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By Doug Crosse
A former Scottish specialist coach has landed in Canada and carved out a career and a new life, all in pretty short order.
For eight and a half years, Dave Butcher was the high-performance coach for Rugby Scotland, introducing best practices throughout the various age-grade programmes and academies. Then, in 2015, he decided the time to start a new chapter in his life had arrived, and he became the High-Performance Director for Rugby Ontario. With that role, he was able to move partner Lynn and their two children to Canada. His new position included coaching with Rugby Canada’s age-grade programs.
Fast forward to the summer of 2017, and Butcher -- now 42 and taking a page out of his own high-performance manual -- became the first ever full-time paid (rugby) coach for the venerable Queens University in Kingston. In his first season, the rookie coach took his team to an undefeated 10-0 and won the Ontario University Championship.
Butcher eyed a role in Canada as a way to challenge himself to see who he could be as a developer of talent in the sport.
“I did a bit of homework. The level of athlete is here, but then it was what I could do with that raw product,” explains Butcher. “If I am going to be a developer of talent, how good am I? I think it is always easy when you have really talented players you are just basically refining.
“Am I good enough to take that raw product and turn them into an international player? From that perspective, Canada really intrigued me.”
Now with the Ontario university season completed, Butcher will reset and get his long-term goals sorted out to begin the planning required to move the program to the next level. He is the first to admit that he came into a pretty good situation, with the team losing to Guelph in the 2016 final and having had years of good coaching to give him a good base from which to work. But now he will get busy putting his own stamp on the Queens rugby squad.
“I am a big planner,” says Butcher of the next 3 and a half months of off-season; time that will allow him to chart next moves, take recruiting trips, and organize all other aspects of the newly-professional setup at one of Canada’s top universities. It is a sign of how the sport has grown in Canada that a budget and role were carved out from what was previously served through a largely volunteer staff.
In terms of reviewing his first season Butcher admits he is quite satisfied with the results, but despite being undefeated, points to two particular matches that became watershed moments for the team.
Against Brock University, the sixth game of the 2017 campaign, he says he felt the team turned the corner in terms of learning how to perform, noting “we actually banned talk of winning matches instead focusing on how we would perform individually and collectively to be successful.
“We found a different way. The players started to show a real understanding of how to play in the shape we had been working on and how to get success through this way of playing,” he says of the 66-15 victory that day. “The players suddenly got it and they were ruthless in terms of getting the ball back time and again, creating opportunities.”
Then two weeks later, against a well-drilled McMaster team, it was another match with one-way traffic and a 62-18 scoreline that hit home for Butcher that his team was special and making progress.
“That day, it was the nature of the scores,” he recounts. “The ability to all be on the same page in terms of the process and the shape of play, they were able to put pressure on continually. That was very important as we got ready for the knock-out stages.”
In the playoffs, Queens downed Laurier 54-7 before beating Guelph 62-17 to take the championship.
Despite the great run, Queens determined that they would not participate in the inaugural men’s national university championships held at Guelph University from November 15 to 18.
“We had to make a decision as a team and an Academic institution,” Butcher says of the choice not to take on the best teams in the country. “We have players with huge academic requirements, and with the relatively short notice of this event we determined it was not going to be right to play in the tournament when we would be missing a large portion of our team due to school requirements.”
UBC beat the UVic Vikes 37-12 in an all-west-coast final.
“We definitely would like to take part next season,” says Butcher.
For now, a focus on 7s, and recruiting and planning for the 2018 campaign are all on the docket for the coming months.
“If we want to make Queens the preeminent rugby program, it's not just what we do on the pitch, its what we give back to the community and how we are seen by the community in both Ontario and Canada,” he says. “But also, what can we offer? Coaching courses, summer camps, elite academies are where we are really keen to move forward on.”