anscombe said. Although the words were not used, the message was clear: Good enough is no longer good enough. As such, Canadian men’s rugby at the international level is in the midst of an existential crisis.

This weekend, facing the United States with a berth in the 2019 Rugby World Cup at stake, it will either start tipping forward or begin toppling back.

The history of Canadian men’s rugby is one of workmanlike perseverance. That is the charm of the team – a group of part-timers, semi-pros and the odd star slugging it out with the very best.

Canada has been part of every Rugby World Cup since the tournament’s inception 30 years ago. They’ve lost three times as many matches as they’ve won. Canadian rugby doesn’t deliver many punches, but it knows how to take one. For most of our history, the country seemed happy if one team – the national hockey team – mattered. Every one else was free to travel around the world showing good spirit and losing with dignity. That was the Canadian way. It was both a shield from criticism and a hindrance to performance.

That’s changed. The women’s soccer team is ascendant. The women’s basketball team has entered the public consciousness. Based on the young talent in the NBA, the men’s basketball team will very soon. The women’s rugby sevens team won a medal in Rio.

It’s a bad time to be slipping, which is where the men’s rugby team finds itself.

Six years ago, they were ranked 12th in the world. Today, they are 23rd. They’ve won only one game this year. Many of the losses came to iffy competition.

After its most recent setback to Romania, Anscombe said: “We didn’t do anything we set out to do.” They aren’t in a great head space.

The Canadian team continues to be filled largely by players who do not play at the highest professional level. An exception is 26-year-old Tyler Ardron, who just signed to a team in New Zealand’s Super Rugby competition. Rugby Canada officials likened it to a kid from New Zealand making the NHL.

Ardron is a good example of the sort of player that could help Canadian rugby become a mainstream concern. Not because he’s good at the game, but because he has that easy charisma that marks most of the sport’s participants. The real allure of rugby is its brutality on the field contrasted with its gentleness off it.

Ardron is the exact type – a quiet, quick-witted man with a slight lisp and a lot of confidence. In Canada’s last game, he got punched in the face by a Romanian, then had a friendly chat with his attacker afterward.

“We just bumped into each other at the dinner table. He said he was sorry. I just laughed and said, ‘That was pretty dumb.’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’”

It’s like that after every game at every level – both teams get together for a tipple (although for pros, the post-match beers have largely given way to energy drinks and recovery shakes). Ardron’s advantage is that he’s doing it with the best players in the world.

“In Canada, you don’t think of rugby as a professional sport. It’s something people do on the weekend for fun,” he said. “The main thing for Canadians is just playing rugby every day and making it your full-time job.”

Those jobs are hard to come by. Ardron is only the third Canadian to plant our flag in New Zealand – and only managed it because he’d already spent three years as a standout pro in Wales. In order to make the move, he had to pass up more lucrative offers in Europe.

A few others are scattered throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland and France, but most still play here. The bulk of them work out of a practice facility near Victoria.

The national women’s soccer team tried a variation of this approach heading into the 2015 World Cup. Then, coach Carolina Morace persuaded her players to abandon their pro teams and move en masse to an Italian resort for months of group training. They came dead last in that tournament.

Of course, there are many chickens and many eggs involved here, and it’s hard to say which should come first. You can’t get a pro team until you have exposure. You don’t get exposure when you’re playing pretend games in British Columbia. And you certainly don’t get it if your national side is slipping into the world’s also-rans. For many Canadian players, their only opportunity to make a deep impression on the international rugby community is at a World Cup.

Some have taken drastic measures to make that happen.

Dan Moor, a 26-year-old wing, was until recently an associate at a Bay Street private-equity firm, working 70-hour weeks. He would shoehorn two hours of training in before he went to work. He quit that job to train full-time in B.C. with the senior team on a carding salary, with a small bonus per game played.

How much money did you give back to make that change?

“A lot,” Moor said ruefully. “Like, multiples.”

This week, the national team did a publicity junket at the TSX. With his connections to finance, Moor was pencilled in to ring the opening bell. However, at the last minute, he was told he wouldn’t be going because it was too much of a time commitment.

Moor stood there looking perplexed. It only gradually dawned on him that the only reason he was being held back was because he was about to be named to the team for Saturday’s game.

Moor didn’t look happy, exactly. More stunned. It’s a rare treat to see someone’s life-altering gamble pay off in real time.

It won’t mean much if the Canadian men fail in their World Cup qualifying adventure. They play the U.S. – another middling international side – in Hamilton on the weekend. They’ll play again in San Diego in a week’s time. The winner, determined by aggregate points, qualifies for Japan 2019.

The loser enters a two-game playoff against Uruguay, with a second and final entry at stake. Paradoxically, the latter route leads into a slightly easier World Cup group. Not that it matters much on paper. For Canada, every group is a group of death. The only worthwhile goal at this point is getting there. Once that happens, who knows what’s possible?

“The times most of us got over to professional rugby were the times Canada was climbing the ranks,” Ardron said. “Now that our ranking has gone down, we’re not getting as many signings for professional rugby.”

Can you believe Canada is 23rd now?

“No, I can’t,” Ardron said, suddenly very serious. “It hurts.”

However this turns out, in the years before Japan, there will be more of the usual handwringing about funding, grass-roots development and long-term planning that dominates the conversation around every sport in Canada that is not hockey.

But Ardron has identified the only issue that matters. The way out of the problem – at least temporarily – is moving up and recreating the virtuous circle of a good national team with good prospects playing at high-profile tournaments being noticed by good club teams elsewhere.

If that momentum stalls, the real trouble begins.