After a three-year absence due to the pandemic, World Rugby's under-20 competition returns this summer.
And Canada is looking to be part of it.
The Canadian under-20 side takes on its U.S. counterpart on Tuesday, on the campus of University of South Carolina Upstate (formerly known as the University of South Carolina Spartansburg), in the opener of a two-match qualifier for the World Rugby U20 Trophy. The second leg is Saturday at the same venue.
The aggregate-points winner will represent North America at the second-tier under-20 tournament, slated for July 15-30 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Canada is looking to join Scotland, Uruguay and Zimbabwe in Group A at the U20 World Trophy. Group B features Spain, Samoa, Kenya and Hong Kong.
The U.S. is trying to get back to the U20 Trophy for the first time since 2016. The Canadians finished fifth at the 2019 tournament in Brazil, defeating Kenya 52-13 in its closing game.
"It's a huge stepping-stone," said Canada under-20 coach Adam Roberts. "This is the pipeline that feeds our national program, And it's a huge step. This is where the kids get kind of get used to the elite environment and starts pushing themselves into pro contracts or MLR (Major League Rugby)."
"It gets them into that game mode of seeing what rugby is like on the world stage," he added.
Canada's entry at the 2019 U20 Trophy included Brock Webster, Lockie Kratz, Thomas Isherwood, David Richard, Will Percillier, Jack Carson, Quinn Ngawati, Mason Flesch, Tyler Rowland and Siaki Vikilani, who have all gone on to represent Canada in sevens or 15s.
The top under-20 sides compete at the World Rugby U20 Championship, which is scheduled for June 24 to July 14 in South Africa. The U20 Championship field features Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, defending champion France, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and Wales.
The U20 Trophy and Championship are linked by promotion and relegation.
In 2019, Japan earned promotion by winning the U20 Trophy while Scotland was relegated after finishing last in the Championship.
World Rugby says the two age-grade tournaments, first held in 2008, have seen almost 1,500 players go on to make their test debut including 28 Rugby World Cup winners.
Prop Cole Kelly will captain the Canadian side. Fly half Brenden Black came up through the Toronto Arrows academy and has already played for the MLR team.
"He's a ton of fun to watch. A little blast of magic," said Roberts. "He's got great feet and attacks well."
Noah Flesch, who plays for Rugby Canada's Pacific Pride developmental side, is the younger brother of Canadian international/Toronto Arrow Mason Flesch.
James Thiel is the son of former Canadian internationals Jon Thiel and Jen Ross — and the younger brother of twin Jake and Josh Thiel, both of whom have already represented Canada.
"We're a super-gritty team … I love their energy and emotion," said Roberts.
The Canadian team held a February selection camp at Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island before a May tour to Uruguay, where the Canadians lost 21-16 to Uruguay and 21-9 loss to Spain.
Before leaving for South Carolina, the team held a camp in Ontario at Brampton RFC and scrimmage with the Toronto Arrows academy.
"Our preparation's been really good," said Roberts.
That has not always been the case, given Rugby Canada's limited finances. But donations have helped and the players have also pitched in.
Roberts, a native of White Rock, B.C., who teaches at Earl Marriott Secondary School in Surrey, is a volunteer coach who has been involved with Canadian age-grade teams since 2010. He has spent six years with he under-20 program, serving as an assistant to former head coach Jeff Williams before taking over the team two years ago.
Roberts also coaches the Earl Marriott rugby team. His national team duties kept him from the provincial finals on the weekend, with Earl Marriott losing 43-5 to Collingwood.
His school has produced the likes of Michael Smith, Cali Martinez, Izzak Kelly and twin brothers Takoda and Talon McMullin, all of whom have represented Canada at rugby.
Canada competed in the top-tier U20 tournament in 2008 and '09, finishing 12th and 14th respectively. The elite tournament was trimmed from 16 teams to 12 in 2010 with Canada not making the cut and instead dropping to the second-tier event.
Canada's best finishes at the U20 Trophy were runner-up in 2013 and 2015, to Italy and Georgia, respectively.
Scotland's Hollie Davidson will become the first female official to referee at the U20 Championship before American Kat Roche and Zimbabwe's Precious Pazani follow suit at the U20 Trophy.
Edmonton's Robin Kaluzniak is part of the U20 Trophy officiating panel.
Canada Under-20 Roster
Forwards: Jordan Auger, Ottawa, University of Victoria/Barrhaven Scottish; Muiredach Casey, Ottawa, University of Victoria/Barrhaven Scottish; Taine Clague, Victoria, University of Victoria/James Bay AA; Aaron Clark, Calgary, Pacific Pride/Canucks RFC; Michael Di Lella Jr., Orono, Ont., Guelph University/Oshawa Vikings; Sol Jacques, Penticton, B.C., University of British Columbia/Penticton Harlequins; Cole Kelly, Mississauga, Ont., Trinity College Dublin/Wicklow RFC; Grant Meadows, Richmond Hill, Ont., Brock University/Aurora Barbarians; Lachlan McGrigor, Toronto, Bath University; Joe McNulty, North Vancouver, UBC/Capilano RFC; Evan Roy, Ottawa, University of Ottawa/Ottawa Beavers; Charles Trollip, Guelph, Ont., Guelph RFC; Caden Wilson, Vancouver, UBC; Olly Wiseman, Chiswick, England, Cardiff Met RFC/London Wasps; Jeffrey Young, Toronto, Cardiff Met RFC/Toronto Nomads.
Brenden Black, Oakville, Ont., Guelph University/Oakville Crusaders; James Clarke, St. John’s, N.L., Pacific Pride/Swilers RFC; Owain Cormack, North Vancouver, UBC/Capilano RFC; Marcus D’Acre, Oakville, Ont., Queen’s University/Oakville Crusaders; Josh Eustache, Brantford, Ont., Brantford Harlequins/University of Waterloo; Noah Flesch, Coburg, Ont., Pacific Pride/Coburg Saxons; Alastair Marshall, Hudson Bay, Sask., UBC/Regina Rogues; Craig Mitchell-Hermann, Abbotsford, B.C., James Bay AA; Liam Poulton, Chilliwack, B.C., University of Victoria/Castaway Wanderers; James Thiel, Abbotsford, B.C., Pacific Pride/Abbotsford RFC; James Webb, Toronto, Queen’s University/Balmy Beach RFC; Stephen Webb, Toronto, Balmy Beach RFC/Crescent School; Brady White, Pictou County, N.S., Pacific Pride/Pictou County RFC.
Callum Arneson, Fernie, B.C., University of British Columbia/Hillcrest Villagers; Samson Brown, Vancouver, Claremont College Lions/UBC Old Boys Ravens; Jaiden John, Mississauga, Ont.; Pacific Pride/Mississauga Blues; Ethan Lee, Vancouver, UBC/Ravens RFC; Kieran Martin, White Rock, B.C., UBC/Bayside RFC.
Unavailable Due to Injury
Alastair Bruce, Cape Town, South Africa, Pacific Pride/Bishops Diocesan College; Tyler Matchem, Pictou County, N.S., Pacific Pride/Pictou County RFC.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.