Jake Ilnicki of Alexis Creek will take to the field at BC Place this weekend with Canada’s men’s team to face Uruguay in the first of two 2019 Rugby World Cup qualifying matches. (Ian Muir/Rugby Canada photo)

Ilnicki returns to Canadian side for Rugby World Cup qualifier

Alexis Creek’s Jake Ilnicki will join Canada’s Men’s Rugby Team this Saturday to face Uruguay.

Alexis Creek’s Jake Ilnicki will join Canada’s Men’s Rugby Team this Saturday to face Uruguay in the first of two 2019 Rugby World Cup qualifying matches this month.

The game, which takes place on home soil for the Canadians at BC Place in Vancouver, will be the first leg of a home and home series with Uruguay. The winner will qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, making the upcoming home game against Uruguay Canada’s most important match for the team in decades.

Ilnicki, who currently plays prop for the Newcastle Falcons of the English Premiership, touched down in Vancouver late last week to begin training with the team.

Canada, he said, is looking to field its strongest team possible, featuring Canada’s top professionals, who play pro rugby in Europe and New Zealand, along with top domestic players.

“It’s a pretty sweet opportunity any time you get to play for your country,” the Williams Lake Rustlers member and former Williams Lake secondary high school standout told the Tribune. “And, especially at BC Place.”

Ilnicki said family and friends — a contingent of about 30 people — are making the trip to Vancouver to cheer him and the Canadians on.

“This is our home game, then we head down there to Montevideo for theirs, and whoever wins in aggregate total points qualifies,” Ilnicki said.

“Our guys got together last week in London and had a camp there for a week and had a chance to play against a pro club there, the Harlequins, then another game against Oxford University as a bit of a warm up, and we flew back here. We’ve just been training here [in Vancouver] in the real wet weather.”

Following Saturday’s Rugby World Cup qualifier, Canada will depart for Montevideo for the series finale on Feb. 3.

Of Saturday’s match with Uruguay, Ilnicki said the experience playing at BC Place in front of a home crowd is second to none.

“I was fortunate enough to play against Japan a year ago [here],” Ilnicki said. “It’s going to be pretty awesome. The atmosphere is just unreal. The fans feel like they’re so close to you in that dome.”

Looking at how Canada, currently ranked 21st in the world, matches up with Uruguay (18th seeded), Ilnicki said it should be a physical affair.

“They’re a big, physical pack,” he said. “They’ve got some large boys on their team and they’re going to want to qualify just as much as we do so it’s going to be a very physical game.

“They’re known to be fast, aggressive players and that’s just something we’ve got to match. But there’s no place other than BC Place that’s going to get us going with the fans, and the amount of people they’re expecting. To be a part of that is exciting.”

The two sides have faced off 10 times dating back to 1995 with the South Americans winning on two occasions, including last year’s 17-13 victory in Montevideo as part of the Americas Rugby Championship.

Canada’s head coach Kingsley Jones added Uruguay is a strong and well-drilled unit and he expects two tough games.

“They play as one unified team,” Jones said. “They have won a lot of games recently and we know they’re going to be ready for the challenge of this two-game series. We know we have to match them physically and, more importantly, play as a team.

“We have some quality on the field but they will only be able to show their class if we play as a team. It’s a unique and exciting challenge, we have to deliver full 80-minute performances over two legs in order to qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but we’re confident we can get the job done.”

Tickets for the match against Uruguay start at $14 and are on sale now by visiting rugbycanada.ca. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. and the game will be viewable on TSN2.

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