Canada are one of the stalwarts of World Cup rugby, being one of only three countries outside the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship powerhouses to feature in every tournament (alongside Japan and Romania) and have consistently proven themselves as one of the second tier's most combative of opponents. However, their renowned hard work and physicality has had a few subtle layers added to it in recent years under the watchful eye of former All Black Kieran Crowley and they went to the 2011 tournament determined to grab at least third place in their pool and the automatic qualification for 2015 that came with it.
A win, a draw and a heroic loss at the hands of the French left them in pole position to achieve exactly that until Tonga's upset win over Les Bleus snatched it away at the death but their performances left no-one in any doubt that they are an emerging force and one that has the potential to make serious strides in the sport over the years to come.
DTH Van Der Merwe was one of the highlights of their tournament, illustrating his potency in both attack and defence and proving to be a major thorn in any opposition midfield. The Glasgow Warriors centre is currently on the road to recovery following shoulder surgery but it did give him plenty of time to dissect his second World Cup experience in detail. He tells Canada's story ¦
Game 1 “ Canada 25 Tonga 20
For neutrals, this was a terrific game to watch with the lead changing hands until Canada snuck home at the death but what was it like in the thick of the action - Frustrating? Exciting? Nerve-wracking?
DTH Van Der Merwe: "It was definitely nerve-wrecking out on the pitch but we knew this was going to happen as Tonga are a quality side with real experience throughout their team, we just needed to play a full eighty minutes to squeeze out the win. We spoke all week leading up to that game that they're a team of big hitters and hard runners but that it was possible for them to run out of a little gas by the end of the game.
At 20-13, the Tongans were looking strong, were you always confident of coming home for victory?
DTH: "To be honest, I knew that if we could just keep a hold of the ball that we'd be able to score. The second half was always going to be tougher and the tactics had drastically changed from the first forty minutes as there was a crazy wind blowing into our faces that made it very difficult to get out of our half. We just needed to stay close and really concentrate in that last twenty minutes, which we did.
Coach Kieran Crowley said that 2-3yrs ago, Canada would have lost this game, so what's happened specifically over that time to enable such a result?
DTH: "The biggest thing that I think has changed is the belief in the team, you have to believe you can beat teams in every phase of the game before you can even start thinking about winning. That belief and experience we now have as a squad has certainly grown over the last two to three years and playing in two Churchill Cup Finals has helped. In the past, we would probably have been playing the USA for fifth place for only getting one win in the tournament. We've started getting used to winning key games and that will always have a positive effect on a team. Maybe in the past, we would have let the margin between us slip away but instead this time we reacted and made sure that we were the next ones to score.
One of the ways of measuring a side's ability is it's strength in depth and it has to be said that Canada's bench played a significant role in turning things around in this match, particularly in that last 10 minutes. Having such a strong match day 22 is another indicator of progress isn't it?
DTH: "Our entire World Cup Campaign was geared around the whole squad being part of this team and not only the twenty-two on match day. Sure, the twenty-two did their job that day, but it was the work of the other eight guys we didn't dress that game that had a huge factor in the way our bench played. Guys pushed each other to the max to make the starting line-up and then to get a spot on the bench. Competition was an everyday thing in our squad, whether it was for a spot on the team or whether you won the card game the night before and I think that's why guys were ready to step up when it was their time to play. The seven guys that came off the bench in this one made a huge impact and their commitment was what, in the end, won us that game.
This clash was a great advert for the more rounded game that Canada now bring to the table compared to the last World Cup. That forward power and competitiveness is still there in spades but you've added some extra dimensions in attack. Do you agree?
DTH: "Yes, I think we've brought back that tough Canadian mentality to our defensive game and that then resulted in us having more ball in hand. We were then able to excel in other departments, as in our attack.
A look at the tackle stats for this match shows three Canadians at the top of the list Jamie Cudmore, Adam Kleeburger and Jebb Sinclair. That work rate, desire and appetite for the hard yards really paid off didn't it?
DTH: "Our team was fit and we wanted to restore the old Canadian style of play to our game, the nitty gritty type of things that won us this match. Our forwards knew that the Tongans were big hitters but we needed to win that battle first to have any chance of winning this game. We've really concentrated on our defense in the last few years with coach Clive Griffiths and the amount of tackles our forwards made just shows you how much pride we took in that.
Game 2 “ Canada 19 France 46
Having seen how France performed against Japan in their first match, you must have gone into this one with some greater confidence?
