Rugby Canada claimed the prized scalp of the Classic Springboks in a thrilling encounter on an enthralling opening day of the World Rugby Classic at North Field yesterday.
Canada produced a performance overflowing with character and never-say-die spirit to defeat the much-fancied South Africans 26-24, causing one of the biggest upsets at the annual festival in recent memory.
The wild celebrations at the final whistle exemplified just what the victory meant to the Canada, who will now face the Ireland Rugby Legends in the semi-finals on Wednesday night.
Ireland, returning to the Classic after a 25-year absence, toppled France Classic Rugby 24-10 in the tournament curtain-raiser yesterday.
Jonathon Goldie, the Canada coach, said his side’s unyielding defence was the key to their comeback win, having trailed South Africa 24-14 with ten minutes remaining.
“Defence, defence, defence,” Goldie said. “We hit them really, really hard and didn’t miss many tackles. This win means everything to us. We showed what you can do when you play for the jersey.”
With just five minutes left on the clock, Canada forced their way into the lead for the first time in the match. Centre Josh Campbell popped a pass to Aaron Mittler after a superb break, creating a clear opening for the burly flanker to power through for the match-winning try.
A missed conversion by fly half Derek Daypuck left the door ajar for a deflated-looking Springboks, but the Canadians showed “guts, determination and a lot of hard work” to hold firm during the dying embers of the game.
“We hung it out in the end,” Goldie added. “I never thought we were out of the game and I always felt we were capable of winning. That’s what I told the players and they went out and proved me right. I’m very, very proud of them. There’s going to be a huge party tonight!”
Goldie added: “[Rugby] doesn’t get a lot of funding or exposure in Canada, so any little piece of success we can create for ourselves is really, really important.”
It was the Springboks who drew first blood with a try in the sixth minute through full back Conrad Jantjies. Fly half Monty Dumond missed the chance to add the extra points, pulling his difficult conversion wide.
South Africa were purring during the opening phase of the game, scoring their second try after Helmar Breytenbach opened up the Canada defence before releasing the overlapping Sam Gerber down the right channel. Again Dumond missed the kick from a tight angle, not that it seemed to matter at this early stage.
Canada, however, worked their way back into the game through flanker Mark MacSween with a try under the posts allowing Daypuck to add the extra points with a routine kick.
South Africa soon reasserted their dominance, though, with flanker Ryan van Tonder scoring their third try just before the interval. This time Dumond made no mistake with the conversion to make it 17-7
Canada, again, fought their way back into contention with a try from No 8 Scott Dunham. Daypuck added the points to make it a ten-point game.
When the referee awarded the Springboks a penalty try, which Dumond converted, any chance of a Canada comeback seemed slender.
However, a try from full back Jeff Hasler and a conversion from Daypuck breathed fresh life into their hopes, and with the pendulum now swinging in Canada’s favour, Mittler sealed with win late on.
The Springboks will be left wondering how they lost a match they appeared to be in control of for large periods. But Canada simply refused to wilt and deserved to celebrate what was a famous win for the perennial Plate competition contenders.