By Brian Lowe, Date: 12/12/17 (Photo Credit NRLPhotos)
2017 has been like a tale of two cities for rugby league in Canada.
On the one hand, the men’s national team the Wolverines had a disappointing run, but on the flipside, the new women’s national team the Ravens made quite a splash on debut on the international scene.
The Wolverines had high hopes going into 2017. A new head coach Ben Fleming was appointed, there were plans on the table to expand inter-provincial games to give selectors more players to look at, and in line with that, some new up and coming talent was identified.
However, high costs associated with travel contributed to those plans careering off course. Many players, including some of the leading guys, pulled out of games because of the expense, while the proposed British Columbia versus Ontario provincial match was scrapped.
A lack of preparation time before each game was cited as another factor in the team’s poor performances.
The season got off to a rocky start with the Canadians losing to Jamaica in the first game of the 2017 Americas Championship and things went from bad to worse as the year progressed.
Losses to Fiji, the USA and a couple of touring police sides from New Zealand and England were to follow, although the police games weren’t classified as official internationals.
A total of 36 players were rotated through the Wolverines’ program this year, 14 of whom made their international debuts.
However, despite not putting any W’s on the board during 2017, coach Fleming is upbeat about the team culture, particularly the camaraderie through the whole playing group.
“This hasn’t really happened before, and I thought all the players did well in adapting to the situation and coming together,” he said.
“I also thought that the young players that are coming through is really exciting. We have some great healthy competition now which the squad hasn’t really had before, so this sets the stage for an exciting next couple of years.
“The likes of Michael Mastroianni, Matt Gallagher and Wes Black were tremendous. To see Quinn Ngawati get his opportunity was terrific given the year he has had, signing a professional contract, as well as making his international debut.”
And even though Canada finished third in the Americas Championship and dropped two places to #17 in the world rankings, Fleming is positive about what lies ahead for the men’s program in 2018.
“With the amount of players we saw at the national level this year, if we can have our best 17 on the field consistently then I really believe we can start to move mountains.”
As mentioned earlier, the good news story for rugby league in Canada this year was the successful debut of the Ravens and they certainly made folks sit up and take notice.
The Canadian team, made up predominantly of rugby union players, first came together during the summer for try-outs and two trial games against a touring club side from Australia, before heading down under to compete in the Women’s Rugby League World Cup.
Head coach Mike Castle and strength and conditioning coach Hayden Fisher arrived in Canada in late July. Meantime, provincial coaching staff were set up in the three main provinces of BC, Alberta and Ontario and players from as far afield as Quebec City got involved.
World Cup organizers didn’t cut the Ravens any slack when scheduling them against the world’s top two teams in Australia and New Zealand, but they weren’t daunted.
A member of the squad’s leadership group Kathleen Keller summed up the team’s attitude.
“Most of us come from elite sports backgrounds, so we’re used to high level sport,” she said. “We are competitive people and we do hope to do well.”
And that they did. The Ravens made history by winning Canada’s first ever game at a Rugby League World Cup when they beat Papua New Guinea, a result that qualified them for the semifinals.
Their performances at the WRLWC also earned them a world #4 ranking by the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF).
Next up for the Canadian women is the Commonwealth Championship 9s tournament in Brisbane, Australia in February 2018 at which they hope to continue building on the momentum they have started.
In other news, Ryan Murray has been appointed as the new president of Canada Rugby League Association (CRLA).
He replaces the outgoing Paul O’Keefe, who served the CRLA with distinction.
O’Keefe’s tenure included the 2015 Rugby League World Cup Americas region qualifiers and he was instrumental in working with the RLIF to get the Ravens program up and running.