DTH: "This was going to be a tough game for us no matter what, we were just hoping that the French team wouldn't show up but that's obviously what happened when they played Tonga. They are a world class team on any given day but they can also have some bad days at the office so we needed to play out of our skins and they needed to have an average game. At the end of the day it was a match played in wet conditions with a lot of dropped balls and we let ourselves down.
You were 10-10 after 17 mins and only 25-16 behind after 63mins “ you must have had increasing belief as the game went on that the French weren't firing on all cylinders and may be there for the taking?
DTH: "It was a tough day to get things going because of the rain but yes, there was a little bit of belief that we could get some points out of this match, whether it was a win, a draw or a bonus losing point. I think we definitely put some pressure on them and that was a good feeling for us as a Canadian team. It was there for us but we let it slide with some key errors.
If you look at the way the scoring went, it was really 5 minutes of poor play and ill discipline at the end of both halves that cost you. You could have been a lot closer couldn't you?
DTH: "Just thinking about this games makes me sad, we had an opportunity as a Canadian team to make history and we let it slide. If you look at the final score it looks like a blow out but that wasn't the way the game went. These top tier nations can score from anywhere on the pitch and that showed in the closing moments when one missed tackle had a domino effect and in the end they scored two tries in two minutes. Ultimately, we gifted them twenty-three points - if we hadn't it would have been a totally different ball game.
Conceding 13 penalties and missing 23 tackles was always going to leave you a little bit short in terms of getting the right result but there were still plenty of positives to take away from this game?
DTH: "Yes, those were definitely key factors in us losing this game but hopefully we'll learn from this experience and it makes us a better team in the future. We're getting closer each year to competing with big teams like France but it's times like these where we need to make the right decisions on every play or else we pay for it. We put out a great performance as a squad and scored some points and those have to be marked down as positives for us - especially against a quality team who, in the end, played in the final.
Could you believe that they went onto the final considering their form in the pool stages or is that just the enigma that is French rugby?
DTH: "Yes, like I said before, France can beat anyone on their day and I think New Zealand got lucky in that final. Everyone knows what the French are like and you never know what you'll get until you start playing. They're a team with a 'never say die' mentality and that is something every rugby player in the world can learn from.
Half-Time Quick Hits
Best match you saw not involving Canada?
DTH: "Ireland vs Australia.
Six of the best players of the tournament (three from the Northern Hemisphere, three from the Southern Hemisphere)?
DTH: "Sam Warburton, Thierry Dusautoir, Sean O'Brien; Conrad Smith, David Pocock and Piri Weepu.
Best emerging individual talent?
DTH: "Patrick Lambie.
DTH: "GonzÃ¡lez Amorosino for Argentina against Scotland.
Best team other than the All Blacks?
Ones to watch in 2015 “ players and/or teams?
DTH: "Australia; Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper and James O'Connor.
Game 3 “ Canada 23 Japan 23
Canada started well in this one but didn't take full advantage and were 17-7 down at the break, do you remember what the focus was at half-time?
DTH: "The half time chat obviously contained some stern words and we had to really think about what we wanted out of this tournament. We needed to get the ball in our playmakers hands and go from there and it was close to being a great comeback but in the end, the clock won the race and we had to settle for a second draw against them in back to back World Cups.
As much as Canada have improved on the eye, Japan's exciting, up tempo game saw them running at every opportunity and testing your line whilst you had to really front up physically to try and contain them with your power advantage. Is that how you saw it?
DTH: "Every team that ever plays Japan will know that they are a great team that is constantly improving due to their professional league but the first thing that springs to mind is their discipline towards fitness. They are a well-balanced team with a lot of physicality and speed and we knew that we needed to out power them up front to be able to make any strides in this game. That being said, I think we've worked really hard in the last four years to improve our game as well - especially in attack - and I think both those styles were on show that day from either team.
More evidence of the spirit, heart and fitness in the side was on show in the final 10 minutes when you fought back from 23-15 down to share the spoils but in fairness to Japan, they had played a game more at this stage of the competition. Do you think that helped you?
DTH: "I don't think heart and spirit ever lacked any Canadian side, but I have to agree that not only match fitness but also strength has improved for most players and it's funny what a little desperation can do to a side. We knew that if we lost this game that there was no chance of automatically qualifying for the next World Cup so the guys dug deep to get a better result. I'm sure an extra game might have affected Japan but I guess all the tier two nations were in the same boat at some point in the tournament - which is very sad and unfair.
Is it fair to say that too many handling errors in good positions and possibly a bit of complacency cost you a better result?
DTH: "Yes, I think we kind of shot ourselves in the foot not being able to convert our possession into points. After getting that first score so early on in the game I think we expected things to be easier than it was in the end. We let Japan play to their strengths and we were happy to just continue defending. They made it hard at times but we really let a win slide in that game.
