Canadian men face stiff challenge in August with two rugby tests against Tonga
The Canadian men's rugby team will play two test matches in Tonga in August, its first action since facing the Netherlands and Namibia in Amsterdam in November.
Canada, currently ranked 23rd in the world, will take on No. 15 Tonga on Aug. 10 and 15, with both games in Nuku'alofa.
It should be a challenging matchup.
The hard-hitting Pacific Islanders are preparing for 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.
And Tonga will be primed for Canada, following World Cup warmups against No. 10 Japan, No. 12 Samoa and No. 13 Fiji.
Tonga has befitted from a recent World Rugby rule change allowing players who had 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.
"You could argue, potentially on paper, it's the best World Cup squad that they've ever put together," Canada coach Kingsley Jones said in an interview. "In terms of experience Rebecca Marino , for sure."
"It's going to be a real tough test for us … But that's what we've always said we want to do," he added.
Adding import to the Canada matches is the fact that they will be the first that Tonga has hosted on home soil since 2017. The Tonga Rugby Union is also marking its centennial.
"It's going to be a big occasion for them," said Jones.
Before arriving in Tonga, the Canadians will hold a training camp in Nadi, Fiji, and will scrimmage against the academy side of the Fijian Drua, Fiji's Super Rugby team.
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.
Canada had only four outings in 2022, losing to No. 20 Spain 57-34 in Ottawa and beating No. 29 Belgium 45-0 win in Halifax in July before downing the 26th-ranked Dutch 37-25 and falling 43-37 to No. 21 Namibia in November.
Jones has named a 41-player long list for the Tonga tour, which will be cut down to a 32-man travelling roster in July.
Thirty-two players on the long list ply their trade in Major League Rugby, including 11 with the Toronto Arrows. Jones said there were 58 Canadians in the league this season.
Not everyone is available for the tour, given it bumps heads with the Rugby Americas North Sevens Olympic qualifying tournament Aug. 19-20 in Langford, B.C.
"It's a really good opportunity for us to grow our group," said Jones, who expects to have more games in November.
His goal is to have 45 players in place, three deep in every position, by the time qualification starts for the 2027 World Cup, likely in 2025.
Forward Matt Beukeboom, who plays in France, is sidelined with a shoulder injury. 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.
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 at the Sunshine Coast Stadium in Australia.
Canada has a 5-4-0 career record against Tonga but lost the last two meetings — 33-23 August 2019 in Lautoka, Fiji, and 28-18 in July 2018 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 all three encounters: 25-20 in 2011 in New Zealand, 24-7 in 2003 in Australia and 37-4 in 1987 in New Zealand.
Rugby Canada's Tonga Tour Long List
Andrew Quattrin, Holland’s Landing, Ont., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Calixto Martinez, White Rock, B.C., Old Glory DC (MLR); Callum Botchar, Vancouver, New Plymouth Old Boys (New Zealand); Cole Keith, Apohaqui, N.B., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Conor Keys, Stittsville, Ont., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Conor Young, Yamba, 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, BC) — Spotswood United RFC (New Zealand); Jacob Bossi, Victoria, Spotswood United RFC (New Zealand); Kyle Steeves, Winnipeg, Dallas Jackals (MLR); Liam Murray, Langley, B.C., Dallas Jackals (MLR); Lindsey Stevens, Sydney, Australia, Chicago Hounds (MLR); Lucas Rumball, Toronto, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Mason Flesch, Cobourg, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Matthew Klimchuk, Regina, Pacific Pride; Owain Ruttan, Cobourg, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Piers Von Dadelszen, Vancouver, Oxford University; Reegan O’Gorman, Vancouver, New England Free Jacks (MLR); Siaki Vikilani, Vancouver, American Raptors (Super Rugby Americas); Travis Larsen, Parksville, B.C., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Tyler Rowland, Mississauga, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Tyler Wong, North Vancouver, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Zephyr Melnyk, Gabriola Island, B.C., Pacific Pride.
Ben LeSage, 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); Liam Bowman, Oakville, Ont., Toronto Arrows (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); Takoda McMullin, Surrey, B.C., UBC; Talon McMullin, Surrey, B.C., UBC.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2023