SPORTS

Canada faces step up in class as Italy arrives for rugby test at BMO Field

06/14/2012 05:08 EDT | Updated 08/14/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - After an error-filled win over the U.S. Eagles, the Canadian rugby team steps up in class Friday against Italy.

The Italians are rated 12th in the world, just one place ahead of Canada. But Canadian coach Kieran Crowley isn't reading much in the rankings.

"The reason they're so close to us in the rankings is simply because they're playing the top countries in the world all the time," said the former All Black. "And so when you're playing those sort of countries, you're obviously going to lose a few of the games so you lose those rankings points.

"They're a Tier 1 country. These are the sort of games that we're after. The more we can have of these games, the better we're going to get. So we're really looking forward to the challenge and hopefully we can put out a spectacle that sort of helps grow the game."

Unlike Italy, Canada usually is restricted to playing second-tier countries or the B teams of elite nations outside of the World Cup.

Crowley believes last fall's World Cup in his native New Zealand helped shine the spotlight on the sport in Canada. He wants his team not to waste that momentum.

But he knows putting on a show won't be easy Friday at BMO Field.

"We're going to have to step up massively from where we were last week," said Crowley.

Canada opened its three-game summer schedule with a 28-25 win over the 17th-ranked U.S. Eagles in Kingston last weekend in its first outing since the World Cup.

Crowley liked the result but not the performance.

"We turned over too much ball and were generally pretty rusty really, I suppose, which was to be expected," he said.

The Italians are fielding a young side with star captain Sergio Parisse and veteran Marco Bortolami both injured. The Italy starting 15 has a combined 275 caps with 150 of those divided between prop Martin Castrogiovanni and backrow forward Alessandro Zanni.

Toronto-born backrower Robert Barbieri has another 22 caps.

The Italian side may be young but it is fully professional and many of the players are veterans of the Six Nations competition, which is the sport's highest level of competition in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Italians, who are coming off a 37-22 loss against No. 7 Argentina, have won four and lost two tests against Canada. They have won the last three meetings.

The Canadians are missing one of their biggest names, with veteran lock Jamie Cudmore taking time off after a busy French club season. Fly half Ander Monro and captain/hooker Pat Riordan elected not to take part in the summer schedule because of other responsibilities.

Crowley understands the pressures amateur players face in Canada.

"They've got to have a life to go to after rugby," he said.

But he also notes that such absences offer others a chance to step up and perhaps stake their claim to the starting role.

Backrow forward Jebb Sinclair returns to the starting lineup after coming off the bench last week against the Americans. Sinclair is playing for South Africa's Stormers in Super Rugby and was late getting to the Canadian camp because of club responsibilities.

Sinclair is one of six changes to the starting lineup that beat the Americans.

Incumbent tighthead prop Jason Marshall returns from injury and Dan Pletch replaces Ryan Hamilton (concussion) at hooker.

Blindside forward Tyler Ardron gets his first start after seeing action off the bench last week.

Phil Mackenzie and Conor Trainor are introduced on the wing. Mackenzie is coming back from an injury and Trainor was unavailable last week because of family commitments.

Matt Evans continues at fly half in Monro's absence and an injury to Connor Braid (thumb). Nathan Hirayama (sternum/shoulder) is also injured, meaning former Queen's player Liam Underwood gets his chance as backup No. 10.

Flanker Adam Kleeberger, famous for his beard at the World Cup is also sidelined following shoulder surgery.

No. 8 Aaron Carpenter makes his second start as captain in the absence of Riordan.

"Aaron's a quiet leader in the fact that he's more of a 'do as I do' rather than a ranting and raving-type leader," said Crowley. "For me, he's got the values that I'm looking for in a player and looking for in a team. ... I've been very happy with him."

Canada wraps up its summer schedule against No. 14 Georgia on June 23 in Burnaby, B.C.

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