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The Canadian men's rugby team returns to action this weekend for the first time in almost eight months, facing the same opponent that it closed out 2021 against.
Canada, currently ranked 21st in the world, blanked No. 26 Belgium 24-0 on Nov. 13 in Brussels. The two teams renew acquaintances Saturday in Halifax, with the Canadians then heading to Ottawa to host No. 15 Spain on July 10.
Spain was a late replacement for the French Barbarians, an all-star side that withdrew from the Canadian fixture but kept a date Friday with the U.S. Eagles in Houston.
For Canada coach Kingsley Jones, the July tests are among the first steps on the road to the 2027 World Cup. Beaten in two-legged qualifying series by the 18th-ranked Americans and No. 23 Chile last year, the Canadian men find themselves spectators for next year's world showcase in France after making all nine previous editions of the tournament.
Jones has had to dig deep into his talent pool with 20 players injured or unavailable for selection, including Tyler Ardron, Eric Howard, Kyle Baillie, Shane O’Leary, Spencer Jones, Matt Tierney, Andrew Coe, Jake Thiel and sevens skipper Phil Berna.
Still, Jones is positive about his squad.
"I'm quite pleased with the group we have. There's some familiar faces, from last year. We need to build on that," he said. "The biggest thing is when we get to (World Cup) qualification in 2025, we need guys playing in those games with 10 to 20 test (caps) experience. Not like we were last year unfortunately."
Jones, understandably, also wants to get his team back in the win column. Canada is 5-22-0 since the fall of 2018 with the lone wins coming against Chile (twice), the U.S., Belgium and a B.C. all-star side.
Canada beat Belgium 43-12 in their only other meeting — in 2010 in Brussels — prior to the November encounter. And while Jones says he respects the Belgians, he says it's a team Canada should beat.
The Canadian men lost 20-17 to No. 20 Portugal in Lisbon in their other November test.
In addition to getting his young players test experience, Jones is looking to get back into the top 20 rankings as they build for the next round of World Cup qualifying.
A loss Saturday and Canada will drop one place to No. 22 — the slide will grow to three spots if they are beaten by more than 15 points. That bigger margin of victory would move the Belgians past Russia into 25th — with a move up to No. 24 possible of if Namibia loses to Burkina Faso.
Canada sevens players Cooper Coats, a Halifax native, and Brock Webster start at fullback and wing, respectively, at Wanderers Grounds. Fellow sevens player Matthew Oworu is among the replacements.
Lindsey Stevens, Callum Botcher and Dawson Fatoric could make their debut off the bench.
Botcher, a forward who can play lock and in the back row, has impressed in his work with the developmental Pacific Pride side. Stevens Fatoric, a centre, is another Pride product while the Australian-born Stevens is a hooker with the Los Angeles Giltinis who is eligible to play for Canada through his grandfather.
Twelve of the 15 starters play in Major League Rugby with fly half Peter Nelson the only starter based in Europe, with Aurillac in the French second division.
Toronto Arrows backrower Lucas Rumball captains the side. Jason Higgins starts at scrum half with Quinn Ngawati, fresh off Rugby New York's MLR championship win, starts at inside centre.
Jason Higgins starts at scrum half for Canada.
Scotland's Hollie Davidson will referee Saturday's game. In taking charge of Italy’s 38-31 win over Portugal last week, she became the first woman to referee a match involving a men’s Six Nations team. The game in Lisbon featured another first with an all-female match official team for a men’s international.
Halifax has hosted two previous men's test matches, both losses to the U.S. (21-12 in July 1997 and 42-17 in June 2018).
Djustice Sears-Duru, Oakville, Ont., Los Angeles Giltinis (MLR); Andrew Quattrin, Holland Landing, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Jake Ilnicki, Williams Lake, B.C., Old Glory DC; Josh Larsen, Nanaimo, B.C., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Conor Keys, Stittsville, Ont., Rugby AT: (MLR); Lucas Rumball, Markham, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Michael Smith, White Rock, B.C., San Diego Legion (MLR); Corey Thomas, Broome, Australia, L.A. Giltinis; Jason Higgins, Cork, Ireland, San Diego Legion (MLR); Peter Nelson, Dungannon, Northern Ireland, Aurillac (France); Kainoa Lloyd, Mississauga, ONT., San Diego Legion (MLR); Quinn Ngawati, Victoria, Rugby United New York (MLR); Ben LeSage, Calgary, L.A. Giltinis (MLR); Brock Webster, Uxbridge, Ont., Oshawa Vikings; Cooper Coats, Halifax, Halifax Tars.
Lindsey Stevens, Sydney, Australia, L.A. Giltinis (MLR); Liam Murray, Langley, B.C., Dallas Jackals (MLR); Tyler Rowland, Mississauga, Ont., Toronto Nomads; Matthew Oworu, Calgary, Pacific Pride; Luke Campbell, Victoria, Old Glory DC (MLR); Ross Braude, Pretoria, South Africa, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Gradyn Bowd, Red Deer, Alta., Castaway Wanderers; Dawson Fatoric, Ottawa, Pacific Pride.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press