Sports·Preview

Underdog Canadian rugby team hopes to dampen Ireland's party

Canada's men's rugby team will try to show it's more than just cannon fodder when it visits Dublin on Saturday to face an Irish team that's still celebrating one of the greatest victories in its country's sporting history.

Irish are fresh off stunning upset of New Zealand in Chicago

Canada's D.T.H. van der Merwe, right, scores a try against Ireland at last year's Rugby World Cup. The speedy winger makes his return for the national team in this weekend's match against the Irish in Dublin. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

Understandably, the party in Chicago will continue for some time.

When you've waited 108 years for your team to climb the mountain, it's only natural to celebrate. The Cubs' World Series victory, achieved in the most dramatic of circumstances, will be discussed, dissected and revered for generations to come.

The triumphant tone in Chicago resonated all the way across the Atlantic. In Ireland, hundreds of thousands of fans rejoiced. They, too, had waited more than a century.

But this had nothing to do with baseball.

The Irish Times' headline was predictably bullish: "Cubs move over, Irish lionhearts cast their own spell in Chicago." After 111 years of trying and failing, Ireland's rugby team finally beat the mighty New Zealand All Blacks.

Chicago's Soldier Field was crammed with more than 63,000 fans for last Saturday's match. Plenty came to support Ireland, but most expected to see the All Blacks continue their global domination.

What followed sent shockwaves across the rugby world. In the space of 80 intense, nerve-wracking minutes, New Zealand's record-breaking 18-match winning streak came to an end with a 40-29 defeat.

The best team on the planet is human after all.


Irish face high expectations

Ireland can't wait to welcome home its conquering heroes. It will do so in front of a full house in Dublin on Saturday. Dignitaries and celebrities will join hoards of passionate Irish fans to help mark one of the most iconic moments in the country's sporting history.

Canada has also been invited to the party — as cannon fodder.

The Canadian team kicks off a three-match tour at the new epicentre of European rugby on Saturday (watch live at 2 p.m. ET on CBC Television and CBCSports.ca).

It should be a festival of free flowing Irish rugby as the visitors suck it up and take what's coming. Ireland will be in no mood for charity, and after beating the All Blacks a nation expects another flawless performance.

That may just be easier said than done. Even in today's world of supremely fit and focused professional sport, it is still difficult to follow up a world-class display. After all, the boot is now on the other foot — Canada plays the part of underdog in Dublin just as Ireland did in Chicago.

Tall order for Canada

Let's be pragmatic. Canada has never beaten Ireland and, based on last year's Rugby World Cup, when the Irish cruised to a 50-7 victory, we shouldn't expect the luck of the Irish, if it exists, to rub off on Canada.

The Canadians go into battle without the services of several seasoned veterans. The absence of Jebb Sinclair, Jamie Cudmore and the MacKenzie brothers certainly doesn't help the cause, but there are pros as well as cons.

Captain Aaron Carpenter will move within one game of Al Charron's Canadian record of 76 caps when he leads Canada out for the match and, for the first time since his four-try showing at the World Cup, D.T.H. van der Merwe pulls on a Canadian jersey. At his best, the speedy, agile Canadian winger is more than a handful for even the best defences. Canada's back line is stronger and more dangerous with van der Merwe's name on the team sheet.

Canada's recently installed coach will be looking for positives. Kiwi Mark Anscombe will take encouragement from narrow summer losses to Japan and Italy and will hope this tour demonstrates further signs of progress. Anscombe won't expect a win in Dublin but will demand his players remain competitive as long as possible.

Ultimately, there is no logical thesis that supports a Canadian win. There is, however, the potential for Rugby Canada to learn and gradually improve.

It took Ireland more than a century to finally scale the summit. Down at base camp, Canada's arduous ascent is only just beginning. 

With files from The Canadian Press

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