TORONTO — Mark Anscombe’s tenure as Canadian men’s rugby coach ended abruptly Thursday when the New Zealander was fired after just 16 months on the job.
Rugby Canada said the move came after an “extensive review” of the national men’s 15s program in the wake of Canada stumbling at the first hurdle of World Cup qualifying.
Anscombe, while not surprised, reacted to the news with disappointment and anger.
“At the end of the day, the team is only the product of a system and the system is (broken),” he said in an interview Thursday. “And no one’s doing anything to improve it.
“What are we doing in this country to help the athlete? And the answer is absolutely nothing.”
A straight shooter, he has consistently argued Canada is up against it in the rugby world because too many of its athletes are not playing at a high enough level and are not conditioned to compete on the international scene.
It was a blunt message that likely did no go down well with the players in question.
The Canadian men, currently ranked 23rd in the world, lost to the 17th-ranked U.S. in a two-game aggregate series, tying the Eagles 28-28 in Hamilton on June 24 before falling 52-16 in San Diego on July 1.
“It is very apparent to all in the Canadian rugby community that in order for our men’s 15s team to be a successful and respected program we must continue to drive a culture of excellence, commitment and discipline,” Jim Dixon, Rugby Canada’s GM of rugby operations and performance, said in a statement announcing the firing.
“This goes for every level of the game. As a collective community we must address the gaps in our system and strive to provide our young players with the best possible environment to excel in the game, and we have a lot of work to do in this regard.”
Canada has another chance to qualify, via a playoff with No. 18 Uruguay early next year with the loser relegated to a world repechage.
Changing horse in mid-stream would seem a questionable strategy — Anscombe was under contract through the 2019 World Cup. The two Rugby Canada executives will have more to say Friday in a media conference call.
Getting to the World Cup qualification is crucial to the men’s program, with much needed funds from World Rugby accompanying qualification. Canada has never failed to qualify.
In the same statement, Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen said there will be a global search for a new coach.
“Fulfilling this important role is critical for Rugby Canada and we will take the necessary time to find the right candidate,” Vansen said.
Anscombe’s test record as coach was 2-11-1 but it can be argued that he never got to field his strongest team because of injuries and club commitments.
In the second leg of the World Cup qualifier against the Americans, for example, he was missing star quality in injured backs DTH van der Merwe, Taylor Paris, Jeff Hassler and Matt Evans. Veteran Phil Mack was also unavailable.
Canada was 18th in the world when Anscombe took over but fell five spots after going 1-4-0 early his year at the Americas Rugby Championship with a largely developmental squad.
Anscombe estimated that his ARC squad was without 12 or 13 top players, whom he elected to leave at their European teams so as not to endanger their club status.
With a stronger lineup during the November tests, Canada lost 25-23 to Samoa, 21-16 to Romania and 52-21 to Ireland. At the time Ireland was ranked No. 5, Samoa No. 14 and Romania No. 16.
But Anscombe’s fate seemed tenuous after Rugby Canada promised a “comprehensive review” after the July 1 loss to the U.S.
“This is not the result we have been working towards, but we are confident we will qualify in the second round,” Dixon said at the time.
Anscombe said he knew his fate was decided then.
“A head was going to always go in this and I knew then, the day that (call for review) went out, that it was going to be mine. No matter what happened.”
Similar reviews resulted in men’s seven coach Liam Middleton’s firing after his team failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics. And Kieran Crowley, Anscombe’s predecessor, resigned to take a club job in Italy after a post-World Cup review that came with a short contract extension and several catches.
Anscombe led New Zealand to the IRB Junior World Championships in 2011 after winning the same title as an assistant coach in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
He spent three years as head coach of the Auckland ITM Cup side in New Zealand before taking charge of Ulster ahead of the 2012-13 RaboDirect Pro 12 (now Guinness Pro 14). In his first year, Ulster led the standings at 17-4-1 before losing in the final. The team went 15-7-0 the next season, losing in the semifinals, before he left the club in June 2014 with a year remaining on his contract.
He led Ulster to back-to-back Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
“As we enhance our domestic program over the next 12-18 months and prepare for RWC (Rugby World Cup) 2019 qualification, Mark’s experience and leadership will be vital,” Dixon said in hiring Anscombe in March 2016.