Canada hooker Ray Barkwill drives with the ball against a pair of Uruguayan tacklers during Americas Rugby Championship action last year at Westhills Stadium. The competition returns to Langford on Saturday

Canada hooker Ray Barkwill drives with the ball against a pair of Uruguayan tacklers during Americas Rugby Championship action last year at Westhills Stadium. The competition returns to Langford on Saturday

ARC: Key matches ahead for Canada’s rugby men

Canada will once again use Americas Rugby Championship to develop and integrate players

It’s another year and another set of big games for Rugby Canada at Westhills Stadium in Langford.

As the kickoff for the opening match of the Americas Rugby Championships draws near, Canada’s men’s 15s are looking to continue a rebuilding plan that started with last year’s ARC and saw the team sink to a historic low world ranking of 19th.

Looking to grow the program and develop some younger players in this non-Olympic or Rugby World Cup qualifying year, head coach Mark Anscombe named a large roster for the ARC. It’s a mixed bag of veterans, up-and-comers with a handful of international matches under their belt, and relative newcomers to the national team rugby scene.

“We’ve got nine guys on the squad that are uncapped,” Anscombe said before the team headed to Shawnigan Lake for a weekend training camp. “It’ll give them a chance to step up and show us how far away or how close (they) are to where we need them to be. We’ve got to start building toward the goal of 2019 (World Cup year).”

The annual ARC won’t see Canada’s best players on the field together for the Langford matches, Feb. 4 against Argentina XV and Feb. 11 against Chile. As this year’s tournament is not part of the Olympic or World Cup window, Rugby Canada has not asked for the release of the top Canadian professionals currently playing premier rugby in Europe.

It did however, secure winger Taylor Paris and centre/wing Conor Trainor from their French Div. 2 pro sides, and outstanding young prop Djustice (DJ) Sears-Duru from Glasgow in the Pro 12 European league. They’ll join veterans like Ray Barkwill, Nick Blevins, Phil Mack, Pat Parfrey and others as Canada’s ARC stalwarts.

But there’s still a need for some unsung warriors. That scenario leaves players like tighthead prop Ryan Kotlewski treating the next six or so weeks as a perfect opportunity to demonstrate their skills under pressure. “It’s a good time for domestic players to step up and show the coach what we can do,” he said.

Kotlewski, who plays for Westshore RFC’s top team in local club play and the Calgary-based Prairie Wolf Pack for Canadian Rugby Championship matches, is looking forward to getting another chance to contribute.

A rock-hard six-foot, 260-pound front row player who’ll turn 27 on Feb. 21, he played club rugby in Australia in 2015 and earned his first-ever Rugby Canada cap playing in last year’s ARC. He added to his international resume by playing a test series last June and travelling with the Canada A side on later tours of the UK and South America.

Kotlewski moved full-time to Greater Victoria with his wife last September to be close to the national team training group. At the urging of national teamer Clay Panga, a Wolf Pack teammate and former Calgarian who had relocated with the Velox club to Colwood, Kotlewski joined Westshore and has become one of their quiet leaders.

Panga, a flanker, is expected to be in the thick of things during this year’s ARC. He was also given his chance in last year’s tournament, when Canada was rebuilding after a sub-standard 0-4 performance at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The team’s five-week schedule for the second annual ARC begins with the home game against defending champion Argentina XV, that country’s second national team. Anscombe said they’ll have a young team here, but the strength of the program showed in Argentina’s reaching the World Cup semifinals in 2015.

“The others are a bit of the unknown, the Chiles and the Brazils and the Uruguays, but they have been growing,” he said. “And of course our old rivals the USA (ranked 17th) – the next time we come across each other, is in World Cup qualifying.”

That’s a home-and-home total points series this summer that will determine North America’s guaranteed berth into the 2019 RWC in Japan.