TORONTO — Coach Mark Anscombe has revamped his lineup for the first leg of Canada’s Rugby World Cup qualifier against the U.S. on Saturday in Hamilton.
There are seven personnel changes and three positional changes from the team beaten 25-9 by 16th-ranked Romania in Edmonton as No. 23 Canada takes on the 17th-ranked U.S. Eagles at Tim Hortons Field. The return leg of the aggregate series is July 1 in San Diego.
“Rankings really mean nothing in this game,” said Anscombe. “It’s going to be who fronts up and takes advantage of the opportunities.”
Co-captain DTH van der Merwe, Ciaran Hearn and Connor Braid are the only holdovers in the backs with Braid and van der Merwe switching to the centres from fly half and wing, respectively. Hearn remains at fullback.
Veteran scrum half Phil Mack and fly half Shane O’Leary, who both started in the 13-0 loss to No. 12 Georgia two weeks ago in Calgary, return Saturday. Taylor Paris and Andrew Coe come in on the wing.
Paris was unavailable for the previous June internationals due to French club rules that mandate a rest period after the season.
Centre Conor Trainor suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon against Romania.
Anscombe makes three changes in the forwards with Djustice Sears-Duru and Jake Ilnicki coming in at prop and Admir Cejanovic at flanker. Tyler Ardron switches from blindside flanker to No. 8.
The Canadian coach did not mince words after the loss to Romania, calling it “a very poor performance.”
“We didn’t do anything we set out to do and that’s disappointing,” he added.
The U.S. has also struggled this month, beaten by No. 3 Ireland (55-19) and Georgia (21-17) but went 4-0-1 in its other matches this year.
The Canada-U.S. series winner slots into Pool C at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, along with No. 2 England, No. 8 France, No. 9 Argentina and Oceania 2.
The playoff loser has another chance to qualify via a two-game playoff with No. 18 Uruguay, the lone survivor left in South American qualifying. That winner slots into Pool D as Americas 2 with No. 4 Australia, No. 7 Wales, No. 12 Georgia and Oceania 1.
The loser of the Uruguay series has one more chance, via a world repechage.
Canada wants to qualify sooner rather than later, so it can focus on what lies ahead and take care of logistics.
Canada is 38-17-1 all-time against the U.S. but the Eagles have won the last five meetings, including a 51-34 decision in February when both teams were missing top players. The Canadian men have not beaten the Americans since August 2013 when they won both legs of their Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifier.
Anscombe says the Americans face the same hurdles as Canada when it comes to world rugby.
“In truth, I think both have been left behind by a few other countries in the world of late,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of talk of (more) competitions for next year and so forth and that’s what both countries need. It’s giving that platform for the players to be better prepared, better developed to go to the next step.
“And until that happens you’re just going to keep getting left behind.”
The U.S. is 1-11-0 at the last three World Cups. Canada is 1-9-2.
Canada has not lost a World Cup qualification match since July 2009 when it was beaten 12-6 by the U.S. before rallying to win 41-18 to make the 2011 tournament. Canada is 15-4-0 all-time in World Cup qualifying matches.
Since the tournament’s inception in 1987, Canada has never missed a Rugby World Cup.
But the Canadian men have wobbled of late. Canada has lost five straight internationals and has won just one of its last 10 dating back to mid-June last year.
Canada is 1-5-0 in 2017 with the lone win coming in a 36-15 decision over Chile in the Americas Rugby Championship in February. The losses are to the U.S., Uruguay, Brazil, Georgia and Romania.
The Canadians were ranked 18th when Anscombe took charge last March. But the New Zealander has had little opportunity to work with his full squad due to injuries and club commitments.
Canada is 2-10-0 under Anscombe, who used the ARC to test out young talent.
Twelve teams have already booked their ticket to the 2019 World Cup in Japan by virtue of finishing in the top three of their pools at the 2015 tournament. The remaining eight teams will be determined by regional and cross-regional qualifiers and a round-robin repechage.
The Webb Ellis Cup, which goes to the World Cup winner, will be on display at Saturday’s match.
“The Webb Ellis Cup is an instantly recognizable symbol of our sport and it is important for it to be accessible to rugby fans everywhere,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said in a statement. “Hamilton, Ontario, may not be seen as a global hotbed of the game but Canadians who follow the sport do so with just as much passion as anywhere else.”
Djustice Sears-Duru, Ray Barkwill, Jake Ilnicki, Brett Beukeboom (co-capt.), Evan Olmstead, Admir Cejanovic, Matt Heaton, Tyler Ardron, Phil Mack, Shane O’Leary, Taylor Paris, Conor Braid, DTH van der Merwe (co-capt.), Andrew Coe, Ciaran Hearn.
Benoit Piffero, Anthony Luca, Matt Tierney, Kyle Baillie, Aaron Carpenter, Gord McRorie, Nick Blevins, Dan Moor.