SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Canadian under-20 rugby team has a mountain to climb after suffering a 43-21 loss to the U.S. in Tuesday's opening leg of a two-match qualifier for the World Rugby U20 Trophy.
The finale of the total-points aggregate series goes Saturday at the same venue — Spartanburg Regional Field at County University Stadium — on the campus of University of South Carolina Upstate (formerly known as the University of South Carolina Spartanburg).
The series winner will represent North America at the second-tier under-20 tournament, slated for July 15-30 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Canada led 7-0 early, only to see the U.S. squad reel off 36 straight points before the Canadians scored again early in the second half. The Americans used a strong defence, opportunistic attack and Canadian errors to build their lead.
Michael Di Lellar Jr., captain Cole Kelly and Liam Poulton scored tries for Canada, which trailed 31-7 at the half. Owain Cormack kicked three conversions.
Dominic Besag scored two tries while Aidan Christians, Sosaia Pongi, Trevion Reed and Oliver Cline added singles for the U.S. Steffan Crimp kicked five conversions and a penalty.
Canada is looking to join Scotland, Uruguay and Zimbabwe in Group A at the U20 World Trophy. Group B features Spain, Samoa, Kenya and Hong Kong.
The U.S. is trying to get back to the U20 Trophy for the first time since 2016. The Canadians finished fifth at the 2019 tournament in Brazil, defeating Kenya 52-13 in its closing game.
The top under-20 sides compete at the World Rugby U20 Championship, which is scheduled for June 24 to July 14 in South Africa. The U20 Championship field features Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, defending champion France, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and Wales.
The U20 Trophy and Championship are linked by promotion and relegation.
In 2019, Japan earned promotion by winning the U20 Trophy while Scotland was relegated after finishing last in the Championship.
World Rugby says the two age-grade tournaments, first held in 2008, have seen almost 1,500 players go on to make their test debut including 28 Rugby World Cup winners.
Due to the pandemic, both under-20 tournaments have not been held since 2019.
Canada started with purpose, pounding away at the U.S. defence after an American handling error off the kickoff. Two penalties against the U.S. helped the Canadian cause and Di Lellar touched down off a driving maul following a lineout triggered by a penalty.
Crimp cut the lead to 7-3 soon after Canada was penalized for a high tackle. The Americans pulled ahead 10-7 in the 10th minute on a converted try by Besag, who powered through the Canadian defence to score.
The U.S. kept coming with Christians touching down at the back of a driving maul off a lineout triggered by a Canadian penalty, upping the lead to 17-7 in the 17th minute.
Besag scored his second in the 37th, bulling his way over after a U.S. offensive helped by several Canadian errors.
And Pongi added a fourth U.S. try in the dying seconds of the half after the Americans won the ball at the breakdown and kicked it down the other end. The try came after the ball bounced off the goalpost, away from a Canadian defender and straight to Pongi.
Reed scored in the 43rd minute to boost the lead to 36-7 after several Canadian mistakes and a turnover.
Canada finally stopped the bleeding in the 50th minute with a converted try by Kelly cutting the margin to 36-14. Cline increased the lead with a try in the 64th minute after Corbin Smith sliced through the Canadian backline.
A 74th-minute try by Poulton cut the U.S. lead to 43-21.
Canada competed in the top-tier U20 tournament in 2008 and '09, finishing 12th and 14th, respectively. The elite tournament was trimmed from 16 teams to 12 in 2010 with Canada not making the cut and instead dropping to the second-tier event.
Canada's best finishes at the U20 Trophy were runner-up in 2013 and 2015, to Italy and Georgia, respectively.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.
The Canadian Press