For Canada, the journey to the Rugby World Cup this time around has been longer and bumpier than ever before.
It has taken them nearly 18 months longer than they would have hoped to get to Japan, Americas play-off defeats to USA and then Uruguay sending them into the repechage and a four-way struggle to claim the 20th and final place at the game’s flagship event.
However, the Canucks held their nerve in Marseille to win games against Kenya, Germany and Hong Kong and secure their place in Pool B alongside New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia.
A Rugby World Cup without Canada would have been unique as well as unthinkable to those clad in red and white. The Canucks have been ever-presents since the inaugural tournament in 1987 and have made their presence felt from the very start.
In their very first Rugby World Cup match, they scored six tries to beat Tonga 37-4 in Napier. Although Canada eventually lost their next pool matches to Ireland (46-19) and Wales (40-9), there were many positives to be taken from their first campaign, not least the emergence of fly-half Gareth Rees, who until a few years ago was Canada’s all-time leading scorer with 491 test points, 120 of them on the RWC stage.
Building on the promise shown at the first tournament, Canada – alongside Western Samoa – upset the established order by reaching the quarter-finals in 1991. In a period when sides with big, strong packs and a good kicker at No.10 seemingly held sway – England’s Grand Slam success earlier that year was certainly achieved in such a manner – Canada’s physicality up front and Rees’ reliability with the boot were always going to make them a threat. And so it proved.
Based in France, Canada opened up with two wins against Fiji (13-3) and Romania (19-11) before narrowly going down to the co-hosts 19-13. Nevertheless, their place in the knockout stages was confirmed as Pool 4 runners-up. In the quarter-final in Lille, Canada found themselves up against defending champions New Zealand. The All Blacks were a shadow of their former selves on the day but still had enough in reserve to ward off a spirited performance from Canada, who ‘won’ the second half 10-8 to go down to a 29-13 defeat.
The quarter-final showing at RWC 1991, though, meant Canada were guaranteed an automatic spot four years later in South Africa. Historic wins over France and Wales in the build-up suggested the Canucks were not prepared to be ‘one tournament wonders’, but a cruel pool draw, which pitted them against two of the tournament favourites – defending champions Australia and hosts South Africa – meant they were always going to face an uphill battle to qualify for the knockout stages again.
Canada, though, still made an impression – in more ways than one. After a regulation win over Romania (34-3) and a brave defeat to Australia (27-11), Canada were determined to go down fighting in their final match against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth. They took this resolve a step too far, though, with three players – Gareth Rees and Rod Snow (both Canada) and James Dalton, of the eventual champions – sent off for their part in a mass brawl.
Canada threatened to shock an out-of-sorts France in their opening Pool C match at RWC 1999, trailing by a single point during the second half. But the loss of talisman Rees to injury eventually counted against them and France went on to record a 33-20 victory.
Rees returned to action for the second pool match against Fiji, when the South Sea Islanders made up for their defeat eight years earlier by winning 38-22 and qualifying for the quarter-finals at the Canucks’ expense. In what was to be his last match for Canada, Rees then landed a perfect 12 kicks from 12 for a 27-point haul in the record 72-11 win over Namibia in their final pool outing.
Canada once again enjoyed a good build-up to RWC 2003, recording both a draw and a victory against Scotland between tournaments. However, they managed to record only one win in Australia, 24-7 against Tonga, and finished fourth in Pool D behind New Zealand, Wales and Italy.
Featuring in only the second drawn match in the history of the tournament – and the first for 20 years – would have been no consolation to Canada at a hugely disappointing RWC 2007, especially as Japan scored right at the death to tie the scores at 12-12. The Canucks finished bottom of the pool without a win to their name.
At the 2011 edition in New Zealand, though, Canada bounced back and beat a strong Tongan team 25-20 in Whangarei. The fact that Tonga would go on to beat eventual finalists France was a measure of how good that win was. Canada lost to France in their next game (46-19) before drawing with Japan (23-23) for the second consecutive tournament. Conor Trainor scored a brace of tries in the final game against the host nation but the Canucks were well beaten 79-15.
Former All Black Kieran Crowley, a full-back at the first tournament, led Canada into RWC 2015. Drawn in Pool D, as they were when they reached the quarter-finals in 1991, Canada began with a heavy defeat to Ireland (50-7) at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. DTH van der Merwe’s intercept try 10 minutes from time was one of the few highlights from a display that did not bode well for the rest of the tournament.
Canada’s second fixture with Italy at Elland Road in Leeds brought together two out-of-sorts teams. Canada had only won one of their last 10, while the Azzurri were hoping to break a six-game losing streak. Fielding their oldest RWC line-up ever, Canada had a golden opportunity to beat tier one opposition following tries from Van der Merwe and Matt Evans, but they failed to close out the game and Italy snatched a 23-18 win.
Van der Merwe maintained his record of scoring in every pool game in a 41-18 defeat to France and touched down again, against Romania, when the Canucks were on the receiving end of the biggest comeback in the tournament’s history, losing 17-15 having led 15-0 with just under half an hour remaining.
If selected, veteran hooker Ray Barkwill will become the second oldest player to appear at a Rugby World Cup tournament at Japan 2019. Diego Ormaechea holds the current record having played his last game for Uruguay at RWC 1999 aged 40 years and 26 days. Ontario-born Barkwill will be 39 by the time the tournament kicks off.
Reaching the knockout stages for the one and only time in their history at RWC 1991.
Throwing away a 15-0 lead against Romania at the last Rugby World Cup to finish the pool stages without a win to their name.
“For me, the highlight and greatest honour (of my rugby career) was to represent and play for my country on the world stage,” Canada rugby icon and former captain, Al Charron.
The dismissal of Gareth Rees and Rod Snow against South Africa in 1995 makes Canada the only team to have more than one man sent off in a Rugby World Cup match. Dan Baugh’s sending off for stamping four years later brought the Canadian red card total to three – the joint highest of any team alongside Tonga in the history of the tournament.