Canada Wolverines begin journey to 2025 Rugby League World Cup with game in Tampa

While the Canada Ravens women compete at the Rugby League World Cup currently underway in England, Canada's men are taking their first steps towards the 2025 tournament.

The men, known as the Wolverines, play the USA Hawks on Saturday in a one-off international in Tampa, Fla.

The Canadians, who have not seen action since a 2019 tour to Serbia, are building towards next year's Americas Championship, which doubles as a 2025 World Cup qualifier for the region.

"This is the beginning of the journey," said Canada coach Aaron Zimmerle, who is working with an "emerging squad" featuring 12 national team debutants.

Rugby league's modest presence in Canada was dimmed during the pandemic, like other sports. Zimmerle is using Saturday's game to plan ahead.

"It's really important that we find the next generation of talent, the ones that are going to experience this test match now and then be prepared enough for the qualifiers and hopefully anything that comes after that," Zimmerle said.

Canada and the U.S. have agreed to play with a 19-man matchday roster instead of the normal 17, to give more players a chance to see action.

Canada is captained by Australian-born veteran Rhys Jacks, whose grandfather was born in Toronto.

Jacks helped the Toronto Wolfpack, rugby’s first transatlantic team, win promotion out of English rugby league's third tier in its inaugural 2017 season. The now-defunct team reluctantly released him the next season because he did not have a Canadian passport — Canadian citizenship for people with such blood ties is now essentially limited to the first generation born outside Canada.

So the Canada captain was considered an overseas player, who are subject to roster limits under league rules. International regulations are more favourable to developing rugby league countries.

Jacks now plays for the Ipswich Jets in Australia's regional Queensland Cup competition.

Ryley Jacks, Rhys' younger brother, has played with the Melbourne Storm and Gold Coast Titans in Australia's top-tier NRL and is currently with England's Featherstone Rovers. Ryley is unavailable for Saturday's game because of the impending birth of his child.

Fellow Wolverine Jordan Cella is with England's Thatto Heath Crusaders.

The rest of the Canadian roster is drawn from players at Ontario and B.C. clubs like the Toronto Dragons, Vancouver Dragons, Vancouver Valley Vipers, Whistler Wolves and Valley Warriors (from Surrey B.C.).

The American team is drawn from teams like the Atlanta Rhinos, Jacksonville Axemen, Southwest Florida Copperheads and Tampa Mayhem. The U.S. coach is Australian-born Sean Rutgerson, who played professionally in Australia with the NRL Canberra Raiders and England with Salford.

Born in Canada and raised in Australia, Zimmerle was first appointed Canada coach in 2015 ahead of World Cup qualifiers. The Wolverines tied Jamaica 18-18 before losing 34-24 to an American squad led by Brian McDermott, who went on to coach the Toronto Wolfpack. The U.S. represented the Americas at the 2017 World Cup.

Zimmerle stepped down in 2016 but was reappointed in August 2020.

Jamaica is representing the Americas at the current World Cup in England, which was originally due to kick off in September 2021 but was postponed due to COVID.

The Reggae Warriors advanced by beating Canada 38-8 and the U.S. 18-10 in the 2018 qualifying tournament. The Wolverines, then coached by Canada-based Australian Ben Fleming, finished third after thumping Chile 62-12.

The Jamaica men are currently ranked 21st in the world, compared to No. 27 for the U.S. and No. 38 for Canada. Zimmerle doesn't pay too much attention to such numbers, saying the rankings are skewed due to teams' recent inactivity.

Zimmerle was born in Surrey, B.C., to a Canadian mother and Australian father. He was nine when the family moved to Australia, where he found rugby league at the age of 14 in high school on the Gold Coast.

He went on to play at the semi-pro level, spending time in the reserve grade with the Penrith Panthers organization and then in the regional competitions.

The Canada coaching job is a volunteer position. Zimmerle has coached in the Queensland Cup and is a longtime teacher and coach at Palm Beach Currumbin State High School on the Gold Coast. Known for its Sports Excellence program, the school has produced a long line of NRL players, including Darius Boyd, Tom Dearden, Ben Hannant and Kevin Proctor.

Rugby league is the 13-player version of the code, as opposed to 15-player rugby union. It is played primarily in Australia, England and New Zealand.


Canada Wolverines

Greg Wise, Charles Curran, Christian Miller, Kimi Vinituraga, Rhys Jacks (capt.), Jordan Cella, Niko Andrionas, Jacob Bourne, Dave Astley, Jason Chuck, Scott Christian, Jordan Henry, Nick Hails, Scyler Dumas, Colton Carpenter, Lawrence Davies, Blake Mahovic, Josh Michalik.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press