Coach Kingsley Jones knows his Canadian team will be in deep water against Tonga on Wednesday night.
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 game at Teufaiva Stadium kicks off at 3 p.m. local time Thursday (10 p.m. ET Wednesday in Canada). The two teams meet again Monday (Tuesday local time).
Tonga likely represents Canada’s toughest challenge since a pair of match against England and Wales in July 2021, which the Canadians lost 70-14 and 68-12, respectively.
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 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.
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 eight members of the New England Free Jacks, who won 12 straight en route to the Major League Rugby title on July 8.
Free Jacks forwards Andrew Quattrin, Conor Young, Conor Keys and backs Isaac Olson, Spencer Jones and Ben LeSage are in the starting lineup while forwards Foster Dewitt and Cole Keith are among the replacements.
The game-day roster also include six Toronto Arrows with forwards Mason Flesch and Lucas Rumball and backs Ross Braude and Peter Nelson starting and Travis Larsen and Mitch Richardson on the bench.
Robbie Povey, whose rights Toronto acquired from Houston in a trade last month, starts at fly half.
Jones is giving a first cap to Izzak Kelly and first starts to fellow forwards Young and Mason Flesch.
Kelly, a six-foot-six 277-pound lock, now plays in New Zealand for Spotswood United RFC after helping UBC win the 2022 Canadian University men’s rugby title. Young, an Australian-born prop who qualifies for Canada by virtue of a Canadian parent, won his first cap off the bench against the Netherlands in November while Flesch had two Canada caps as a replacement before suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Sion (pronounced Shawn) Parry, Larsen and Richardson could earn their first caps off the bench.
Parry, an open-side flanker who plays in Wales for Pontypridd, qualifies for Canada through his Ontario-born mother. Arrows teammates Larsen and Richardson have previously played for Canada ‘‘A’ in the Americas Pacific Challenge.
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, B.C., 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.
Liam Murray, Langley, B.C., Dallas Jackals (MLR); Andrew Quattrin, Holland Landing, Ont., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Conor Young, Yamba, Australia, New England Free Jacks (MLR); Izzak Kelly, White Rock, B.C., Spotswood United RFC (New Zealand); Conor Keys, Stittsville, Ont., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Mason Flesch, Cobourg, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Lucas Rumball, Toronto, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Siaki Vikilani, Vancouver, American Raptors (Super Rugby Americas); Ross Braude, Pretoria, South Africa, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Robbie Povey, Northampton, England, Houston SaberCats (MLR); Isaac Olson, Vernon, B.C., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Spencer Jones, Cambridge, New Zealand, New England Free Jacks (MLR); Ben LeSage, Calgary, New England Free Jacks (MLR); Kainoa Lloyd, Mississauga, Ont., Houston SaberCats (MLR); Peter Nelson, Dungannon, Northern Ireland, Toronto Arrows (MLR).
Foster Dewitt, Courtney, B.C., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Djustice Sears-Duru, Oakville, Ont., San Diego Legion (MLR); Cole Keith, Apohaqui, N.B., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Piers Von Dadelszen, Vancouver, Oxford University; Sion Parry, Cardiff, Wales, Pontypridd RFC (Wales); Travis Larsen, Parksville, B.C., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Jason Higgins, Cork, Ireland, San Diego Legion (MLR); Mitch Richardson, Stoney Creek, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR).