Over the next three weekends, at a 5,000-seat facility in the south of France, the future of Canadian rugby will be sent in one of two very different directions. Three games, three unfamiliar opponents, one final berth in the 2019 Rugby World Cup on the line.
“This is,” says Canada’s head coach, Kingsley Jones, “a critical period.”
Here’s the deal. Canada’s national men’s team has thus far failed twice to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Japan, and now must win a last-chance repechage tournament in Marseille, France in order to claim the 20th and final spot in World Rugby’s ultimate competition. Hong Kong, Kenya, and Germany will compete with Canada in the tournament, with each team playing each other once. Whichever team finishes the round-robin in first place earns the World Cup berth.
There’s no underselling how important this tournament is for Canada, which has never missed a World Cup and never had much trouble qualifying. Only five years ago, Canada was consistently a top-15 team in World Rugby’s global rankings. But they have struggled mightily since the last World Cup in 2015, and now sit No. 23, trailing much smaller nations with far less historical success in the sport, such as Uruguay, Hong Kong, and Namibia.
But missing out on the tournament wouldn’t only be a further hit to the national program’s prestige — it would be extremely detrimental to its pocketbooks as well. In 2015, World Rugby contributed $3.7 million to Rugby Canada’s operations as it prepared for the World Cup. The following year, that number dropped to $2.1 million.
Rugby Canada estimates another $1 million — at least — will be lost if Canada loses the repechage tournament and fails to qualify.
The loss of funding could have a cascading effect on Rugby Canada’s other operations, including age-grade sides, the men’s and women’s 7s teams, and the women’s 15s program, which currently sits No. 4 in World Rugby’s rankings.
Unusual financial measures have already been taken. Earlier this year, Rugby Canada upped registration fees for club players across the country by $20, citing the need to raise $450,000 to aid in the efforts to qualify for the World Cup. That followed “extensive budget reductions,” which Rugby Canada estimated to have reduced costs “in every program and activity to the tune of more than $1.5 million,” including “over $400,000 in salary savings.”
Then, in August, Rugby Canada reorganized its men’s playing pool, combining the 15s and 7s teams — which had been training separately — under one umbrella, shedding staff and reducing compensation for 7s players in the process.
The 7s athletes were incensed and boycotted training sessions while threatening to unionize. They’ve only recently reached an agreement with Rugby Canada to resume training, but that’s believed to have been done through gritted teeth, with the first tournament of this year’s 7s Series looming at the end of the month.
That’s why these three repechage games are so important. …read more