By Alan Dymock
THE RUGBY World Cup may appear nicely teed up in the minds of fans from the traditional rugby heartlands, with spectators already looking forward to South Africa playing Scotland, Argentina playing New Zealand and almost any game in the Pool A ‘group of writhing agony.’
However, all is not yet decided. Every Pool for the World Cup still needs two qualifiers from around the world and this weekend sees the first leg of Americas 1 qualifier between rivals Canada and USA. The overall winner of the two games in the next fortnight will be the first qualifier for RWC2015 and will go into Pool D with France, Ireland and Italy.
Any fierce clash between the neighbours draws a certain amount of attention, but with so much riding on the next fortnight it is likely that North America may splinter like your friends when the question of ‘whose round is it?’ crops up.
Canada are currently at 15 in the IRB World Rankings, with USA in at 18. Games are traditionally close between the two teams – in May Canada won 16-9 on home soil and they also won in Canada 28-25, in June of last year – and neither side want to give too much away before this vitally important fortnight.
However, Rugby World managed to gain an insight into Canada’s preparation for the first weekend of brutal action at the Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, South Carolina, the venue where the Eagles last beat Canada in a competitive match in 2009.
One of the Canadian props revealed: “We had a scrum session yesterday to get ready for the new scrum rules – the binding prior to engagement is getting mixed reviews from our props – and we also had a controlled scrummage last night against the Ontario Blues [a regional select side] to practice our strategy for the US, and practice new scrum laws.”
Canada have recently run Japan close and beaten Tonga and Fiji, but lost heavily to Ireland in June. They are aware of how far they have to go to meet the standard of the top tier nations, but much like their sevens side who have become more prominent in the last two season, Canada are ambitious and set on becoming more competitive.
Of course, the proof of how far they have come is by getting to the World Cup and playing well when there. So the first task, which is sometimes the hardest, is converting against your most familiar foe.
“We have been reviewing film and focusing on the US strengths through daily meetings,” our international prop lets slip. “They are a strong opponent for us who we can’t take lightly, but other than that, there aren’t any secrets. We played them in May and have an idea of what they do: they have strong speed in defence and great lineouts. They run hard on offence, and have weapons outside.”
The pressure must be great, playing for such a prize. Do you get reminded of what is at stake, or is it an incentive-free atmosphere? “We get reminded. The management put up stats to remind us how close our last few games have been. We know this is not a cakewalk.”
Certainly not, but regardless of the games that have gone before or the rankings or the odds, this two-week period will be as unpredictable as it is savage. There could well be less than a beer mat between them by the end of the contest, too.