Game 4 “ Canada 15 New Zealand 79
You went into this game after Tonga's surprise win over the French which effectively stole that crucial 3rd place spot from you. Did that change the mental approach to this one?
DTH: "No matter when this game was played it was always going to be our toughest game of the tournament. To all of us it was a like a dream come true to play the best team in the world and playing it in their own backyard made it even more special. We just wanted to go out there and play some rugby and enjoy the occasion. We scored a few tries and overall it was a great experience for everyone.
All the media focus in the week was on Colin Slade and whether he could step into the sizeable shoes of the injured Dan Carter. Did you change any plans during the week as a result of Carter's absence?
DTH: "Not at all. Colin Slade might not be Dan Carter but that doesn't mean he couldn't fill in where Dan left off. The only thing that could have counted in our favour was that he maybe didn't know all of their systems and plays but in the end he filled those shoes really well.
It was 37-3 a couple of minutes before half-time but two tries either side of the break from Conor Trainor got you back to 37-15 and caused a few anxious breaths in the Kiwi crowd. That must have been a serious confidence booster for the team as well as giving Conor something to dine out on for a few years?
DTH: "It will always boost a teams confidence to score against such a great team like the All Blacks and yes, it must have been a very special day for Conor to score both Canada's tries but it was a big mountain to climb in the end. He's a great young player with a very bright future ahead of him and let's just hope that he continues his form for years to come in the Canadian jersey.
Playing against the eventual world champions was always going to be a tough day at the office but you'd still have been disappointed to lose two of your own throws, four of your own scrums and miss 40 tackles in the match. Did the game offer a great learning tool for Canada for the future, seeing what it takes to go to another level?
DTH: "What can you say? That's why New Zealand is the best team in the world, they have the potential to disrupt you at every phase of the game. Yes, we can all learn something from that match. We had very little possession, so all statistics were going to be lopsided but forty missed tackles is too high to keep the score in perspective.
Looking back at the tournament as a whole, should we describe Canada's World Cup as a success, as a failure or somewhere in between?
DTH: "I think it was a huge success for us as a country. The public interest has grown hugely - especially after the TV coverage we received through TSN this year, before and during the World Cup. This can only have a positive affect on rugby as a whole in Canada, so let's hope people will come out and support us and also get their kids out at an earlier age to start playing the game. We have a lot to work on but can definitely say that we have improved from the previous World Cup and things are looking brighter for Canadian rugby in the future.
Kieran Crowley has been at the helm for what has been a fairly successful period for Canadian rugby with your Churchill Cup progress and a highest IRB world ranking of 11th. How important is it for future improvement that he stays around?
DTH: "It's hugely important for Kieran to stay with the Canadian team for years to come. He is a great coach that understands the game extremely well and I think our results over the last four years speak for themselves. Look at how long Graham Henry was at the helm and how long it took him to win a World Cup. It takes time to reach your goals and Kieran is the man who will lead Canada to our goals as a coach. He has a lot to offer and I think he has the Canadian national team on the right track.
What's your take on the mistreatment of the lower ranked nations in terms of rest days between matches - do you agree that things need to change for England 2015?
DTH: "Paint everyone with the same brush. Everyone should get the same amount of days off between games, it had a huge effect and we would probably have seen some massive upsets if that was the case .We knew we had a tough schedule and had to get our heads around it before we even got to the World Cup and obviously, one of the main obstacles was that of short turnarounds but we did our best to get mentally prepared for it.
"That being said, I still don't think it was right to be treated that way. I think if anything, maybe the top tier nations with their enormous talent pools should have a shorter turnaround? They have a bigger selection of high quality players and usually, their squad of thirty would be a lot stronger than a tier two nation. I surely hope that the IRB works out a better schedule for 2015.
What has to happen in Canadian rugby over the next 4yrs to ensure that they're in a better position to compete at England 2015?
DTH: "Continue what we're doing right now. Get as many players as possible into professional leagues so that we can get used to playing in big pressure games every weekend and for the guys who are at home to continue working on skills, fitness and strength work.
What did you think of the tournament experience as a whole and does New Zealand deserve another World Cup in the future?
DTH: "It was a massive success for New Zealand as a country and for rugby all over the world. The people were very kind and it was a good experience, however, I'm not sure they would be able to host another World Cup. The game is always growing and more and more people will want to experience it “ I'm not sure if New Zealand has the facilities to go any bigger!
This article was previously published at www.ruggamatrix.com