Dreary skies, chippy play and unsafe seating couldn’t spoil Liam Underwood’s return to Kingston.
The Gaels men’s rugby star continued his rapid ascent up the ranks of the Canadian senior men’s national team, playing the final quarter of Canada’s 36-27 win over Tonga at Richardson Stadium on June 8.
Underwood dressed as a substitute for the Tonga match after making his first career international start three days earlier.
The tight match schedule has forced Canadian head coach Kieran Crowley to rotate his reserves through the 15-man lineup, allowing young players like Underwood to gain ample international experience.
“I think I’ve competed pretty hard,” Underwood said. “It’s only my second year with [the national team], and I think training, everything’s been going pretty well.”
Underwood toured as a reserve with the national side last summer and led Queen’s to their 19th OUA championship back in November. Since then, he’s suited up in five games for Canada.
“Liam’s growing huge — he’s a young talent,” said Canadian captain Aaron Carpenter. “He’ll be back, and he’s got a long future ahead of him. We’re looking forward to seeing more of him.”
Underwood’s homecoming came in front of 3,382 spectators — a number diminished by a May report that deemed Richardson Stadium’s east and west upper bleachers to be unsafe.
Last June, 7,521 fans watched Canada top the United States in international play at Richardson.
This year, metallic barriers blocked off the upper stands on both sides of the field, separating red and white clusters of fans from the condemned tricolour bleachers that loomed above.
Despite the reduced capacity, several players voiced their appreciation for the Kingston crowd. The Tonga fixture was one of three games played in Canada during this year’s Pacific Nations Cup, a five-team international tournament.
“We knew every time we’re in front of Canadian fans, they’ll be our 16th man, and they were loud and boisterous today,” said Carpenter, who made his 50th appearance with the national team against Tonga. “We’re happy to be on home soil.”
Canada rode a numerical advantage to victory against the Tongans. Forward Eddie Aholelei was ejected for sparking a mid-game brawl in the 34th minute, reducing the visitors to 14 players.
Leading 9-7 after the first half, the Canadians erupted for three tries in 11 minutes, penetrating Tonga’s shorthanded defence with outside speed and clever passing.
Veteran Canadian goal-kicker James Pritchard was perfect on the day, nailing three conversions and four penalty kicks and adding a try of his own for 23 individual points.
The victory was somewhat marred by a pair of ugly incidents: the first-half fight, which saw Canada’s Ray Barkwill felled by a sucker punch; and a devastating high hit in the 56th minute, forcing Canadian back Matt Evans to be stretchered off the field.
Following the match, the International Rugby Board suspended three Tongan players as a result of both plays.
“It always ends up being like that with the Tongans — lots of physicality and guys get a little bit chippy,” Carpenter said. “Luckily, they were the team that got a little more ambitious than us, and ended up taking a red card.”
Tonga excelled early and late, opening the scoring in the second minute and tallying three late tries to make the final margin respectable. Seeded 12th in the world by the IRB, the Tongans haven’t beaten 13th-ranked Canada since 1999.
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