Ever since the pools were announced for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, Canada has known one thing: If they want to make it to the knockout stage, they’ll have to be at their absolute best.

Of the four pools set for September, only one contains multiple World Cup winners and two teams settled atop the World Rankings with 85+ points. Unfortunately for Canada, it’s their Pool B.

When play kicks off on Sept. 20, Canada will be looking up at two of the world’s top nations when it comes to Rugby Union. New Zealand will enter the tournament as the favourite, having won both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups. South Africa placed third in 2015, and won in 2007.

The All Blacks and the Springboks slot in at second and fourth in the world rankings, accumulating 89.40 and 87.34 points respectively. For those unfamiliar with the system, the top teams typically enter the World Cup in the 85-point range – Ireland is currently ranked first with 89.47 points.

Internationally, 22nd-ranked Canada has faced plenty of challenges this year. Six of their eight matches have come against teams above them in the rankings. Their lone win came in a 56-0 romp over Chile in the Americas Rugby Championship. They finished a combined 1-7 between the Americas and the Pacific Nations Cup.

Canada head coach and former Wales international Kingsley Jones, who took over the program in 2017, still believes in the makeup of his team.

“I’m impressed with the workrate, the ethic of the guys,” Jones said. “I know from the Canadians that I used to play against, they’re tough, good athletes and made for rugby, really. These guys are the same. Just unfortunately, I learned quickly that not enough of them have been exposed to the game at a high level, consistently and that’s been the challenge for the players over the last few years. It’s getting that regular rugby and getting that regular training environment where they can actually execute their skills under pressure and play alongside other professionals.”

Canada’s first tune-up for the World Cup was held on August 24 against Leinster. While there were plenty of positives to take from it, the afternoon ended in heartbreak.

The Canadians battled back from an early 19-0 deficit, eventually taking an 11-point lead late in the second half. Two tries down the stretch however, including one on the final possession, sunk Canada.

“There’s no doubt we’re behind the eight ball,” Jones explained following the loss. “Other teams have had two or four years minimum to prepare for the competition. But we've had a good four to five weeks and we just need to keep building on the momentum and hopefully it will reflect on the scoreboard.”

Patrick Parfrey slotted in at fullback on Saturday, and picked up a pair of tries while also being named Man of the Match. Parfrey joined Canada as an injury replacement in the 2015 World Cup, and is a versatile piece with experience at centre and fly-half. Parfrey also played for the Toronto Arrows of Major League Rugby (MLR) this year, and was one of 12 Arrows named to Canada’s World Cup long list.

Jones says the advent of the MLR in 2018 has been a big help for Canadian rugby with Toronto joining the league this past season.

“I think the introduction of MLR has been a big boost for Canadian rugby, particularly the Arrows,” Jones said. “With 51 Canadian players playing in the MLR, I think around 42 of those guys were holding down day jobs just over 18 months ago. For those guys to be training each day is a huge boost for us.”

If Canada is going to be successful in Japan, they’ll have to rely on Tyler Ardron as well, who captained the team at this year’s Pacific Nations Cup. Ardron debuted in Super Rugby this year with the Chiefs, making history as the first Canadian to play Super Rugby in New Zealand.

Ardron says it’s a privilege to captain the side.

“It’s hugely exciting and something I’m really proud to do,” Ardron said. “It’s an honour. I was excited when I was asked to take the role on, especially after being only able to play two games in the last World Cup and trying to do the captaincy, as well, was a tough spot to be in. I’m excited to go into this one fully healthy and looking forward to it.”

Veteran DTH van der Merwe returns from the 2015 World Cup team, where the 33-year-old scored a try in each of Canada’s four games, and says he likes the makeup of this Canadian team.

“We’ve had a few games under our belts with the Pacific Nations Cup and results haven’t gone our way, but we’re slowly building as a squad,” van der Merwe said. “I think we’re a young squad except for myself and a couple other guys, but it’s a real young, confident group of guys. I think that’s the exciting part. But then there’s some of the guys who have been to a few World Cups and have that experience to just simmer things down when we do get into the pressure moments. But I think it’s slowly boiling. We’ve got a good group of guys here who really want to work hard for each other and a bunch of good mates just really looking forward to the opportunity in Japan.”

After beating the BC Rugby Union All Stars 45-13 on August 30, Canada had its final tune-up before they open the World Cup, versus Italy on September 20, on Friday, losing to the United States, 20-15. It was Canada’s third loss against the US in 2019.

Pool A sure to provide drama

The most interesting group at this year’s World Cup may be Pool A.

Host Japan is coming off of a perfect performance at the Pacific Nations Cup. Yu Tamura led all scorers with 39 points, while Kenki Fukuoka and Kotaro Matsushima tied for the lead in tries with three. They also allowed the second-fewest points, and finished with the best point differential at +61.

The Japanese are coming off of, by far, their best showing at the Rugby World Cup. They finished 3-0-1 in 2015, but fell short of South Africa and Scotland who had identical records.

They’ll be joined in Pool A by Ireland and Scotland who are both slotted ahead of them on the world stage.

A year after winning the Six Nations Championship, Ireland finished third in the 2019 competition with a 3-0-2 record. A second consecutive Six Nations title would have cemented their place among the favourites, but they were met with struggles. Those were underscored by an uninspiring result in the final match, a 25-7 win for Wales.

For Scotland, the Six Nations was a disappointing 1-1-3 finish that downgraded their odds in Japan. Things have been inconsistent for them this year, although they still possess game-breaking potential that could make for a successful World Cup.

Could Wales’ Magical Run Continue?

Another team many will be watching in Pool D is Wales, as they go toe to toe with Australia.

While the Australians have two World Cup titles to their name, Wales has yet to win one. Their 5-0 run at Six Nations has people paying attention, however. They were second to England in both points-for and differential, but the 65 they allowed were significantly lower than the rest of the field. Their perfect record also capped a 14-match win streak for the Welsh, an all-time best.

For a while it looked like Wales would enter the tournament as the top seed in the world. But their winning streak was ended in their first tune-up against England. They’ve gone 1-2 as they prepare for the World Cup, splitting two matches with England, while losing their first of two against Ireland.

Despite those results, the Welsh shouldn’t be ignored in Japan. They should join the Aussies at the top of the pool.