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Written By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
Evan Olmstead is a Canadian export. Then import. Then export again.
And he's a great one at that.
Despite his Australian brogue, not a lot of Rugby Canada supporters are aware that Evan Olmstead was born in North Vancouver; though he did move with his family to Australia in 1994 at the age of three, where he grew up playing rugby.
Canadian rugby supporters are also often unaware that Olmstead’s Canadian sporting ties run deep – he had a great-uncle who played professional hockey during its golden age, for three of the Original Six: Chicago, Montreal and Toronto. Saskatchewan’s Bert Olmstead was a talented player and fan favourite through his 14 years, and he's in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But If that isn’t enough to make a boy ‘a true Canadian’ despite his years away, then maybe the fact that Evan’s own Dad was both a hockey and rugby player cements his sporting roots.
John Olmstead was instrumental in the founding of Capilano RFC, and has a cup named for him by the North Vancouver team; Capilano and UBC play annually for the John Olmstead Memorial Cup.
Evan’s roots are deeply Canadian despite the accent and resemblance to another famous Australian superhero who wields a hammer.
Evan always enjoyed hearing stories about his dad not being allowed to quit school for sport, and how the senior Olmstead became involved with Capilano. “I didn't really understand that ‘Caps’ connection and all that history until I met some of Dad’s Canadian friends who impressed upon me how good Uncle Bert was back in the day," he says. "I met uncle Bert before he died when I was in Calgary with the Wolfpack in 2014. He had some great stories!”
He's clearly proud of his Olmstead lineage. It's evident the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when he says “one thing I really liked about [Uncle Bert] was that he'd obviously suffered in later life from the effects of his sporting career, but he didn't have any regrets about it.” If you've seen Evan Olmstead over 80 minutes of play, you know what I mean.
Prior to being selected to Rugby Canada for Rugby World Cup 2015, Olmstead plied his trade first in Australia with the Parramatta Two Blues and then with the Calgary-based Prairie Wolf Pack of the Canadian Rugby Championships. When he was with the Wolfpack, they won the Canadian Championship; Olmstead is credited in part with helping to carry the team to the top.
Graeme Moffat of Wolfpack was instrumental in the early stages of Olmstead’s rugby career and speaks well of him. Olmstead was actively recruited in 2014 when they were short of locks; the lock quickly impressed, and played consistently well.
Moffat and Olmstead remain close. “Evan always keeps in touch with the Wolfpack guys. He knows where he comes from and what his roots are. He always makes time for people. This makes him stand out.”
At 6’5”, with the beard and long locks, Evan Olmstead is always going to stand out. His personality and general countenance add to his imposing figure.
Being the guy that does the hard graft doesn’t hurt either. Moffat agrees that Olmstead is ever-present on the field. “He does all the grind. He’s a gritty character and gritty player.”
His lack of fear on the pitch, putting everything he has into 80 minutes of play, which he is generally able to accomplish, contribute to Olmstead’s popularity among other players and rugby supporters. Couple that with the fact that he’ll always do whatever he can to help a teammate, and you have a great all-around individual.
Finally in 2015, when he was selected for the Canadian international squad, Olmstead stopped the long commute between Canada and Australia for awhile. He was a great addition to the Canadian squad. It isn’t just his standout appearance and big frame that makes him imposing; He’s fast and powerful, and seemingly everywhere on the pitch. Olmstead’s defensive play is tireless, and his ability to defend and push play forward is a given. If there were assists for tries, he would be racking up the points.
Olmstead was genuinely surprised when he was selected by Kieran Crowley for the world cup squad. He says: “Being selected for the world cup team was an absolute dream come true. It was a bit unexpected. I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle at times trying to get a spot over guys who had been in and around the team for a quite a few years. It was really the culmination of years of hard work. I'd been doing the part-time rugby, full-time work/study thing since finishing high school. With some great support I managed to squeeze in Canada U20, CRC, Canada A tours, Shute Shield seasons in Sydney, hours in the gym…going for runs when it’s too cold or too hot to be sensible.
“It was a fantastic feeling once Kieran told me I was on the plane. Not only for me, but for my family who suffers through the ups and downs along with me. Naturally, once you tick one goal you move onto the next, so I was trying as hard as I could to get as much game time as possible.”
Now that Olmstead is a regular fixture with the squad, he’s missed when his name doesn’t appear on the roster. He’s become an integral part of the forward pack.
He’s proud to play for his country, and he takes his role as a leader and his place within the team seriously.
