Canadian links date to last century
When Ireland play Canada at Lansdowne Road tomorrow it will be the second official international between the two nations and the first full international between the countries to be played in Dublin.
Yet the Irish-Canadian rugby connections go back to the last century, to 1899 to be precise. And while it was not until 1932 that the Canadians entered the international arena, the game has been played there since 1864.
The Irish can, however, take some credit for helping in the evolution and propagation of rugby in Canada. There is, too, an historic and unique element to rugby tours involving Ireland and the Canadians.
The first visit by a Canadian team to these islands was in 1903 when a Canadian representative side played 23 matches, won eight, drew two and lost 13. On that tour the Canadians made their first visit to Dublin and played against Dublin University in College Park. Trinity beat the visitors by two tries and a dropped goal to nil.
But four years prior to that, in 1899, Ireland toured Canada. The background to that expedition is to say the least interesting. That was the first overseas tour undertaken by any of the home countries as a single entity. It came after Ireland had won the Triple Crown and International Championship in March of 1899. The game in Canada was strongest in that period in Toronto (Ontario). But the Irish did not confine their playing activities to that area.
Availability rather than ability was the factor that influenced the Irish selection and many of those who went on the tour had not played, nor did they subsequently play, for Ireland. The team was captained by James Franks, who had played for Ireland the previous season. It also included such as Thomas Harvey, who went on to win eight caps for his country as well as representing his country at cricket and who subsequently became the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel. Percy Nicholson, who won three caps in 1900, also toured Canada.
The only member of the 17-man touring party who had played in the Triple Crown series was Ian Davidson, who had played on the wing against England and then went on to win eight caps over the next four years. He must have found the Canadian way of life to his liking as he subsequently emigrated to Canada, where he died in 1939.
One of the remarkable features of that tour was that it was sponsored. Sponsorship, we all know, did not become a real fact of rugby life until over 70 years later and then caused more than a little controversy. George Harman, who was on the team that won the Triple Crown in 1899 and who lived to be over 100, told me in 1974 that the reason he and so many others of the championship team did not go to Canada was that they could not afford the time and in many cases the money. He, like several others on the side, was a medical student. "It would have meant being away for a few months and that was not just not possible for most of us. "
Ireland set sail for Canada in September 1899 and played 11 matches on the tour, won 10 and lost one. They played in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Brockville, Peterborough, Quebec, Toronto and Hamilton. The tour was sponsored by a man called Duke Collins, a native of Dublin, who lived in Toronto.
The only defeat came in the match in Halifax, inflicted by a combined team picked from seven cruisers of the Atlantic Fleet and the province of Nova Scotia. Ireland had to play with only 14 players throughout the match. They had lost J Sprioule Myles, who had broken a leg in an earlier match in Toronto and his loss allied to a few other injuries left Ireland with only 14 players. Myles later became a member of Dail Eireann for the constituency of East Donegal.
The tour in 1903 was really the last direct contact Ireland, at international level, had with Canadian rugby until in 1986, when the Canadians toured Ireland. Ireland put an under-25 side in against them at Lansdowne Road and won 2620. It is interesting to look at the composition of that Ireland team, many of whom went on to win full caps. The Irish team was Tom Lenehan; John Sexton, Paul Clinch (captain), John Hewitt, Ger O'Kelly; Ralph Keyes, Stephen Cowan; Tom Clancy, Terry Kingston Matt D'Arcy, Neil Francis, Mick Moylett, Paddy Kenny, Noel Mannion, Pat O'Hara. Gareth Rees, who also played in that match, lines out at out-half against Ireland tomorrow.
Ireland played Canada again the following year in the World Cup in Dunedin in 1987. Ireland won that match, but it took a long time to break down the Canadians before Ireland won readily enough in the end, 46-19. Ireland will not have any survivor from that encounter on the field tomorrow, but three of the Canadian team that afternoon, Rees, prop Eddie Evans and hooker Mark Cardinal are in the current squad.
The most recent meeting of the two countries was in Victoria on Ireland's tour of the USA and Canada in the autumn of 1989. Incredibly,
no caps were given for the match which was ludicrous as caps had been awarded for the World Cup encounter between the two countries two years previously. I have very vivid memories of the match, which Ireland won 24-21. If ever a match was stolen this was it. It was a rank injustice to the Canadians.
They led 21-18 with two minutes of injury time played after Rees had dropped a great goal from almost 60 yards with 10 minutes to go, then in the second minute of injury time, Paul Clinch broke out of defence, drew the cover and passed outside to John Sexton. Sexton cut between two defenders and was clear 60 yards from the Canadian line, from where he sprinted over to ground the ball under the posts. Michael Kiernan converted and Ireland won 24-21. The Canadians were shattered rather in the manner the Irish were shattered when the Australians stole the World Cup quarter-final in 1991.
There will be one survivor on the Ireland team tomorrow who played in that match, prop Nick Popplewell. Four of that Canadian team of 1989 are in the current squad. They are Rees, scrum half John Graf, centre Bob Ross and Evans. Rees, Graf and a 1987 survivor, Cardinal, are all due to play tomorrow.
One thing Ireland would not want to do tomorrow is in any way underestimate the Canadians, who are coached by former Ireland international Pat Parfrey. They won the Pacific Rim series in May and June and as recently as July 19th lost by only three points to Wales, 28-25. They lost 27-11 to Australia in the last World Cup and 20-0 to South Africa in a match marred by incidents that led to three men being sent off and a few more subsequently suspended. They beat France 18-16 in 1994 in a match in which Phillipe Sella was sent off. They beat England 15-12 in 1993 and defeated Scotland 24-19 in 1991.
The match tomorrow renews a rivalry first fashioned almost a century ago. It is an important one for Ireland and it could prove to be difficult enough. Ireland will need to be free of any element of complacency.