PrintPrint

Mutrie: A lot of uncertainty surrounds Canada vs. NZ Maori

Meghan Mutrie

11/1/2013 3:11:48 PM

The sold out ticket announcement for Sunday's match between Rugby Canada and the New Zealand Maori All Blacks at BMO Field means it will be the largest crowd in modern Canadian rugby history.

Billboards around Toronto and popup ads on the internet are heavy with the game's tagline of 'Face the Haka,' but past the attendance numbers and one of the world's most famous pre-game rituals, a lot of uncertainty surrounds the match itself.

The haka fully deserves the amount of clever marketing attention it's receiving but to only look forward to a ceremony and not the subsequent 80-minute match is the sporting equivalent of a bride caring too much about her wedding and forgetting about the marriage itself (insert stat about current divorce rate...).

Sunday is a loaded match, as it's only the fifth time in history Canada has faced the haka/played the Maori, and a heavy personnel change for both sides since their last meeting in November 2012 makes the exact game difficult to predict.

The Maori All Blacks have named arguably their strongest side, signaling clear intentions and demonstrating how the program is being used in a high performance direction alongside the All Blacks.

The Maori, working closely with the national team selectors, have named a clear seasoned leader in each position to help develop the younger players surely destined for the full All Blacks jersey.

Canadians will recognize a few Maori players named in the starting 23 from the All Blacks at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and will especially remember the name Zac Guildford as he dotted down four times against the Canucks in their pool match in Wellington.

This tour serves as a great opportunity and redemption for gifted Guildford after a spate of alcohol-related incidents saw his contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union almost terminated.

Because the game on Sunday falls outside the IRB's November international window, Canada has exercised their right to hold off on naming a lineup until the morning of the game.

Gripping their cards so close to their chest makes the game very hard to preview from a media standpoint, but it also signals how seriously they are taking this match - even though it's not a full international test. 

Canada lost all four of their matches to the Maori since 2003 but have narrowed the differential every time and the game at Oxford last year was the closest yet.

In front of packed grounds at Iffley Road, home of Oxford University, the normally convincing Maori weren't for the full 80, racking up too many penalties but still earning a 32-19 victory.

A very late try out wide to the Maori in that game meant the eventual score line did not reflect the Canadian's efforts, who were still within a converted try of a scalp with eight minutes remaining. Had the Canadians been slightly better with ball in hand and ball retention, the game could have been even closer.

But two very different sides will line up on Sunday compared to a year ago. The kickers who combined for 32 points in that match are gone, the Maori have a new coach, a new captain and only one returner in the front row in their 23 and Canada are missing eight of their top players because of professional commitments.

14 of the 30 players who started for Canada or the Maori last year are completely gone from their 26-man rosters due to non-selection, injuries or not being released by professional clubs.

With so many question marks in terms of specifics, one has to step back and compare the front of the jerseys as opposed to who's wearing the numbers on the back.

The culture and history of the NZ Maori runs deeper than the traceable bloodlines of each player on their team, and much deeper than what any outsider could comprehend. This is partially why the haka stirs so much intrigue; it gives everyone else a taste of the fierce pride of the Maori culture that is normally subliminal behind their laid back and friendly demeanor.  

At a press conference on Wednesday, the word 'culture' passed the lips of Maori captain Tim Bateman and new Maori coach Colin Cooper countless times. A former Maori player, coach Cooper spoke of his team's 'mana', a Maori word meaning honour, and how it would help bring his team together.

"The challenge is coming here on a short turnaround to take on Canada in their backyard. What will help us probably is that we're Maori and (that) will galvanize us - team unity will be brought together by our culture."

This culture and mana means it usually doesn't matter which 23 players fill the Black jerseys, an expectation is there.

Canada's coach Kieran Crowley, who played and coached with Cooper at Taranaki in New Zealand, hopes establishing a clear pathway to the Canadian national team will help develop a strong team culture.

"When I first began (coaching Canada), I couldn't see a clear path. We've worked hard to do that and now I can. This will help create team culture and most importantly, consistency."

Crowley said consistency remains Canada's focus and will be how he will measure his team's long-term success.

Hopefully, this Canada/USA New Zealand Maori Tour will become an annual fixture on the rugby calendar as it is sponsored by AIG, who are looking to grow the sport into a lucrative North American frontier.

If so, it would provide an ideal medium for both programs to develop exactly what the two coaches identified - culture and consistency.

Canada would have a perfect benchmark to measure itself as a program too, and New Zealand is given an opportunity to grow the All Blacks brand globally while still protecting and sharing the Maori culture on its terms. The tour also presents an opportunity to strengthen the culture within the Maori squad - everyone knows the value of a good road trip.