“I really enjoy it every time I get to represent the maple leaf and sing the anthem. It’s always a special occasion, so I don’t take it for granted. For me, becoming a regular starter carries extra responsibility.” He takes what he’s learned at every stop along the way as well. “I’ve learned so much throughout my career from lots of different coaches and players, so you hold yourself to a high standard.”
Olmstead feels the team shares the responsibility to bring their best to the pitch. “If we all perform better individually, we’ll perform better as a team, and that’s what it’s all about really.”
Post World Cup, Olmstead was pegged for the Championship-side London Scottish, but it wasn’t long before he found himself in the Premiership and a consistent selection with the Newcastle Falcons, who saw something in our imposing lock and signed Olmstead in 2016. He's made a massive difference in the front pack whenever he’s selected.
Olmstead shares that his experience has been a bit of a roller coaster at Newcastle. He enjoys the supporters and is keen to play whenever called upon, but admits frustration in getting overlooked at times during the two seasons he’s been with the club.
“Newcastle is a great city and while Newcastle United is definitely the most popular team in town, the rugby fans are fantastic. They’re vocal and dedicated, even down at Exeter, which is the English equivalent of the Caps playing away to Swilers in St. Johns!”
Olmstead shares his ups and downs in fitting in with the team: “I had a great preseason in 2016, played some good rugby, and with a couple of guys missing through the first couple of rounds, managed to cement myself a spot in the starting team for most of that first season. With the RWC Qualifiers against the US in June/July 2017 and then the mandatory break period after that, I essentially missed all of preseason for this year.”
Add to that an injury picked up in one of the last pre-season matches which benched Olmstead for a few weeks, and you get a talented player being overlooked because as he says, the team is performing well in their current form. “It’s not just me who’s been having these struggles. DTH and Jake have been in a similar situation,” he says. “That being said… I’ve had a couple of starts since I’ve been back from Uruguay and done pretty well when I’ve been given the opportunity, so hopefully a few more will come my way.”
Moffat knows Olmstead “will be disappointed to not have seen more selection of late” but agreed he would have been glad to be called upon on recently, especially for the fixture where Newcastle hosted the Northampton Saints at St. James’ Park. It was an exciting 80 minutes with the Falcons the victors. Olmstead lumbered about the field in typical fashion, there at the breakdown as expected. Moffat shared that Olmstead would be glad to get the start at St. James’, in front of larger numbers and a bigger home contingent.
When I ask Olmstead how it is for him being part of a team that has climbed the table to 4th place in a relatively short time, he says: “It’s great to be part of a positive dressing room. [Fourth is] One of the best league standings we’ve had in years. We’ve really improved our fitness, and there is some ridiculous depth in our squad. I think that’s helping us close out those tight games.”
Olmstead is a joy to watch and fan favourite, especially by Canadian supporters watching Premiership Rugby. His overall fitness is in good form. This bodes well for Rugby Canada with the repechage looming in November.
Olmstead says he wouldn't miss the opportunity to join Canada for the repechage – “absolutely critical games”, he says; if he’s healthy, he’ll do his best to get selected. He feels that Canada is moving in the right direction with development – which only helps the future of our game.
“With players getting involved with MLR and all that, we should be in a better place with more guys training and playing at a higher level more often. You can see that with players like Ben LeSage and Cole Keith, who have come on leaps and bounds. It bodes well for the future when you've got guys like Hearn and Trainor injured but a young buck steps up and performs well.”
Of the repechage itself Olmstead says: “It seems like it’s a bit up in the air at the moment who will join us, but I’d say hopefully it doesn’t matter. If we play as we can play – and have shown at times – then I’m confident we’ll get over the line and book our ticket [to World Cup].”
If Canada makes it to RWC 2019, it would have to include the big lock. He’s an integral part of this team and deserves to be standing arm in arm with his squad singing the national anthem.
Olmstead hesitates when asked about his future ambitions, saying instead that we should wait and see. It's mysterious, but it sounds promising. And as fans of the big man, it will do for now. As long as he's doing what he's worked so hard for, we're there. Especially if he’s also playing for his country.
And he’s Canadian, make no mistake. When asked about any Canadian traditions he enjoys, Olmstead says: “ The first thing I do when I get to Canada is usually to go to my Grandma’s house and take her to the White Spot. If I’m not in Vancouver and therefore not going to Grandma’s, first it is to find any White Spot to demolish a ‘triple O’ burger.”
That’s a 6’5” uniquely Canadian answer for you!