TOKYO – After a tumultuous four years of coaching changes and a last-minute qualification for Rugby World Cup 2019, the Canadian rugby squad is eager to move forward.
The team's veteran winger, the SA-born Daniel Van der Merwe is determined to shape this brave new world but is also urging fans to temper their expectations.
Van der Merwe, better known in rugby circles as DTH (his names are Daniel Tailliferre Hauman) hails from the Western Cape town of Worcester. He played for Boland juniors and then in his teens, the family emigrated to Canada.
Canada's Canucks start their campaign against Italy on Thursday but also face New Zealand and South Africa in the pool stage.
"It's been a tough four years," said the 33-year-old, who will start against the Italians at his fourth World Cup. "It's been a lot of disruption, which has not been ideal, and we made the union aware that we're not happy about that."
After four coaching changes since the last World Cup, Canada finally settled on Welshman Kingsley Jones in 2017. His starting line-up for their opening match against Italy on Thursday brings together seven veterans and eight tournament debutants.
"This time around we've got a good balance of youth and older guys," Van der Merwe said. "The older guys can probably put a cap on the excitement and be a bit more level-headed, and you can use the youth to be exuberant and just play without fear."
Van der Merwe scored tries in all four matches at Rugby World Cup 2015, becoming Canada's record test try-scorer. If he crosses against Italy he will join Jonah Lomu as the only players to score a try in five consecutive World Cup matches.
But while his performance in England made the record books, he was left disappointed as Canada lost every game for the first time in their eight consecutive World Cup appearances.
"Bitter-sweet is probably the best way to sum up that World Cup," the Glasgow Warriors man said. "I've got some really good memories of it on the personal performance side of things but nothing for me gets measured on just my accolades. It's more about what happens with the team."
Two of those games were nearly in Canada's grasp. They lost 23-18 to Italy, 17-15 to Romania on the last kick.
Canada's opener in Japan will give the returning players another chance to tackle a team that have kept much of their squad intact since four years ago.
"I know a lot of them and their habits on the field and it's nice to have them first up in the tournament," Van der Merwe said.
Winning two games in Japan should allow Canada to qualify directly for the next Rugby World Cup, which would also mean a boost in funding, with Namibia to come in Pool B.
The Canadians are familiar with such pressure, having gone through a three-match repechage tournament last November to become the last team to qualify for Japan.
"It was a big fright. There was a lot of pressure on us," Van der Merwe said. "The future of the youngsters in the grassroots levels for Rugby Canada was at stake in that game. Those are things that are going through your mind, not just the money, but where the programme would be if we didn't make it to a World Cup, the funding we'd lose."
The Canadians are determined to avoid repeating that qualifying roller coaster and the match against Italy is one of their best chances to do so.
"We had a bit of a goal-setting (plan) and that's one of our goals, to qualify for the next World Cup," Van der Merwe said.