Rugby Canada to revamp men’s national team program in wake of firing coach

Having canned its men’s national team coach, Rugby Canada is now embarking on a makeover midway through a World Cup qualification campaign.

The review which resulted in Thursday’s firing of New Zealand’s Mark Anscombe just 16 months into the job, calls for the hiring of a high-performance director, an academy/Canada ‘A’ coach and more technical staff as well as use of a sports psychologist.

The added resources will work with a larger group of players centralized in Langford, B.C.

The governing body also promises to reopen the door between the men’s sevens and 15s squads to ensure that the “best possible” players are available for 23rd-ranked Canada’s next attempt at World Cup qualification — against No. 18 Uruguay in January/February.

CEO Allen Vansen says the organization is looking both at the short-term needs to ensure World Cup qualification and a longer-term strategy to improve the quality of Canada’s talent and game.

“It’s a complicated journey but it’s one we have to be very strategic about,” he said in a media conference call Friday.

The review, released Friday, offered eight recommendations with the last one being the removal of Anscombe.

“It’s become very clear through the review process, through speaking with the players and looking at the performance of the team, which is the most important thing, we didn’t feel that Mark was the right person to continue as the head coach,” said Jim Dixon, Rugby Canada’s GM of rugby operations and performance.

Anscombe, who was under contract through the 2019 World Cup, leaves in frustration.

“They keep saying things are in place,” he said. “What’s happening in Toronto to help the athlete? What’s helping in Alberta to help the athlete? Vancouver? Because I speak to the provinces and the answer is absolutely nothing.

“To be honest, all this has done is deflect blame off one person and that’s Jim Dixon. That’s what annoys me.”

Anscombe found himself in Rugby Canada’s crosshairs after a disastrous 52-16 loss to the 17th-ranked U.S. Eagles on July 1 in San Diego. The two teams had tied 28-28 in Hamilton on June 24 in the opening leg of the World Cup qualifying series.

That prompted a ”comprehensive review,” Rugby Canada’s second look into the men’s program since the 2015 World Cup and third including the post-mortem on the men’s sevens failure to make the Rio Olympics.

The sevens review cost coach Liam Middleton his job. Kieran Crowley quit as 15s coach soon after signing a short contract extension in the wake of what was essentially a limited vote of confidence in his World Cup review.

Anscombe’s test record as coach was 2-11-1 but he never really got to field his strongest team because of injuries and club commitments.

Should Canada lose to Uruguay, it will have one last chance to qualify for the 2019 World Cup in Japan via a world repechage.

It’s no wonder Dixon says making the tournament is Rugby Canada’s No. 1 priority. Qualification is crucial since it brings with it much-needed funds from World Rugby.

Canada has never failed to qualify for the World Cup, although this marks the first time it has stumbled at the first hurdle.

Much of what Dixon said Friday echoes what Anscombe said loudly in recent months — that many of Canada’s current players aren’t playing at a level that prepares them for test rugby.

“There’s no doubt that the challenge comes with our domestic players having to take the huge jump from playing domestic rugby to playing international rugby,” said Dixon.

Dixon declined to detail the players’ take on Anscombe, saying their contributions were made confidentially.

“You know the outcome,” he said.

Breaking down the barriers between the sevens and 15s program seems a no-brainer, given the lack of depth in the talent pool. But Dixon said use of sevens players was limited because of their carded status.

Talks with Sport Canada and other government partners have eased those restrictions, he added.

“We’ve got to try to balance and manage both programs,” he said. “it’s not as simple as just dragging them all over.”

Dixon hopes to have a new 15s coach in place for the November test tour, with a yet-to-be-announced interim coach to handle matters before that.

“The players are desperate to get out on the field in January and win those qualifiers and start our preparations towards Japan,” he said. “We’re moving forward.”

Talks continue with the Super Rugby and Pro 14 leagues about bringing pro rugby to North America, with Canada having to wait on the U.S. situation to become clearer, Dixon said.


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