Coldstream’s Isaac (Ike) Olson gets the start for Canada in an international Rugby 15 friendly against host Tonga Wednesday, Aug. 9 (7 p.m. Pacific time).
Olson, who helped the New England Free Jacks win the Major League Rugby championship in July, will be one of Canada’s starting backs against the Tongans, ranked 15th in the world.
Coach Kingsley Jones knows his Canadian team will be in deep water against Tonga (an island in the south Pacific).
Which is just what the former Wales captain wants.
“That’s why we’ve come here,” Jones said Tuesday from Tonga. “We want to measure ourselves against better teams. We want to measure ourselves against a top-15 team.”
The 15th-ranked Tongans, whose roster has been strengthened thanks to recent changes in eligibility rules, are gearing up for next month’s Rugby World Cup. The Pacific Islanders are battle-hardened after four hard matches and will have home support in their first test match on home soil since 2017.
The Tonga Rugby Union is also marking its centennial.
No. 23 Canada, meanwhile, hasn’t played since a 43-37 loss to No. 21 Namibia in November.
The two teams will meet again Monday (Tuesday local time).
Tonga likely represents Canada’s toughest challenge since a pair of matches against England and Wales in July 2021, which the Canadians lost 70-14 and 68-12, respectively.
Before travelling to Tonga, Canada held a 12-day training camp in Nadi, Fiji, which included a closed training scrimmage with the Fijian Drua academy.
The August internationals have special meaning for the Canada coach, whose late father Phil Kingsley Jones once coached Tonga.
Jones’ matchday 23 includes Olson and seven other members of the Free Jacks, who won 12 straight en route to the Major League Rugby title on July 8.
The Canadian men have played just 12 times (5-7-0) since failing to get out of the group stage at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Canada had only four outings in 2022, losing to No. 20 Spain 57-34 in Ottawa and beating No. 29 Belgium 45-0 in Halifax in July before downing the 26th-ranked Dutch 37-25 and falling 43-37 to No. 21 Namibia in Amsterdam in November.
Jones, who expects to have more games this November, wants to have 45 players in place, three deep in every position, by the time qualification starts for the 2027 World Cup, likely in 2025.
Hence his desire to blood new talent.
“We need to give these guys exposure to put us in a good position,” said Jones. “We can’t go into those games in ’25 with people having less than 10 tests (experience).”
Canada has a 5-4-0 career record against Tonga but lost the last two meetings — 33-23 in August 2019 in Lautoka, Fiji, and 28-18 in July 2015 in Burnaby, both in Pacific Nations Cup play.
Canada’s last win was a chippy 36-27 decision in Kingston, Ont., in June 2013, also at the Pacific Nations Cup.
The teams have met three times at the World Cup with Canada winning all three encounters: 25-20 in 2011 in New Zealand, 24-7 in 2003 in Australia and 37-4 in 1987 in New Zealand.
England is currently ranked No. 6 while Wales is No. 8.
The highest-ranked teams Canada has faced since then are Portugal, the U.S. and Uruguay, currently ranked No. 16, 17 and 18. The Canadians managed a 34-21 win over the Americans in St. John’s, N.L., in September 2021 but were beaten 38-16 in the second leg of the World Cup qualifier to lose 59-50 on aggregate.
Canada then lost 54-46 to No. 22 Chile on aggregate to miss out on the World Cup contention for the first time.
Tonga became the 19th team to qualify for the 20-team World Cup in July 2022 when it defeated No. 24 Hong Kong in the Asia/Pacific 1 playoff.
Tonga is in a tough Group B, alongside No. 1 Ireland, No. 4 South Africa, No. 5 Scotland and No. 19 Romania.
Tonga has benefited from a recent World Rugby rule change allowing players who have not represented their country in three years to switch to the country of their birth, or of their parents’ or grandparents’ birth.
That means the team known as the Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles) can showcase the likes of former All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau, Augustine Pulu, George Moala and Vaea Fifita and former Wallabies (Australia) Israel Folau and Adam Coleman.
Tonga is coming off a last-place performance at the four-team Pacific Nations Cup, which ran July 22 through Saturday, losing 36-20 to No. 10 Fiji, 21-16 to No. 14 Japan and 34-9 to No. 12 Samoa.
Prior to that, the Tongans defeated Australia ‘A’ 27-21 in Nuku’alofa in its first match on home soil since 2017.