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Northern rocks: Canadian rugby

By Sean Davies
BBC Sport

Nickname: Maple Leaves, Canucks
Colours: Red, white and black
Rugby songs: O Canada

Although rugby in Canada enjoys a strong cult following, its failure to take hold like in other English-speaking lands of the old Empire has been largely blamed on the vast distances between the game's hot-beds in the country.

Canada legend Al Charron in action against Wales at the 2003 World Cup

In a land of extreme climate, vast distances and low-density population, organising a regular fixture list is fraught with difficulties.

But the harsh, outdoor lifestyle of the land has ensured the production of rugged athletes, attuned to the demands of contact sport and always ready to present an in-your-face challenge on the rugby field.

The sport's introduction to Canada in the 1860s is accredited to the influence of British navy and army elements and the enthusiasm of immigrants.

The country's east and west coasts are the traditional heartlands of the game, but the first match on record was between artillery men in Montreal in 1864.

Also in that year, Trinity College, Toronto, published Canada's first set of rugby rules, and four years later the country's first club was formed in Montreal.

On the east coast, the first club was Halifax (1870), while the first match in British Columbia did not come until 1876.

Gareth Rees
Canada fly-half great Gareth Rees

The Great War was the catalyst for growth in the game, with returning servicemen eager to take up the sport, and in 1919 a Canadian services team played overseas against representatives from England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

The Rugby Union of Canada (now known as Rugby Canada) was formed in 1929, and in 1932 a Canadian representatives side toured Japan.

The Second World War interrupted the development of the game, but its popularity ensured that rugby survived and thrived in the aftermath in the country's 10 provincial unions.

Wales won a non-cap game with Canada 56-10 in Cardiff in 1971, and another 58-20 in Toronto in 1973.

But the Maple Leaves' first Test with Wales was in Invercargill, New Zealand, in the inaugural World Cup in 1987.

Having enjoyed pool wins over Ireland and Tonga, Wales were shocked to find themselves 9-6 down at half-time following three penalties from Canada's fly-half great, Gareth Rees.

Canada celebrate at Cardiff Arms Park in 1993
Canada's win over Wales in Cardiff in 1993 was wildly celebrated

Acting captain Jonathan Davies rallied Wales after the break, though, as they ran in seven tries to top the group on their way to third place in the tournament.

It would be a very different story in the next meeting between the countries, as Canada claimed a 26-24 win at Cardiff Arms Park, a day recorded as one of the proudest in the country's rugby history.

In a desperate Wales performance - an inauspicious debut game for Scott Quinnell - there was a communication breakdown between coach Alan Davies and fly-half Adrian Davies.

But for all the difficulties, eight penalties from centre Neil Jenkins saw the home side 24-19 ahead as the game went into the dying seconds.

In a final, desperate attack, the ball came to Al Charron, Canadian rugby's most-capped player and perhaps its greatest servant.

The lock crashed over, leaving a tricky conversion for Rees.

The fly-half, who had enjoyed a superb game, was on the point of joining Newport, but showed no mixed emotions as he delivered the killer blow.

Wales got their chance for revenge in 1994 when they visited Canada on the way to a South Seas tour.

A Canadian XV were despatched 28-19 in Hamilton, before the Test match in Markham.

Scott Quinnell in action against Canada in 2002
Scott Quinnell played his first and last internationals against Canada

Rees kicked Canada ahead, but Mike Rayer had an influential game for the tourists, Mike Hall crossed for a brace, and Ieuan Evans sealed the game with a record-equalling 20th international try in a 33-15 Wales win.

Wales returned in 1997 and, after a 54-10 win over Ontario in Hamilton, again faced the Canucks in Markham.

Most of the Canada squad were playing professional rugby in Britain by this time.

Bobby Ross - who kicked a 50-yard drop goal in the opening minute - and the outstanding John Tait were soon to join Cardiff, and they helped their side into a 25-21 lead.

It was looking like a famous win for the home side, but in the closing minutes centre Leigh Davies made a powerful burst for the crucial try in a 28-25 Wales win.

Neil Jenkins scored 28 points in a forgettable, 33-19 win for Wales at the Millennium Stadium in a 1999 World Cup warm-up game.

Canada were back at the Millennium Stadium in November 2002, Scott Quinnell's last international match.

Canada fly-half Jared Barker kept his side in contention with six penalties, but there was to be no repeat of Quinnell's first-cap Canadian misery.

Ceri Sweeney in action against Canada at the 2003 World Cup
Wales hold three World Cup wins over Canada

Tries from Robin McBryde and Dafydd James gave Steve Hansen's side a 32-21 win in a scrappy, indisciplined game.

Wales faced the Canucks in their opening game of the 2003 World Cup in Australia.

Canada started well at Melbourne's Telstra Dome, but Iestyn Harris began to orchestrate Wales' play and they ran in five tries in a comfortable 41-10 win.

Qualification for the Australia tournament meant that Canada had played in all five World Cups.

The move to professional rugby has been difficult, though, with their playing resources being distributed to leagues in England, Wales and France to multiply the traditional problems of gathering and training the national squad.

Matthew Jones in action against Canada in 2005
A young Welsh side enjoyed success in Canada in 2005

With the Maple Leaves, in a transitional phase in 2005, a young Wales touring side challenged them at the York Stadium, Toronto.

The visitors' Grand Slam stars were absent on the Lions tour, but the team were on a roll and ran in nine tries in a rampant, 60-3 victory.

Nine more tries followed in a 61-26 Wales win at the Millennium Stadium in the autumn 2006 series.

The Maple Leaves made Wales sweat at the start of their ill-fated 2007 World Cup, leading 17-9 after 45 minutes in Nantes before Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas came off the bench to inspire a 42-17 comeback win.

Canada were predictably obdurate against a second-string Welsh side at the Millennium Stadium in November 2008, before the home side's scrum power delivered two penalty tries and the fast-rising Leigh Halfpenny crossed for a brace in a 34-13 home win.

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see also
Wales v Canada: Full record
27 Sep 06 |  Rugby Union
O Canada - Canadian anthem
27 Sep 06 |  Rugby Union
Scrum V's rugby history
11 Aug 07 |  Welsh
Country profile: Canada
26 Jan 12 |  Country profiles

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