Canada draws on Toronto Arrows, New England Free Jacks for Tongan rugby tour
Canada will have a sizable contingent from the Major League Rugby champion New England Free Jacks and the Toronto Arrows when it tours Tonga next month.
Canada, currently ranked 23rd in the world, will take on No. 15 Tonga on Aug. 10 and 15 at the 10,000-capacity Teufaiva Stadium in the Tongan capital of Nukuʻalofa. Before arriving in Tonga, the Canadians will hold a training camp in Nadi, Fiji, and scrimmage against the academy side of the Fijian Drua, Fiji's Super Rugby team.
Twenty-five of the 33 players on the tour roster are with MLR clubs, including nine from the Toronto Arrows and eight from the Free Jacks.
Ben LeSage, Andrew Quattrin, Conor Keys, Spencer Jones, Conor Young, Foster Dewitt, Cole Keith and Isaac Olson helped the Free Jacks lift the MLR Shield trophy this season. Keith will join the Canadian team from New Zealand where he is currently with the Manawatu Turbos, whose head coach is former Free Jacks assistant Mike Rogers.
New England won 12 straight en route to the MLR title, a run that included an 80-5 road victory in Toronto on April 15.
"I hope we can take that (winning) feeling into the national team camp," said Canada coach Kingsley Jones. "The spine of the team, let's face it, is in New England at the moment."
Lucas Rumball, Ciaran Breen, D’Shawn Bowen, Ross Braude, Mason Flesch, Travis Larsen, Peter Nelson, Mitch Richardson and Tyler Wong are the Arrows going on tour.
Djustice Sears-Duru and Jason Higgins play for the San Diego Legion, which lost 25-24 to the Free Jacks in Saturday's MLR final in Bridgeview, Ill.
Rumball and LeSage will serve as co-captains for the tour, which marks Canada's first action since November.
The Canadian tour squad includes five uncapped players: hooker Wong, backrowers Zephyr Melnyk and Sion (pronounced Sean) Parry, centre/wing Jack Shaw and Breen, a fullback.
Wong, Melnyk and Breen are products of Rugby Canada’s Pacific Pride academy program. Shaw, who moved to Canada from England in 2010, is a former Canadian under-20 player who was with Rugby ATL in MLR this season.
Parry, an openside flanker who plays in Wales for Pontypridd, qualifies for Canada through his Ontario-born mother.
Lock/flanker Callum Botchar and six-foot-seven, 273-pound lock Izzak Kelly play their club rugby in New Zealand for New Plymouth Old Boys and Spotswood United RFC, respectively.
Fly half options include Nelson, Gradyn Bowd (Old Glory DC) and Robbie Povey (Houston SaberCats).
The tour roster was chosen from a 41-man long list. Matt Heaton, Matt Beukeboom, Kyle Baillie, Tyler Rowland, Reegan O’Gorman and Takoda McMullin are among those unavailable due to injury or other commitment.
Former captain Tyler Ardron and Evan Olmstead, also based in France, have elected to focus on their club duties for the most part in recent years. Others are missing the Tonga tour because it conflicts with the Rugby Americas North Sevens Olympic qualifying tournament Aug. 19-20 in Langford, B.C.
The Canada matches represent the final prep for the Tongans ahead of the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off less than a month later in France. Tonga is in tough company at the tournament, alongside No. 1 Ireland, No. 4 South Africa, No. 5 Scotland and No. 19 Romania in Group B.
Tonga became the 19th team to qualify for the 20-team World Cup in July 2022 when it defeated No. 24 Hong Kong in the Asia/Pacific 1 playoff.
The hard-hitting Pacific Islanders will be primed for Canada, following matches against No. 10 Japan, No. 12 Samoa and No. 13 Fiji.
Tonga has benefited from a recent World Rugby rule change allowing players who have not represented their country in three years to switch to the country of their birth, or of their parents’ or grandparents’ birth.
That means the team known as the Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles) can showcase the likes of former All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau, Augustine Pulu, George Moala and Vaea Fifita and former Wallabies Israel Folau and Adam Coleman.
