Monday, 30 June 2014

Why Kieran Crowley deserves fans backing to take Canada forward


Why Canada coach Kieran Crowley, the man who drove the side out of a ditch, still should have the backing of the fans despite a frustrating recent run of results.

If your cast your mind back to around 2006/07 with Canada under former Ric Suggitt, they were seriously struggling. Result had dipped significantly and after shipping 61 points to Wales and 41 points to Italy on their November tour, Suggitt ended up basing his team around players who were, in rugby terms, old.
L-R: Canada greats Rod Snow,
Mike James and Morgan
Williams who all retired after
a disappointing 2007 World Cup

37 year old Rod Snow was recalled out of international retirement, 32 year old Jon Thiel was recalled following heart surgery and both along with other veterans in Mike James and Morgan Williams giving the spine of the squad a 1999 feel to it. Much of the younger talent that Suggitt backed simply didn't kick on, DTH van der Merwe being a rare bright spot of what was a pretty unmemorable winless tournament for the side.

Suggitt left his post after guiding Canada to their only ever winless World Cup campaign, and what new coach Ex All Black Kieran Crowley was unenviable.

The team was struggling to produce results. Several of Canada's best players had just retired (or were to do so imminently). The most notable player was also approaching his 30's and rarely was available. Both of the leading props for past decade were gone, and the only remaining professional prop had just broken his leg and then soon to have back issues and was not going to be a force capable of holding up the scrum. So there was a real big long rebuilding task ahead.
Canada's Tour of Hell (November 2008):
01/11 – Portugal – Won 21-13

(Debuts: N Hirayama, J Sinclair & P Mackenzie)
08/11 – Ireland – Lost 0-55

(Debuts: M Evans & C Hearn)
14/11 – Wales – Lost 13-34
22/11 – Scotland – Lost 0-41

(Debuts: S Duke & J Marshall)

This could have never been more clear than November 2008, when Canada simply bottomed out and hit their nadir. Their Celtic tour was the Canadian rugby equivalent of the "Tour of Hell", losing 55-0 to Ireland, 34-13 to Wales and then 41-0 to Scotland. Just 6 years earlier Canada had beaten Scotland 26-23 in Vancouver, and a lot closer to Wales losing 21-31 in Cardiff. Another win against a Tier 1 nation at that point looked a long way off.

Crowley had largely discarded a fair amount of the 2007 squad with the likes of Craig Culpan, Derek Daypuck, Stan McKeen, Dave Biddle, Colin Yukes not gaining any more caps, and in all 13 new players in all made their international debut in 2008. Among these players included Jebb Sinclair, Phil Mackenzie, Matt Evans, Ciaran Hearn, Jason Marshall and Tyler Hotson, all of whom were winning their first few caps on that Celtic tour.

So looking 6 years on from that tour, this June those same players are all first team starters and along with Crowley and senior figures like James Pritchard have together come from rock bottom and if not for a highly debatable refereeing decision from Mike Fraser, could have turned the Canadian rugby wheel full circle again.

From a narrow win against Scotland in 2002, to 41-0 in 2008, and almost another narrow win in 2014. They may not have actually done it, but under Crowley's stewardship returning to the competitiveness from the Al Charron days does not seem so far off. Their progress hasn't had the headlines some other teams have had, but it is noteworthy.

However the frustration from the near miss against Scotland was not the only game leaving Canada fans tearing their hair out this June. They managed to find a catastrophic way to lose in the second half against Japan, and their winning streak against their noisy neighbours ended with another lead again wasted.

This carried on from a rollercoaster of fortunes in 2013, where an injury hit year led to inconsistent results. And in all having lost 5 of the past 6 matches, some are beginning to start to question Crowley.

The problem with many of these criticisms they don't look past the results though. Some failed to take into consideration an injury crisis that saw a backline tired and decimated face Ireland last year, or a different injury crisis in November which saw inexperienced benches where the front row had 1 cap between travel to Georgia and Romania (the latter being a particularly flukey loss anyway).

This June we saw a bewildering collapse against Japan, and then the USA match featured really unusual substitutions, where 5 of the bench were brought on by 40 minutes and subs included a rusty Nathan Hirayama for one of the best players in Jeff Hassler.

Whilst some of these losses are hurting Canada's pride, fans need to remember where Crowley has taken the team from. Obviously there are other factors that have helped Canada's rise, but he is not a coach who has taken his nation's best group of players and brought them nowhere like Mike Tolkin, or inherited a ready built platform of an established side like Milton Haig did.

Canada have only shown glimpses of potential in recent times and haven't been helped by injuries, but they are still tending to deliver well in big games such as the emphatic 27-9 win away from home against USA last year in the RWC qualifiers and nearly getting a first Tier 1 win for 12 years against Scotland this June.

Chart2Given that and his record in charge where his win rate of 51% is a large increase on the 34% of his predecessor, Crowley has certainly done enough with this group of players to have earned a bit of patience and trust of the Canadian public. That's why whilst the subs against the USA did seem strange (and were probably experimental), and the second half against Japan was inexplicable, Canada fans ought to still have reasonable confidence they have the right man to take them into future big games.

Crowley will have passed over 50 tests in charge by the time of the World Cup, and there will come a time when maybe a fresh voice is required to take the team further. But when he does leave, there is little doubt he will have left it in a much better place than he found it and Canada fans should be grateful for that.

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