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Scianitti: Canadian rugby players amateurs in name only

Matthew Scianitti

6/13/2013 8:21:56 PM

TORONTO — It's mesmerizing, but very much unglamorous; uncomplicated, and still bewildering to a point of frustration. Rugby is so many things, but above all, rugby is truth. Saturday at BMO Field (8pm et/5pm pt on TSN), Canada will challenge Ireland for two, 40-minute periods of hellish contact, and the game will lay bare talents and limitations.

It is why labels — sometimes convenient things — are frivolous in a game where two teams of 15 large men engage in a kind of ceaseless percussion, slamming into each other forevermore, conducting the brutal symphony. The strongest aren't always the strongest; the fastest sometimes never get up to speed.

And so too does the word amateur mean little. It doesn't really matter if you play for love or money when you're at the bottom of a ruck, the slow-rolling human onion, and a forearm is squeezing your throat, and a knee is jabbing your spine, all so you can move an oval inch by messy inch.

But Ireland's interim head coach Les Kiss was only trying to be complimentary at a Tuesday press conference, when he explained how amateurism imbues Canadians with something special.

"There is another reason they play that is outside the professional realm, and there is another heart and desire that comes to the game," he said.

Although many of Ireland's rugby superstars — Brian O'Driscoll, Rory Best and Jonathan Sexton — are away on a tour of Australia along with the very best from Britain and Ireland, Kiss has a roster full of pros.

Ireland is ranked eighth among the International Rugby Board's top 100 countries, and Canada is 13th. Canada has never beaten Ireland. Kiss spoke slowly, making sure his point wasn't misinterpreted.

"I don't see any less desire and passion and intent in their game when they put on the Canadian jersey."

But something about the sound of the word amateur twists Canadian captain Aaron Carpenter's face, like it's a blister in his brain.

"[Some might say] 'Oh, you're an amateur team,' but then the guys go, 'Well, no; in our minds we are professionals,'" he said.

Carpenter, who looks like a cube with flesh stretched across it, is among the few Canadians making a living playing rugby in Europe. But he speaks on behalf of teammates who juggle rugby life with real life.

"We train like professionals, we eat like professionals. So what is that boundary? Just because we don't have a professional league in our country, that is the reason we're amateurs?"

The boundary has always been the touchline. Beyond it, Canadians are respectable, good-natured, but still dilettantes; within it, the game has revealed intimidating Canadian power and purpose, a daunting opponent in every World Cup.

Heading into Saturday, Canada is riding a three-game winning streak, defeating the USA, Fiji and Tonga in a Pacific Nations tournament. Since 2008, head coach Kieran Crowley, who won the World Cup with New Zealand in 1987, has developed Canada into a team made not just of impressive strength, but also confident skill. Ryan Hamilton, Nathan Hirayama, Adam Kleeberger, Jason Marshall and Jebb Sinclair were young at the 2011 World Cup; now they are leaders.

Nearly halfway to the 2015 World Cup, Ireland is a good test before two qualifying matches against the Americans on August 17th and 24th. But funding the men's national program, always difficult, is becoming more awkward.

Prior to the 2011 World Cup, Sport Canada's Athlete Assistance Program allowed Rugby Canada to spread government funding. Less than $20,000 per athlete per year is not substantial, but it gave some the chance to train full-time at Rugby Canada's B.C. hub. But after several senior players retired following the 2011 tournament, and with Rugby 7s — a quicker, less crowded cousin of the 15s game — becoming an Olympic sport in 2016, funding was altered.

No longer could the superhero-sized forwards at the front hope for funding, only the nimble backs, capable of playing the 7s and 15s game, are eligible for 17 government stipends. Few forwards have full-time pro contracts; the rest, for now, play for nothing.

Crowley is confident his players are developing, and believes he has depth, but it is only really in select positions. He is trying to build a car, hoping he has all the parts for an engine.

"The tight five [forwards at the front] is an area we have major concerns in, simply because those guys aren't getting the games at the level they need to, or they coaching they can," Crowley said.

For decades, Canada was recognized around the world for grooming forwards of otherworldly strength. Some European players once thought mountainous Canadians lived in the bush, hewing wood by day then breaking bodies on the field at night. That label could diminish.  

"We're doing everything we can to get [players] over to New Zealand and Europe and they are starting to pick up contracts, which is great. But there is no money for them to train and play in Canada right now," said Gareth Rees, Canada's team manager, and its greatest player.

Rees and former national teammate Al Charron — the biggest of Canada's bygone big men — continue to negotiate sponsorship deals and potential playing opportunities overseas. A North American professional league, and ground sharing with Major League Soccer teams, has long been discussed, but it's simply a dream. Some Canadians players will leave, because rugby demands, then demands more.

"I find it frustrating that we may lose some of these athletes to go and work and support their families, who are world class," Rees said. "They may not get on a plane to go to the World Cup."

And though hope maybe the one thing Rees has in abundance, he knows Crowley's coaching, alongside 7s coach Geraint John, breeds needed confidence. With so little to go around, they share all they can. Crowley helped John coach the 7s team to Pan-American gold in 2011. John is Crowley's valued assistant, helping ease the transition for well-worked 7s players joining the national team.

"I think we undervalue that constantly," Rees said. "Most unions, those two coaches are fighting each other to get players and it is kind of destructive. I think it is very healthy the relationship they have, and the total commitment they have to the Canadian cause, not just the Canadian 7s or 15s."

The limitations could be disheartening, but Canada's resolve has steadily hardened into an unbreakable thing.

"We try and work with one another to try and get the best for, not only the best result for Canada, but the best result for the player," Crowley said. "We want the players to be able to perform each time. We're working together on that."

Maybe it's a mistaken belief, but damn you, and your labels and your expectations.

"It annoys us because we train like professionals, and the guys know that they're in the gym when they're not on the field. And when they are on the field, they're training like us guys overseas are," Carpenter said.

The ledger shows a hard, frustrating reality, yes; but the truth lies on the field, too. All things must be earned Saturday night, victory or defeat. And the long push will go on.