Sports  Canadian national identity and rugby

2011 Rugby World Cup shows an improvement in Canadians' apathy for national teams

In the sporting world, Canadians share many common bonds: most throw their  alleigance behind one of the seven Canadian NHL teams, and most are aware and supportive of players like Steve Nash, Justin Morneau, and Hayley Wickenheiser. In general, Canadians are proud of their athletes and professional teams. However, Canadians fall pathetically short in supporting their national teams. Sidney Crosby galvanized the nation with his overtime game-winning goal to lift Canada to a men’s hockey gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, but, outside of the country’s most popular sport, there is very little of this same enthusiasm.

The Canadian men’s and women’s national soccer teams both play to crowds of, on average, under 10,000 people in Toronto, while the professional soccer team in the region, Toronto FC, averages attendances of over 20,000 every week. The Canadian men’s national basketball team played a friendly game in Toronto as a warm up to their Olympic Qualifiers this year, and drew only three hundred spectators, whereas the Toronto Raptors habitually fill the Air Canada Centre to capacity for their games. This general indifference to Canadian national teams from the Canadian public represents a serious flaw in the country’s sporting culture, and is a source of frustration for the athletes sporting the Maple Leaf.

Canada is not a country known for outpourings of patriotism ,unlike its southern neighbor, but what does seem to galvanize the country is a story. This fall, an intriguing narrative unraveled in New Zealand of the Canadian team at the Rugby World Cup, one that garnered more patriotic support than a national team would typically receive.

The team’s surprise 25 to 20 come–from-behind win over Tonga in Canada’s first game of the Rugby World Cup was watched by an audience of 138,000 people on TSN in Canada.  This number, on its own, is nothing to fuss over, but, when it is taken into account that the game was played in New Zealand and was shown live at 1:00 a.m. EST in Canada, the number becomes much more impressive.

Aside from the fact that everyone loves an underdog, it was the story of the individual athletes that grabbed the interest of the average fan over a sport that is considered non-mainstream in Canada.

Thirty-one-year-old Pat Riordan splits his time between carpentry and captaining the team. Jamie Cudmore has lived his life overshadowed by his younger brother, who starred as an actor in the X-Men series – he is now getting his time to shine playing as a flanker. These are just two of many interesting storylines that came with the Canadian rugby team, which garnered international media recognition during their time in New Zealand.

After the early win against Tonga, the Canadians put up a valiant effort in ultimately losing games against France and New Zealand, while tying with the Japanese. These results led to a slightly disappointing fourth place finish in the five-team group.

This finish means that Canada does not qualify for the quarterfinals. The team will also not have the same luxury as the world’s top rugby nations of a guaranteed spot in the 2015 World Cup; Canada will have to play their way in again. While this means uncertainty as to whether or not Canada will actually get another chance in the World Cup, it also gives the team an incredible opportunity to build on the support back in Canada. As Cudmore was quick to tell TSN, “There are huge pluses that came out of the World Cup.” Qualifiers at home will give Canadian rugby fans – and Canadian sports fans in general – a chance to support a team that needs and deserves national backing.

The Canadian rugby team is made up of a determined group of athletes who are neither pretentious superstars nor overpaid underachievers. Most importantly, despite having significantly less professional experience than their opponents, they showed that they are true competition, pulling off surprises like beating Tonga and bringing out a few French nerves in an unexpectedly tight game. After the victory over Tonga, Pat Riordan was nearly speechless. He kept his post-match comments to TSN a concise, “That was awesome. Just awesome.”

This is the type of team Canadians should be willing to get behind, as the country slowly changes the way they approach and support their national teams. Gaining the support they deserve from people back home could make the team one worth cheering for.