Written By: Adam McQueen
Photo Credits: Chris Weyell
On November 16, six of the strongest university men’s rugby programs will descend upon Guelph, Ontario in the hopes of claiming the inaugural Canadian University Men’s Rugby Championship title. With representatives spanning from Victoria to PEI, this landmark event takes significant strides towards strengthening the national recognition of men’s rugby across Canada.
Currently, men’s rugby is not recognized under the U SPORT banner. This has subsequently hindered the financial backing from many institutions for their respective programs. As such, men’s rugby programs - besides the OUA, RSEQ, and BC contingent - have suffered the fate that comes with being handed non-varsity status. This absence of financial support has stunted the development of coaches and athletes alike. However, the tide may well change as the emergence of a national championship heaves pressure upon U SPORTS to fully recognize men’s rugby.
You don’t even have to look outside of the sport to witness the opportunities and positive impact that full-time U SPORT status can create.
Women’s rugby has felt the benefits of becoming fully sanctioned, recently completing their twentieth national championship this season. The U SPORT competition has become a proving ground for young female talent and provides a clear development structure to feed into the successful Canadian Women’s National Program. In addition, the U SPORT women’s competition has produced a national champion from each regional conference over the past five years.
This level of parity is unheard of in men’s rugby.
The results of the men's National University 7's Championships have been heavily lopsided in the favour of Ontario and British Columbia programs. Throughout the seven year history of the tournament it has yet to be hosted outside of British Columbia, limiting the ability for programs elsewhere to compete due to financial constraints. Even the interest from the strongest Ontario outfits has dwindled in recent years, diminishing the notion that a true national championship crown is at stake.
This year's inaugural fifteen-a-side tournament will remedy such issues. Hosting the tournament in Guelph and including regions from across Canada is essential in order for men's rugby to evolve. It eradicates the disconnect that is currently apparent between university programs by creating a singular, common goal that programs all across the country can strive for.
Unfortunately, controversy has struck before a ball has even been kicked. Perennial powerhouse in Ontario, Queen's University, has withdrawn from the competition despite taking home the OUA title in convincing fashion over Guelph 62-17. An official reason has not been given, however there are murmurs that the grueling schedule in which teams will play three times in four days may not be enticing for those who have endured the slog of a full season.
Talent level will differ. This is to be expected. The University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, winners of three consecutive Rounsefell Cup titles, will enter the tournament as heavy favourites. The Vikes and Gryphons each bring a history of success respectively.
However, this exposure to top-level talent for all programs involved is the exact spark that men's rugby needs to grow throughout the country, not just in the familiar hotbeds. The aforementioned women's U SPORT championships, which is now hotly contested across Canada, began with the University of Alberta winning five of the first six competitions. They set the bar and others caught up.
Without a professional setup present in Canadian rugby, the expansion of the university competition to serve as a bridge from youth rugby to the senior representative level is vital, now more than ever.