"It's going to be an amazing Tongan team," Jones said in an interview. "I think it's the best Tongan team they've ever been able to out together."
The Canada matches will be the first Tonga has hosted on home soil since 2017. The Tonga Rugby Union is also marking its centennial.
"It's a massive occasion for the Tongans," said Jones. "And for our team, to be able to play and tour the Pacific Islands, as a rugby player I don't think there's any better tour. … We're really honoured and excited about touring the Pacific Islands where some of the bets rugby players in the world hail from."
The August internationals also have special meaning for the Canada coach, a former Welsh captain whose late father Phil Kingsley Jones once coached Tonga.
The Canadian men, who are missing out on the World Cup for the first time, have played just 12 times (5-7-0) since failing to get out of the group stage at the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Jones is still waiting word from World Rugby on possible internationals in November.
Canada had only four outings in 2022, losing to No. 20 Spain 57-34 in Ottawa and beating No. 29 Belgium 45-0 in Halifax in July before downing the 26th-ranked Dutch 37-25 and falling 43-37 to No. 21 Namibia in Amsterdam November.
Jones, who expects to have more games this November, wants to have 45 players in place, three deep in every position, by the time qualification starts for the 2027 World Cup, likely in 2025.
Canada has a 5-4-0 career record against Tonga but lost the last two meetings — 33-23 in August 2019 in Lautoka, Fiji, and 28-18 in July 2015 in Burnaby, B.C., both in Pacific Nations Cup play.
Canada's last win was a chippy 36-27 decision in Kingston, Ont., in June 2013, also at the Pacific Nations Cup.
The teams have met three times at the World Cup with Canada winning all three encounters: 25-20 in 2011 in New Zealand, 24-7 in 2003 in Australia and 37-4 in 1987 in New Zealand.
Canada's Tonga Tour Squad
Andrew Quattrin, Holland Landing, Ont., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Callum Botchar, Vancouver, Pacific Pride/New Plymouth Old Boys; Cole Keith, Sussex, N.B., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Conor Keys, Stittsville, Ont., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Conor Young, Camba, Australia, New England Free Jacks (MLR); Djustice Sears-Duru, Oakville, Ont., San Diego Legion (MLR); Foster Dewitt, Courtney, B.C., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Izzak Kelly, White Rock, B.C., UBC/Spotswood United RFC; Kyle Steeves, Winnipeg, Dallas Jackals (MLR); Liam Murray, Langley, B.C., Dallas Jackals (MLR); Lucas Rumball (co-capt.), Toronto, Balmy Beach, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Mason Flesch, Cobourg, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Matthew Klimchuk, Regina, Pacific Pride; Piers Von Dadelszen, Vancouver, Oxford University; Siaki Vikilani, Vancouver, American Raptors; Sion Parry, Cardiff, Wales, Pontypridd RFC (Wales); Travis Larsen, Parksville, B.C., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Tyler Wong, North Vancouver, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Zephyr Melnyk, Gabriola Island, B.C., Pacific Pride.
Ben LeSage (co-capt.), Calgary, New England Free Jacks (MLR); Ciaran Breen, Victoria, Toronto Arrows (MLR); D’Shawn Bowen, Toronto, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Gabe Casey, Ottawa, University of Victoria; Gradyn Bowd, Red Deer, Alta., Old Glory DC (MLR); Isaac Olson, Vernon, B.C., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Jack Shaw, Oakville, Ont., Rugby ATL (MLR); Jason Higgins, Cork, Ireland, San Diego Legion (MLR); Kainoa Lloyd, Mississauga, Ont., Houston SaberCats (MLR); Mitch Richardson, Stoney Creek, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Peter Nelson, Dungannon, Northern Ireland, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Robbie Povey, Northampton, England, Houston SaberCats (MLR); Ross Braude, Pretoria, South Africa, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Spencer Jones, Cambridge, New Zealand, New England Free Jacks (MLR).
Andrew Davidson, Dewald Kotzi, Jacob Bossi, Liam Bowman, Lindsey Stevens, Noah Bain, Owain Ruttan, Talon McMullin.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2023.