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Kelly: Drowning postmortem offers little for Canadian men’s rugby program

For many years, Canadian men's rugby was a water-treading international endeavour. The senior team never could quite manage a signature moment or tournament, but the players did routinely keep their heads in the air.

That quiet streak ended on the weekend, as the men's rugby team slipped underwater for the first time.

Canada didn't just lose to the United States in the second leg of a home-and-away qualification for the World Cup. It was manhandled 52-16 in a sloppy effort. This will be the first time in the history of the Rugby World Cup that Canada has not qualified directly into the tournament.

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Afterward, Rugby Canada announced it would be conducting a "comprehensive review" of recent play "including all aspects of our technical, tactical and logistical protocols."

Yes, I'm sure that will fix things: 'It's possible that after four-dozen interviews and hundreds of hours of dissecting game tape, we may have identified the problem. We keep scoring less points than the other guy.'

Internal investigations – especially ones that are publicly announced beforehand – are for organizations in auto-da-fé mode. Because when you start looking for people to blame, you have guaranteed you will find them. Otherwise, what was the point?

The internal turmoil will be matched by increasing external pressures. The key problem with Canadian rugby is that too few of our top competitors play professionally in the best leagues in the world. Some others don't play at all until they're called onto the national team. Essentially, Canada's rugby team doesn't play rugby. And certainly not the type of rugby that makes players better.

The Canadian set-up can't manufacture those experiences or simulate that level. The best route for a player into an English, French or Australian professional competition is by catching notice at a major tournament. Such as the World Cup.

And it will go without saying that it is difficult for a young hopeful to look his best when his team is getting repeatedly buried by middling competition.

Getting it from both inside and outside – this is how bad streaks become death spirals.

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Canada can still qualify for Japan 2019, but will have to wait until next February to do it. It plays Uruguay in a last-chance home-and-away playoff. Canada has already lost to the South American side once this year, though narrowly and while fielding an inexperienced team.

The problem isn't qualification as such. Let's assume Canada qualifies, because if it doesn't the whole operation will have to be scorched. That doesn't require planning. It just needs a few people moving around the organization sticking demolition charges to administrative I-beams. Then you start again, presumably with a comprehensive review of the previous comprehensive review.

The problem now is time.

The next eight months should have been spent scaring up sponsorship money and taking concrete steps to get the national team into World Cup-shape. This is not to suggest that Canada would ever have been any sort of favourite, but the entry alone would have given the set-up two years of ballast. Now that might've been a good time for an unannounced review of what's going on, followed by some quiet changes. You get more good work done when there is no panic to do so.

All that potential calm has gone out the window. Now the next eight months will be spent in an ugly stasis, sweating the result of two games you probably wish you could play right now just to get them over with.

This is an 'idle hands do the devil's work' scenario. Because the ship is listing, a lot of people will need to be seen running around with their hair on fire trying to do something, though there's nothing to really do. Canada is either better than Uruguay or it isn't. The team you already have will either be up for it or it won't. No amount of executive early mornings will affect the outcome one way or the other. All they can do is add to a general, unsettled sense of unease.

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The only people who can fix this now are on the team.

The soundings from that level aren't very good either. Canadian coach Mark Anscombe was suitably excoriating after Saturday's game. One of the many lovely things about the sport is that its practitioners are encouraged to speak plainly. There was none of that "good effort, bad result" nonsense that infects most North American games. Anscombe knew his team was bad and said so.

The worrying thing was how structural Anscombe was in his criticisms. To hear him tell it, the Canadians didn't lose because they were out-hustled or out-thought. They lost because the entire program is intrinsically flawed.

"One of the major differences you saw out there today was the size of the big men [the United States] has coming onto the field. We don't have those types of players," he said. "In today's game, you have to have big men that can carry the ball and get you forward and we're not producing them in Canada."

It's not quite a white flag, but it does sound like someone who would like to retreat for the winter and rethink the whole war.

Freed of the responsibility of planning for Japan, Anscombe has plenty of time now to cogitate what it all means.

Unfortunately, these sorts of performance limbos rarely generate positive ideas or change. More often, they represent the quiet that precedes collapse.

Video: Canada confident ahead of Rugby World Cup qualifier (The Canadian Press)
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