HALIFAX — Canada cruised to a 45-0 win over the visiting Belgians on the rugby pitch Saturday afternoon in front of 4,412 fans who gathered in the heart of Nova Scotia’s capital city to take in the international action despite grey skies and the looming threat of rain.
Irish-born Jason Higgins got the Canadian men’s rugby team on the board early with the first try of the game, receiving the ball deep inside the offensive half, breaking a tackle and running it in to ignite the momentum for the hosts, much to the enjoyment of the fans in the stands, many still decked out in red and white after Canada Day festivities.
Peter Nelson added the conversion with a kick through the posts to make it 7-0 within the first seven minutes of the game.
Nelson was once again able to score on a penalty conversion in the 16th minute of the first half, putting Canada up 10-0 over Belgium, but that’s where the score would remain after the first 40 minutes of play.
Canadian Ben LeSage received a yellow card with 10 minutes left in the first half due to an infringement at a ruck, but the Belgians were unable to capitalize on the one-man advantage before time on the penalty expired.
Although it was a solid start for the Canadians, head coach Kingsley Jones felt there were some missed opportunities before heading into the break.
“We were a bit rusty in the first half,” Jones told reporters after the match. “I felt we were the better team for sure … but we just made errors, unforced errors.
“So the boys were a little bit disappointed with some of the execution, but certainly … you’ve got to respect Belgium, and we came out in the second half — it took longer than we thought — but we cracked them and we got some good points on the scoreboard.”
Before the players ran back onto the pitch for the second half, Jones talked to his team about “bringing more tempo and speed” into the match, while keeping in mind the Belgians had travelled a long way to play and may not have had the same high energy levels as the Canadians.
“We felt we were taking energy away from the opposition … and we’re a fit team,” Jones said. He also pointed out that Ross Braude, who came on to the pitch in the second half to replace Jason Higgins, immediately made a “great break” by collecting a pass from Corey Thomas in the scrum and swinging the ball to set up the try from LeSage of Calgary in the 56th minute to make it 24-0. That play immediately helped the Canadians regain much-needed momentum.
Canadian captain Lucas Rumball agreed it took some time for the red and white “to find our feet with our patterns and our individual errors. It’s been a while since we’ve come together as a team."
He added: "Getting that rust off, getting collectively better, we saw that come through towards the second half, and when the subs came out."
Rumball, of Markham, Ont.; contributed a try in the 47th minute of the match to make it 17-0 with another good conversion from Nelson. Also adding tries in the second half for Canada’s senior men’s 15s squad were Michael Smith of White Rock, B.C.; Kainoa Lloyd of Mississauga, Ont.; and Halifax hometown hero Cooper Coats, who made it 31-0 in the 60th minute. He also combined with Nelson on successful conversions to help secure the win in the international test match.
“I thought he was outstanding,” Jones said of Halifax’s hometown rugby star. “It’s great to see Cooper play at home. Every time he had the ball, there was a cheer, so I’m pretty pleased for him. He had a good performance, kicked a couple of points, got a try, so it was a good all-around day.”
The 25-year-old Coats admitted that playing in front of a stadium full of personal cheerleaders was “really surreal when I think about it. I’m kind of lost for words.
"To be able to score, to be able to play the whole game in front of my family and friends, and just hear them in the stands the whole time, is just absolutely incredible. I’m so glad to have grown up here.”
Coats also emphasized that Saturday afternoon’s success in Halifax is a confidence boost for the Canadian crew as it heads into next Sunday's match (at TD Place in Ottawa) against Spain, a team that's ranked No. 15 in the world.
“We’ve got Spain next week … it will be a bigger challenge,” Jones agreed, adding “our aim is to be in the top 20 in the world consistently, and we need to build that over the next two years. So we’ll have some world ranking points today. I’m not quite sure if it will move of us in the table, but certainly … it’s a really good start for us.”
For the Canadians, these July test games are important steps on the road to the 2027 World Cup. Team Canada lost out to the U.S. and Chile last year and subsequently aren’t able to participate in next year’s worlds in France after making all nine previous editions of the prestigious tournament.
So the Canadians are determined to earn their spot back into World Cup standings.
Saturday’s success is a good sign, considering several more experienced players were injured or unavailable for the match against Belgium, including Tyler Ardron, Eric Howard, Kyle Baillie, Shane O’Leary, Spencer Jones, Matt Tierney, Andrew Coe, Jake Thiel and sevens skipper Phil Berna.
But that meant that several younger players got to experience their national team debuts. Matthew Oworu of Calgary, Lindsey Stevens who originally hails from Sydney, Australia, and Dawson Fatoric of Ottawa all came on as substitutes during the second half in the match against Belgium.
Saturday’s international rugby showdown was the first time in almost eight months that the team has come together for a match. The last time the Canadians were on the pitch for international play was also against the Belgians, last Nov. 13 in Brussels. Canada blanked the No. 26-ranked Belgium 24-0 in that match. Canada entered Saturday’s match ranked 21st globally.
Canada is now 6-22-0 since the fall of 2018, with other wins twice over Chile, the U.S., Belgium and a B.C. all-star side.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2022.
Kristen Lipscombe, The Canadian Press