Kingsley Jones got an early taste of what’s waiting for him if he can get Canada past Uruguay and into the 2019 Rugby World Cup — a lot of attention from back home.
Hired last month as the new head coach of the Canadian men’s national team, the Welshman had been identifying talent for his country’s rugby union when he accepted the new position on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
As he started to tell colleagues about the move, most of Jones’ conversations veered towards the fact the winner of the two-leg tie between Canada and Uruguay set for early next year will be placed in the same World Cup pool as Wales.
Welsh Rugby Union chairman Gareth Davies had a simple message for Canada’s new boss.
Can’t beat Wales
“The first thing he says is, ‘You can go, but you don’t beat Wales,”‘ Jones recalled with a laugh. “It was on their radar, it was on everyone’s radar straight away.”
Jones was in Vancouver on Tuesday to meet the media as part of the announcement that Canada, ranked 24th in the world, will host the first leg of the aggregate qualifying series against No. 18 Uruguay at B.C. Place Stadium on Jan. 27.
The return fixture goes in South America on Feb. 3.
Jones enters his new role in the deep end after Canada missed out on a chance to qualify for the World Cup earlier this year in a two-leg series with the United States.
Canada and the U.S. tied 28-28 in Hamilton before the Americans thumped their neighbours 52-16 in San Diego to grab the region’s first qualifying spot.
That demoralizing setback led to the dismissal of Canadian head coach Mark Anscombe and last month’s hiring of Jones, who sees a lot of potential, but understands the challenges he faces.
“The issues in international rugby is everyone moves forward, and if you stand still, you’re dead,” said the former Welsh captain, who coached Russia from 2011 to 2014. “I’m fully confident that with the players we can bring back into the environment, we can do the job.”
World Cup hopes dangling
A number of players will be based at Rugby Canada’s facility in Langford, B.C., while many of the more talented or well-established members of the squad will continue to ply their trades professionally overseas.
“There will be surprises,” said Jones. “The biggest thing is to have centralized players and to get your hands on them and coach them.”
Canada has never missed the World Cup, but has also never been ranked this low.
Should the Canadians lose on aggregate over two legs to Uruguay, there will be one more opportunity to qualify via a repechage.
“I’ve got my eyes wide open. I know what it is,” said Jones. “If I didn’t think we could [make the World Cup], I wouldn’t have taken that option. I’d like to think I can help.
“I’ve got a short space of time. If I tried to come in here and reinvent the wheel, we aren’t going to improve anything.”
All rugby, all the time
Jones, who played and coached in Wales and England at club level, will get his first in-person look at Canada as head coach on Nov. 3 at B.C. Place against the Maori All Blacks.
He’s been engrossing himself in his new team since taking the job by breaking down hour after hour of video.
“I’ve watched the last 16 games,” said Jones. “Six or eight of those games, I’ve watched in total detail — first about the team pattern and then about individuals.”
Anscombe’s test record with Canada was just 2-11-1 in his 16 months on the job, but he never really got a chance to field his full team because of injuries and club commitments.
Jones wants to make sure there’s no debate where allegiances lie.
“You can’t select when you want to play for your country,” he said. “I’ll be finding players that will walk to Georgia to play. It can’t be a comfort zone for people. Give people and easy option, they’ll take it more often than not.
“You have to make sure the players are on their toes. No one is guaranteed their place.”