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Canada coach Kingsley Jones sees his players finding a home in Major League Rugby

With 28 Canadians on the Toronto Arrows' roster and six on the Seattle Seawolves, it's no wonder that Canada coach Kingsley Jones will be in the stands Saturday in suburban Seattle to watch the Major League Rugby rivals face off.
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With 28 Canadians on the Toronto Arrows' roster and six on the Seattle Seawolves, it's no wonder that Canada coach Kingsley Jones will be in the stands Saturday in suburban Seattle to watch the Major League Rugby rivals face off.

Home to close to 60 Canadians, the third-year North American pro league has become Jones' primary focus.

"I can't explain how much a lifeline it is," Jones said of MLR.

Canadian co-captains or captains include Josh Larsen (New England Free Jacks), Matt Heaton (Atlanta's Rugby ATL) and Kyle Baillie (New Orleans' NOLA Gold). Wing Dan Moor captains the Arrows with fellow Canadian Lucas Rumball vice-captain.

Jones was in Las Vegas last weekend, sharing digs with U.S. coach Gary Gold as they watched the Arrows and three other MLR teams in action at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Earlier this week, Jones watched three MLR games on TV.

"It's what national selectors should be doing," he said. "When I came here (in October 2017), I'm like 'Where do I get the players? I can't watch players play.' It's crazy. You can't select."

Jones, a former Wales captain, is both supportive of and realistic about the 12-team MLR, now in its third season.

"I'm seeing improvements every week ... Everything around it is getting better," he said.

The league is drawing more experienced coaches like Austin's Mick Byrne, a former skills coach with Australia and the All Blacks. But there is more work to do. Jones says he'll see "some really good patches" in MLR games followed by drop-offs in play.

Jones only has a handful of top pros playing overseas these days, including captain Tyler Ardron (Chiefs, New Zealand), Evan Olmstead (Biarritz, France), Taylor Paris and Matt Tierney (Castres, France), Shane O'Leary (Nottingham, England), Brett Beukeboom and Matt Evans (Cornish Pirates, England), and Will Percillier (Stade Francais, France), who has been mainly playing for the French club's academy.

And with news that England's Rugby Football Union is cutting funding to the second-tier Championship, more players may be looking across the Atlantic.

Another reason the MLR is important for Jones is the fact that the North American league's schedule now dovetails with his international calendar.

"The U.S. and Canada could have a head start on a lot of the world here," he said. "We could have a perfectly aligned rugby season, where they play January to June with their MLR team and they come in with their national team July through November.

"it's a game-changer and it's an advantage to Canada and the U.S."

The Americas Rugby Championship, expected to become the region's World Cup qualifying route, has been shifted to August-September from February-March, removing a clash with the MLR — whose regular-season schedule runs from February through May.

That means Jones should get more time with his players. It's a huge plus, given he sees "lack of team cohesion" as one of the biggest drags on the Canadian team's progress.

Last year, for example, he used some 43 players for the Americas event because players had to be back with their clubs.

"We can't build a team based around that," he said.

Jones notes that Canada had the third-oldest team and the third least caps at last year's World Cup in Japan.

This year, Canada has two July matches ahead of the August start of Canada's five games at the ARC with more tests expected in November. Jones hopes to field a consistent side to build his team and culture.

World Rugby is looking at combining the 2021 and 2022 ARC records to determine which two teams from the Americas qualify for the 2023 World Cup, with the third-place ARC finisher going to a repechage.

Saturday's game at the Starfire Sports Stadium is the Seawolves' home opener. The defending MLR champions, who beat Toronto 30-17 in last year's semifinal, are coming off losses at San Diego (33-24) and Washington's Old Glory DC (28-22).

Toronto, which plays its first seven games of the season on the road because of the Canadian winter, opened with wins against Austin (38-10) and Houston (27-22).

Arrows fullback Sam Malcolm and Seawolves No. 8 Riekert Hattingh were both part of the league's team of the week

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2020.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press