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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Canada expecting big crowd, but stiff test, when it hosts Scotland in rugby

TORONTO - With Canadian rugby fans doing their part by embracing the sport, Gareth Rees is challenging Canada's men's team to return the favour.

"Can we (also) perform at this level?" asked Rees, Canada's manager and former team captain.

"We always like a challenge in Canadian rugby," he added.

The Canadians are expecting a packed house at BMO Field when they host Scotland on Saturday —another high-profile Test match at the lakefront stadium.

A crowd of 22,566 watch the Maori All Blacks beat the Canadians 40-15 there last November. That was a North American record crowd for the sport.

"The general awareness of rugby in the country has gone through the roof, not only with the Olympics (rugby sevens has been added to the Olympic schedule for 2016), but also our events, and just the profile for both the men's and women's game," said Rees, the first Canadian inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame.

"BMO is our home now, and it's been a fantastic home for us, not only the attendance but there's also an understanding and awareness. . . we have a crowd that understands the game. So it's really healthy, and BMO is our spiritual home and we throw it up as a challenge to our players."

The Canadians are looking to bounce back from an ugly 34-25 loss to Japan on Saturday in Burnaby, B.C. Canada had a healthy 25-9 halftime lead before coughing up 25 second-half points.

But 16th-ranked Canada face what's expected to be an even tougher test Saturday in Scotland — a Tier 1 squad that is ranked eighth in the world.

"We are a Tier 2 nation, and we play nations that are ranked well above us, and sometimes you can just have a team play better rugby than you and you can accept that," said Canada's captain Tyler Ardron.

"But in a game like that (versus 12th-ranked Japan), we were up so many at half, and it was just the inexperience around little things and we weren't able to close the game out.

"You bring that forward but at the same time, you try to forget as well. There's a completely new challenge, we've got another team of full professionals (in Scotland), and they played an exciting game of rugby last weekend."

Scotland defeated the United States 24-6 in steamy 31 C heat in Houston on Saturday.

Ardron, who plays professionally in Wales for Ospreys, grew up in Lakefield, Ont., just north of Peterborough. The 22-year-old said that he hasn't paused to think much of what it will be like serving as Canada's captain in practically his own backyard.

"I think when you're in the little bubble being on tour, you don't really think about things like that that much. Whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure," he said. "We have so many good leaders on this team. Being named captain, it is a great honour, but there are so many guys that contribute their part and I just do mine as well. Maybe it will sink in after, I'm not sure. . ."

Rees expects plenty of Scottish supporters at BMO Field on Saturday.

"There are a lot of Scots in Canadian culture and Canadian history and I hope we really test the loyalty of some of those Canadian-Scots, and put some pressure on them," Rees said, smiling. "We obviously are looking at a performance, especially after last week, some things that we weren't happy with. But we showed glimpses that we can play. So a huge opportunity for these players."

The Scots arrived in town on Sunday and lock Jim Hamilton said the players were happy it was at least cooler in Toronto. It was 23 on Tuesday, and the forecast calls for sunshine and 23 on Saturday.

"It's great to be in Toronto and to have had the experience to be in Texas, as a team we were obviously very happy to get the win. But the conditions took their toll on the players, both teams," said Hamilton, who won't play Saturday — he injured an ankle in the U.S. game and was scheduled to fly to London on Wednesday for surgery.

Hamilton, a mountain of a man at six foot eight and 278 pounds with intricate tattoos covering both arms, said the gap between Tier 1 and Tier 2 countries is narrowing, and Scotland won't take Canada lightly on Saturday.

"Looking at the way Canada plays, and some of the footage that we've seen, they play an exciting brand of rugby," Hamilton said. "Against USA, I think we did as well. I think we'll be in for a great spectacle, a great game, and hope to see a few tries scored. Hopefully more for us though."

Rugby Canada also announced the signing of DHL as its official logistic partner, a partnership the sport organization's CEO Graham Brown called a "major milestone."

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