The Ontario Blues returned last week from a very successful South American tour, where they played three matches, winning two and narrowly losing the other. Most impressively, two of those games were against national teams: Chile and Uruguay.
The Blues left Canada on May 2. They opened the tour with a narrow 19-17 loss to Chile in Santiago on May 5, then a 32-26 win at Salta in Argentina on May 8. Those games were followed by a historic 27-16 victory over Uruguay in Montevideo on May 13.
The results were significant and showed that provincial rugby in Canada has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years and the national team staff is taking note.
“This tour shows the benefit of the Canadian Rugby Championship (CRC),” commented Canada’s National Senior Men’s Team Coach Kieran Crowley. “Without that, this tour would never have taken place.
“The CRC has been the catalyst for the development of this Blues team.“`
The Canadian Rugby Championship was started in 2009. It currently consists of four regional teams: Ontario, British Columbia, the Rock and the Prairie Wolf Pack.
The domestic season commences in August, when the teams play each other. All the teams also benefit from playing additional games against top sides touring Canada.
“Because of these results hopefully more opportunities will come about for Canadian regions to host international teams as well as tour to other countries, “ added Crowley. “This will help develop not only Canadian rugby but the rugby in some of these developing nations. “
“The International Rugby Board's support of the CRC has been critical and the results show that their resources is having a very positive effect on Canadian rugby.“
Blues Manager Mark Winokur was instrumental in setting up the tour. A long-time coach and player in Ontario, Mark has been part of many representative teams including coaching Canada A against the New Zealand Maori and the Canadian team at the Maccabiah Games.
Rugby Canada communications was able to catch up with Mark this week to find out a bit more about the tour.
How did this tour come about?
The tour started when I was with the Canada side at the Americas Rugby Championship in 2010 in Cordoba, Argentina. I met Hernan Rouco Oliva, the IRB Regional General Manager for the South American rugby federation (CONSUR) and we talked about a sub international competition.
The Argentine provincial team Salta toured Canada in 2011, when they first played the Blues. At the time they invited the eventual winners of the Canadian Rugby Championship to come to them in 2012.
Once the wheels were in motion, Chile and Uruguay heard about the tour from Salta and offered to help us get to them also.
How did the Blues manage to cover the costs for such an ambitious tour?
CONSUR paid for all the ground and internal air travel, hotels and food. Rugby Canada and Rugby Ontatio contributed as well.
The players contributed a small amount and we did a major fundraiser in conjunction with Toronto’s Balmy Beach Club. We also had help from major sponsors National Bank and RIPA Rugby.
Were you able to select all the players you wanted?
Mostly. We lost Taylor Paris, John Moonlight, Kieran Moloney and Darryl Snider to injury before the tour. Dan Pletch was busy with work and a had a newborn son, so he could not make it either.
The selections were based on last year’s team with input from the National Senior Men’s Team coaches on replacements and additions.
What were the logistics like getting around in Spanish-speaking countries?
Moving 33 people around South America for 12 days was obviously a challenge! I speak a bit of Spanish and I was able to link in French with our Uruguayan liaison officer. The Chilean liaison was a transplanted Kiwi, so no problems there.
What was the reception like in Chile?
The Santiago leg of the tour was very good, well organized and friendly. Rugby there is obviously not as popular as soccer, but the oval ball game has a higher profile in Chile than in Canada
Santiago is a beautiful city on the edge of the Andes. We stayed right downtown in a nice hotel.
The Chilean rugby union has a high performance centre up in the mountains similar to the one we have in Langford, B.C., but not as good. The game against Chile was played there.
From there you went to the far north of Argentina to Salta. What was that like?
Salta was fairly warm and humid but not oppressively. The temperature at game time was around 22 degrees. We trained and played at the Jockey Club which was beautiful. The field was like a golf green surface.
Being at home, the Salta team was obviously stronger than when they travelled to Canada, but we were able to exploit their overall lack of pace.
From there you went to face Los Teros. What did you think of Montevideo?
Uruguay was our favorite stop. The people there were very friendly and the hotel was spectacular out in the countryside. Montevideo is a beautiful city and the surroundings are more rural and laid back than I would have thought. I t was kind of like California or South Carolina
The Uruguayan rugby union was very organized and the rugby facilities there are generally good, certainly better than ours.
However, they did make us play at the Montevideo Cricket Club, which is a small pitch. The hope was that would give their forwards an advantage. That backfired as our forwards outplayed theirs including taking three tighthead steals in the scrums.
The Blues visited the Old Christians rugby club, which was the team whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972. Their story was immortalized in the 1993 movie Alive. What was that like?
That was one of the most moving events I have ever been part of.
We spent a good two hours with survivor Gustavo Zerbino in the Old Christians’ beautiful cabin-style clubhouse, food and drinks provided. The room was absolutely silent when Zerbino finished speaking.
What were some of the non-rugby diversions on tour?
There weren`t many. We did spend a day roaming Salta. A bunch of the guys went white water rafting. We spent another in Buenos Aires, which is like a combination of Paris and New York
Everyone had a great go at our nightly "CAMPEON dos Animales Pelgrosos" (Championship of the Dangerous Animals).
How does this tour compare to any other rep team tour you’ve been part of?
It seriously was the best ever.
The level of the rugby was much higher than anything we see here. We beat the 21st ranked country in the world on their home pitch. Our rugby is very well respected in Latin America, more so now!
ONTARIO BLUES TOUR ROSTER
Mike Pletch, Castaway Wanderers, Lucan ON
Doug Wooldridge, Lindsay, Lindsay ON
Creag Johnston, Toronto Scottish, Woodbridge ON
Tom Dolezel, London St George, London ON
Ray Barkwill, Western Force ‘A’, St Catherines ON
Brett Beukeboom, UVic, Lindsay ON
Luke Tait, James Bay, Barrie ON
Scott Dunham, Balmy Beach, Toronto ON
Rob Brouwer, Lindsay, Lindsay ON
Alistair Clark, Oakvill