Rugby Canada announces summer men's schedule

Canada's Gareth Rees (right) captain is about to tackle England's Lawrence Dallaglio (left) during their World Cup warm up match at Twickenham, London on August 28 1999. Rees remembers post-World Cup years when the national team program was put on ice. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Findlay Kember

TORONTO - Former Canadian rugby captain Gareth Rees remembers post-World Cup years when the national team program was put on ice.

Money was tight, forcing the men's program to bide its time until it ramped up for the next World Cup. But this summer, the domestic rugby menu features three home Tests as the Canadian men return to action after last fall's World Cup in New Zealand.

Canada, currently ranked 13th in the world will host the No. 17 U.S. Eagles on June 9 at Richardson Stadium in Kington, Ont., No. 11 Italy on June 15 at Toronto's BMO Field, and No. 15 Georgia on June 23 at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, B.C.

And on Aug. 25-26, Ottawa will also host a North American-Caribbean regional qualifier for the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup.

The summer fixtures are especially welcome since the annual Churchill Cup has been cancelled. Rugby Canada CEO Graham Brown says the plan is to have three summer home Tests every year from now on.

"The players at the World Cup, I thought, demonstrated great ability and showed that the game has come a long way in the country," Brown told a Toronto news conference Friday. "But the ability to play Test matches in your home country is really what we believe is required in order to promote the game."

Rugby Canada's goal now is "trying to keep the game on the table and people looking at it and watching it and enjoying it," says Rees, now manager of Rugby Canada's national men's program.

In other news, Rugby Canada says men's coach Kieran Crowley's contract has been extended through the 2015 World Cup. The former All Black had his contract extended through June 2012 before last year's World Cup — a new extension now has him locked up through February 2016.

Brown says Italy will have its full national team in Toronto since it will be playing No. 7 Argentina in Buenos Aires the previous week.

"A wonderful test for our athletes," said Rees.

The Italian squad includes Toronto flanker Robert Barbieri, who grew up in Toronto playing rugby for the Yeomen. He is a dual citizen with both passports — his father was born in Italy and his mother in Canada, to Italian parents.

In the fall, Canada may play some matches in England, although the opposition has yet to be determined.

While Canada won attention at the World Cup for its play and colourful bearded cast of characters, the team did miss out by not finishing third in its pool. Canada (1-2-1) placed fourth in Pool A, behind Tonga (2-2-0). The Pacific Islanders are currently ranked ninth in the world.

"There was significant amount of support that we would have garnered from the IRB (International Rugby Board) if we'd finished third," acknowledged Brown. "We would have played Tier I games (against top countries) in the November window — we're not playing Tier I games.

"We would have gotten the opportunity to direct qualify (for the 2015 World Cup), work on our marketing and promotion and sponsorship earlier. Now we have to qualify."

Canada will likely have to meet the U.S. in a home-or-away series to qualify, with likely another game before that depending on other results in the region. That means Rugby Canada will have to finance a qualifying campaign it had hoped to avoid.

Still Brown says Canada has the respect of the IRB.

"They saw that we can play. They want us there. We were a good draw, we showed ourselves well and our program is improving."

Rugby Canada can point to success in both the men's and women's sevens programs and the new Centre of Excellence in Langford, B.C.