Canada takes on its toughest test since the 2011 Rugby World Cup when it faces Samoa in Wales on Friday.
Samoa is ranked 10th in the world and it is a measure of its strength that the Pacific Islanders play No. 6 Wales and No. 5 France next.
“They’re by far the strongest teams from the (Pacific) islands,” said Canadian coach Kieran Crowley, whose side is ranked 13th.
“It’s going to be a massive challenge for us but we’re looking forward to it,” the former All Black added.
The Samoans are coming off a winning campaign in the Pacific Nations Cup, which also featured Fiji, Japan and Tonga.
Crowley expects to face a fully professional side, with the Samoans drawn mostly from club teams in England, France and New Zealand.
The Samoans are a physical side, as personified by prop Census Johnston, a six-foot-two 287-pounder who plays for Toulouse in France.
If the big guy gets tired, the Samoans can thrown on younger brother James Johnston, who plays for English champion Harlequins and is even larger. He stands six foot two and weighs 304 pounds.
They also have plenty of flair in the backline.
After Samoa, the Canadian men take on No. 19 Russia and the Maori All Blacks, formerly known as the New Zealand Maori.
Friday’s game at Parc Eiras in Colwyn Bay is one of 35 November matches featuring 19 of the top 20 rugby teams in the world.
And there is more than bragging rights at stake. The November results will affect the world rankings, which in turn influence the 2015 Rugby World Cup pool allocation draw, set for Dec. 3.
The top four teams — currently New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England — will top their own groups and thus be kept apart in the first round.
Teams ranked four to eight — currently France, Wales, Ireland and Argentina — will be placed in a separate pot for the draw as will those ninth through 12th (Scotland, Samoa, Italy and Tonga).
Canada will go in one of the next two pots as Americas 1 or 2. That will be determined by a home-and-away playoff with the 17th-ranked U.S. Eagles next year.
The winner becomes Americas 1 while the loser has to go into a playoff to determine Americas 2.
Whatever happens, Canada will be swimming with the sharks at the 2015 tournament. The Canadians could find themselves in a group with New Zealand, France, Scotland and one other.
First things first, however, and that means Samoa.
The Canadians are missing three key players in forwards Jebb Sinclair and Jamie Cudmore and back DTV van der Merwe.
Sinclair, who has turned heads with his recent play in South Africa with the Stormers and Western Province, has been delayed because of visa issues. The back-rower/lock is expected to be available for the next two games.
Crowley elected not to call up veteran lock Cudmore after a busy stretch with Clermont Auvergne in France.
Van der Merwe, who plays for the Glasgow Warriors in Scotland, is out with a hamstring injury.
Phil Mack also pulled out of the squad due to school commitments. He was replaced by Eric Wilson.
Despite the absence of van der Merwe, the Canadian backline looks threatening with Matt Evans and 20-year-old Taylor Paris on the wings, Phil Mackenzie and Ciaran Hearn in the centre and a halfback pairing of Sean White and Connor Braid. Veteran James Pritchard starts at fullback and will handle kicking duties.
Four of the seven play professionally in England.
“It’s an exciting group that I think will get better with time,” said Crowley.
The Canadian coach has chopped and changed positions to shoehorn them all in. Hearn has traditionally played wing while Braid has only had a few starts at fly half.
“I believe you pick the best players you can and then find a position for them,” Crowley said.
Up front, Ray Barkwill will win his first cap at hooker at the age of 32. The native of Niagara Falls, Ont., honed his skills during a stint in Australia and has climbed the ranks through the Canadian Rugby Championship with the Ontario Blues and the Americas Rugby Championship with Canada A.
His scrummaging skills will be tested against a hard-nosed Samoan front three.
Back-rower Aaron Carpenter captains the team, which features six European pros.
Canada lost 41-22 when the two teams last met, in 2000 in Apia. Their only other meeting was 1999 in Vancouver, where Samoa won 17-13.
Hubert Buydens, Prairie Wolf Pack, Saskatoon; Ray Barkwill, Ontario Blues, Niagara Falls, Ont.; Doug Wooldridge, Ontario Blues, Lindsay, Ont.; Jon Phelan, The Rock, Montreal; Tyler Hotson, London Scottish (England), Vancouver; Tyler Ardron, Ontario Blues, Lakefield, Ont.; Chauncey O’Toole, Brigand Ravens, Belleisle, N.B.; Aaron Carpenter (capt.), Plymouth Albion RFC (England), Brantford, Ont.; Sean White, Pacific Tyee, Victoria; Connor Braid, Pacific Tyee, Victoria; Matt Evans, Cornish Pirates (England), Duncan, B.C.; Phil Mackenzie, London Welsh (England), Oakville, Ont.; Ciaran Hearn, The Rock, Conception Bay, N.L.; Taylor Paris, Glasgow Warriors (Scotland), Barrie, Ont.; James Pritchard, Bedford Blues (England) Parkes, Australia.
Reserves: Ryan Hamilton, Pacific Tyee, West Vancouver; Jason Marshall, Aurillac (France), North Vancouver; Andrew Tiedemann, FC Auch Gers (France), St. Albert, Alta.; Brett Beukeboom, Plymouth Albion RFC (England) Lindsay, Ont.; John Moonlight, Ontario Blues, Pickering, Ont.; Eric Wilson, Meraloma RC, Vancouver; Nick Blevins, Prairie Wolf Pack, Calgary; Jeff Hassler, Prairie WolfPack, Okotoks, Alta.
Sakaria Taulafo (capt.), Wayne Ole Avei, Census Johnston, Faatiga Lemalu, Teofilo Paulo, Ofisa Treviranus, Fomai Tivani Fomai, Taiasina Tuifua, Jeremy Sua, Tusiata Pisi, Robert Lilomaiava, Setaimata Sa, George Pisi, Paul Perez, James Sooialo.
Reserves: Ropeti Lafo, Viliamu Afatia, James Johnston, Iosefa Tekori, Alafoti Faosiliva, Kahn Fotualii, Johnny Leota, Faatoina Autagavaia.