Oita, Japan, Sept 27 (AFP/APP):Standing next in the way of the highly paid All Black machine chasing a fourth World Cup is Canada, featuring vegan yoghurt maker Nick Blevins and a man who used to clean out horse stables for a living.
For the ultimate professional New Zealand squad, rugby is a full-time job and the pinnacle of that career is winning a World Cup.
But for Canada’s 30-year-old Blevins, rugby is a hobby and he’s taken time out from his day job to be in Japan to play in a side slowly evolving into a professional unit but still containing several amateurs.
Canada were whipped 48-7 by Italy in their opening match in Fukuoka on Thursday and have almost no hope against the All Blacks in Oita next Wednesday.
But for the Canadians, results matter less than producing enough glimpses of talent to attract lucrative contracts with overseas clubs.
“We are here to put our best performances out, it doesn’t change depending on the opposition,” said captain Tyler Ardron, who already has a contract with the New Zealand-based Super Rugby side Waikato Chiefs.
“For a lot of guys, it’s a shop window and they could get a contract — and that would be a win.”
At the World Cup four years ago, Canada went agonisingly close to beating Italy.
But the five-point margin in 2015 blew out to a 41-point difference in Japan as Italy showed the benefits of regular fixtures against the likes of England, Ireland and Wales in the Six Nations.
Kingsley Jones, who took over as Canada coach in 2017, said his players need opportunities to play regularly with the best if they are to improve.
The US-based Major League Rugby, which started last year with seven teams and has one Canada-based side, is set to grow to 12 teams next year and Jones is confident it will boost the growth of his national team.
“When I first came to Canada it was difficult just to get players together, in terms of them holding down day jobs, but the introduction of Major League Rugby is a lifeline for Canada and USA,” he said.
“It’s a pathway for not only players but coaches as well, so the Major League Rugby is certainly something that is going to give our players opportunities.
“We had 51 players playing in it this season and I think about 42 of those were holding down jobs 18 months ago, so that’s a big step in the right direction.
Major League Rugby has “a way to go,” admitted Jones, until it reaches the heights of tournaments like the Pro 14 and Super Rugby. But “in the long-term, I’m sure it will get up to speed and be a good competitive competition itself.”
Canada hooker Eric Howard is one who has benefited from the fledgling league, having switched from cleaning horse stables for a living to captaining the MLR club New Orleans Gold.
He well recalls the days of getting up at the crack of dawn to lift weights before working through the day and then training in the evenings for matches on weekends.
Ardron believed that Canada, who go by the dual nicknames Canucks and Les Rouges, were getting better “but the other teams are playing professional rugby every weekend and they’re also getting better.
“We’re here just to put our best performance out. It doesn’t change depending on the opposition.”
Ardron also refused to concede defeat in advance to the defending champions New Zealand.
“It’s an exciting opportunity and they are only human and have their faults. Hopefully, we can find them.”