Alone among what we used to call the Dominions, Canada has never established itself as a rugby power. South Africa and New Zealand have been for much of rugby’s history the two strongest teams, with Australia not far behind. All three have won the World Cup more than once. But Canadian rugby has never promised much. No doubt this is partly on account of geography, the two rugby-playing provinces, Ontario and British Columbia being far apart, and no doubt it is also on account of the savage Canadian winter. Be that as it may, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have rarely fielded a full-strength side against Canada.
Certainly Gregor Townsend’s one tomorrow might be rated half-strength at most. Perhaps only two or three would start in a Six Nations game. Ruaridh Jackson, at stand-off where he has hardly played for a long time, has more caps than the rest of the back division put together, and if, as is likely, young Adam Hastings replaces him at some point, that will see a 32-cap player give way to a debutant; should be fun.
The forwards are more experienced, though one wouldn’t expect more than three of them to start in a Six Nations match.
It’s not so long since this sort of selection would have had one feeling more than a touch apprehensive – no matter who the opponents were. Yet now it would be a surprise as well as a disappointment if they didn’t win.
Of course all the Six Nations countries are in the same boat when it comes to these summer internationals. Injuries and the need to rest key players coming off a long hard season with a longer and harder one coming up. Ireland will play Australia without several of the Leinster players who have just brought off the European Cup and Guinness Pro14 double. Wales are without Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar, and Alun Wyn Jones against Argentina, while several other stars are missing, injured.
England are an exception. The team Eddie Jones is putting out against South Africa at Ellis Park is the strongest he has available, any absent star players being injured, not resting.
Of course victory is very important for Jones and England, given that they are coming off a run of three defeats, four if you count the Barbarians jamboree. A hammering at Ellis Park where South Africa rarely lose, even to New Zealand, would have alarm bells ringing in the committee room at Twickenham.
Sometimes one wonders whether with 23-man match squads and a dozen or so internationals in a season or calendar year, the cap itself is a bit devalued.
On a quick count I reckon that, including the new caps in tomorrow’s squad, there are more than 50 Scottish capped players still active and not retired from the international game, and I daresay a more careful count would yield a few more. One sometimes thinks that in any pro game it’s the players without international experience who are the exceptions.
Magnus Bradbury is someone whose performance on this tour will be watched with special interest. After being picked by Vern Cotter in the autumn internationals of 2016 he fell away somewhat and then experienced what one may politely call a spot of disruption in the first weeks of the home season just finished. Now, after playing outstandingly for Edinburgh at its tail-end he has another chance, an important opportunity in view of the injury to John Barclay which will keep him off the field for months.
There’s something of Munster and Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony about Bradbury, something too of that great Scottish and Lions forward and captain towards the end of the amateur era, Finlay Calder.
Canada may have lost their last six matches, and haven’t played an international since June of last year. So their recent record can’t inspire them with confidence, their last two defeats being at home to Romania and Georgia. Nevertheless optimism, even confidence, should be tempered with caution. Our own away record isn’t brilliant, and there are several unfamiliar combinations in this team. We may nevertheless reasonably hope that the days when any victory was greeted with a sigh of relief may be behind us – for the time being anyway.
Meanwhile, over Saturday breakfast, you may be watching Jacques Brugnon’s France daringly venturing into the lions’ den or wolf-pit of Eden Park only a week after the Pro 14 final. This, however, is less significant than it might have been since there seemed to be at least as many South Africans as Frenchmen in the Montpellier and Castres teams. Of equal interest is the earlier game between Japan and Italy, significant indeed since Japan are in the same pool as us in next summer’s World Cup.