Midway through the opening half of his first game leading the Canadian men's rugby team, Kingsley Jones started to think his players might pull off a major upset.
Then reality set in.
The Maori All Blacks used their superior speed and quickness in scoring seven tries Friday to defeat Canada 51-9 in an international rugby match.
Hired in September, Jones had just four practice sessions with a young squad that was missing a number of key professionals. The Canadians were game early on, but their classy opponents eventually pounced on a some crucial mistakes to pull away.
"I'm a bit disappointed in the end," said Jones, a former Welsh international. "[I] have to take the scoreboard away from it ... because there's chunks of the game where we were good."
Ambrose Curtis, Akira Ioane, Tom Franklin, Charlie Ngatai, Shaun Stevenson, Jackson Garden-Bachop and Sean Wainui scored tries for the Maori, while Ihaia West kicked two penalties and four conversions. Garden-Bachop also booted a convert.
Brock Staller kicked three penalties for Canada.
"Really stoked with the performance," said Maori captain Ash Dixon. "Canada put a lot of pressure on us in that first half. A couple of times we got a bit lucky."
Jones, who led Russia from 2011 to 2014 after coaching clubs in Britain, got the Canadian job after predecessor Mark Anscombe was dismissed following the country's disastrous loss over two legs to the United States in qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Minus key veterans Ciaran Hearn, Aaron Carpenter, DTH van der Merwe, Taylor Paris, Jake Ilnicki and Brett Beukeboom because of club commitments overseas, Jones spoke in the leadup to Friday about the need to create a positive environment to help players succeed.
"A couple loose kicks really hurt us, a couple turnovers," said Canadian captain Phil Mack. "They want to play a fast, up-tempo game. If you don't kill that right away it turns into points against you."
The Maori All Blacks are separate from the powerhouse New Zealand All Blacks. Players must have their Maori ancestry confirmed in order to represent the side, but Ngatai and Brad Weber, who both started, each have a cap with the full national team.
With a buzzing record Rugby Canada crowd of 29,480 on hand at B.C. Place Stadium, the Maori performed their famed haka moments before kickoff, a traditional tribal dance meant to both inspire and intimidate as the stoic Canadians looked on.
"I just want to thank the fans — 30,000 people showing up to a rugby match in Canada is pretty awesome," said Mack. "We definitely appreciated the support. Unfortunately it tipped in their scales.
"I thought we played some pretty positive rugby at times."
Congratulations to @AndrewCoee for winning the @GuinnessCanada Man of Match! #CANvMAB #RC15s pic.twitter.com/xMsG21l0A7— @RugbyCanada
After West and Staller traded early penalties, the Canadian winger added another in the 17th minute for a 6-3 lead with the Maori's Dan Pryor in the sin bin.
But being down a played didn't faze the visitors, who went up 10-6 on a Curtis try that West converted a minute later.
Staller added a penalty in the 21st before Ioane scored another Maori try in the 28th and West booted his third penalty four minutes before halftime.
The Maori then caught Canada napping on a set play off a lineout with Franklin and Dixon combining for a pretty try down the right in the 39th minute for a 27-10 lead at the break.
The Canadians had a decent start to the second half with the Maori's Tim Bateman in the sin bin, but the All Blacks blocked a Staller kick in the 53rd minute, and Ngatai raced 60 metres to stretch the advantage to 24 points.
Little mistakes add up
Canada's Josh Larsen was sent to the sin bin in the 58th minute, and the All Blacks made them pay in the 63rd when Stevenson scored another try off a lineout to make the score 39-9.
Garden-Bachop missed the convert, but made amends with a try in the 70th before adding the extra points to make the score 46-9 before Wainui competed the rout in the 79th minute with the Maori's seventh try.
"A couple loose kicks really hurt us, a couple turnovers," said Mack. "They want to play a fast, up-tempo game. If you don't kill that right away it turns into points against you."
Canada will now travel to Europe for test matches with No. 12 Georgia on Nov. 11 in Tbilisi, No. 19 Spain on Nov. 18 in Madrid and No. 9 Fiji on Nov. 25 in Montpellier, France.
Apart from pitting themselves against a difficult opponent, Friday was also about drumming up interest among fans for the first leg of Canada's next shot at qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup at B.C. Place against No. 18 Uruguay on Jan. 27.
"We want to fill this place in January," said Jones. "The crowd deserves something to cheer."...Read more