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Written By: Doug Crosse
While every international rugby team sees a shift of players over time, it seems the Canadian men’s team is shedding a large number of former key players in the past few months. Certainly the recent announcement of Aaron Carpenter calling his career full-time would be one of those moments.
However, a much quieter retirement took place, in actual fact, about two years back when Jebb Sinclair played his last game for Canada.
After playing against Romania in the 2015 World Cup, few would guess the iconic New Brunswicker would have played his last match for Canada. The now 31 year old continued to play for London Irish into the 2017 season, piling up nearly 100 appearances in a six year career before a second knee injury in as many years saw the Aviva Premiership side part ways with the flanker/second row.
With all that bad news in his rear view mirror, Sinclair has traded coasts in Canada, moving from the right to the left, landing in Vancouver as part of a coaching duo reviving the once mighty Vancouver Meralomas.
And while he is certainly still young enough to pull off the Reggie Thorpe (Slapshot) player/coach role, this outspoken, energetic rugby guy is doing it all from the sidelines – and loving it.
In an Aedelhard exclusive, Sinclair talked about best and worst moments, how it all happened, and where it might all go from here.
Flash back to Columbus, Ohio, 2006: The fledgling North America Four competition is assembling as part of the then-named International Rugby Board’s attempt to jumpstart development in the North American zone. Canada and the US carved up their territories East and West and created teams to play in a series of round robin contests. It allowed coaches to assess who they had and ask some hard questions of players over a tight assembly period.
A much slighter version of Jebb Sinclair was there with Canada East. And while he wasn’t the biggest guy, or the most skilled guy, you couldn’t help but notice him. Always with a smile, jumping around like he maybe should have stopped at two coffees that morning, but keen as mustard to be even invited to the party. He wasn’t an immediate hit, but you ended up getting excited when he got into a game.
“That first NA4 team tour, I didn’t play a minute,” Sinclair recalls with a chuckle. “So I thought ‘well this isn’t going to happen, but getting a free trip every summer for two weeks isn’t that bad.’”
Still, he persisted.
“It wasn’t until I got selected to go to the carded program and sort of got my feet wet a little bit that I discovered, ‘you know what - these guys aren’t better than me just because I am from New Brunswick.’
“That was a mental shift. Then it was ‘I want to win games for Canada, I want to go to a World Cup.’ And that was my two-or-three-year goal in 2008 or 2009.”
He caught on with then new Canadian coach Kieran Crowley, getting his first nod for the big team against Portugal in Lisbon in 2008.
At the same time he was making that happen – piling up appearances with Canada, he was getting closer to the 2011 World Cup, and the possibility of playing pro-rugby began to emerge.
“I didn’t have an agent. I hadn’t thought about going pro,” Sinclair admits.
“You can only be an amateur athlete for so long. On the road to the 2011 World Cup I was talking to Toby Booth (then head coach at London Irish, now Bath) and it all kind of landed in place at that point in time. Being young and able to travel where I pleased, I was able to make a nice little professional career out of it.”
Because of his import status in English rugby, his playing time was limited. London Irish didn’t want this young colt languishing in the barn, so he was loaned to Western Province of the Currie Cup competition in South Africa, claiming a title there and also playing Super Rugby with Western Province.
“That was a fantastic experience being able to go down there. Win the Currie Cup, play Super Rugby,” he says excitedly.
“Again – at the time you just go down there and you know there are some people that are saying there is no way this kid can do it, no way he is going to succeed. And then on the other hand you’re like ‘well who cares? I’ve got nothing else to do. I might as well go down to South Africa and play rugby.’”
Because there were no huge expectations on him, his spirit shone through, and he became a big part of each team he played with in the southern hemisphere.
“So you kind of take the stress off by saying ‘as long as I play as hard as I can nothing bad is really going to happen,’” he recounts. “Now, I was lucky enough to go down to one of the best teams in South Africa at the time. They weren’t in any rebuilding phase or anything like that. They had some pretty horrific injuries in the first three or four or games of the season so I was able to slide into a pretty established team.
“It didn’t require much from me except to be the kind of player I was. It was a really good fit. I’m not sure it would work every time for every athlete. It was just at that particular time it was a really good fit and I’m really lucky that it did.”
But like every great player, he realized his limitations as the rugby miles piled up and he turned his vision towards the next chapter in his sporting life.
A few calls to people he knew on the West Coast, a team that needed some coaching and experience to get back into the Premiership, and a new relationship was formed. And now that he has caught the coaching bug, he is lapping up all the opportunities he can. Over the Christmas break he traveled with the Canadian U18 team to help coach in a series against the US All-Americans in an exercise eerily reminiscent of the old NA4. The countries created four squads and played round-robin matches cross-border.
“That was an absolute blast,” says Sinclair. “You can see kids develop that are new to the sport and high level sport [in general] and see them develop day to day. The stuff they take on in an afternoon and are able to show you the next morning. They come on in leaps and bounds in a matter of hours.”
And does he foresee a role for himself in the Canadian men’s side as a specialist coach?
“I think the transition to the senior level is something feasible,” he offers cautiously. “It’s great to see how hard the young guys work to get better even when there might not be the prospect of a reward like a pro contract or playing for the national team.”
The job at hand is a big one. After winning the first division for the past two seasons, the Lomas are back at the big dance in BC Premier League, currently sitting in 8th spot with a 4-7 record.
“I work with Phillip Mischefski at Lomas who is backs-specific,” he explains. “We develop where we want the ball to go. So if we want the ball to go wide, I don’t care how it gets there, Phil puts his fingerprints on that, and once it gets there we develop what to do from there.
“So now I have been able to do things like develop the line-out and work with the forwards on different things, and really put my stamp on things, which has been really good.”
It’s all new and exciting.
“I love it. It’s fantastic,” he says enthusiastically.
The conversation drifts to his career highlights and lowlights. There are two pretty clear moments that Sinclair can point to that check those boxes.
“I really loved scoring that first try against Tonga in the 2011 World Cup,” he says emphatically. “They ended up being a really strong team. We played really well and we only won by a few points so the fact those five points really helped us win was important.
“Sometimes you score in a loss or in a blowout win but it’s really nice to score a try in a really tight game. And obviously it was the first World Cup game in New Zealand, that’s a pretty special moment for me.”
The lowlight was in 2014. A home test against Scotland in front of a full house at Toronto’s BMO Field. Canada was trailing 17-19 with eight minutes to go. Scotland spill the ball, Canada goes on a run, with the ball getting in Sinclair’s hands at one point. The big forward has a rollicking run and it appears Scotland has given away a penalty in front of the posts. But then confusion reigns.
“It took almost a minute for anyone to realize what he (New Zealand referee Michael Fraser) was looking at. We didn’t understand why it was stopped. I think Finn Russell was injured but no one realized it was in the carry.
“The fact it was given a red was pretty devastating. It was our penalty advantage which we would have kicked to go ahead with about seven minutes left. To have that turnover go the other way and also get the red…….. When you are playing a man down and a few points back you’re always going to struggle in the last five minutes of a game.”
The score did not change, and Scotland held on for what many viewed as a lucky escape against a game Canada squad.
“To go to the hearing the next day, and have it thrown out and be told it shouldn’t have been a red, and get dismissed so easily. It cost us the game, where do you get that back?,” he asks rhetorically.
That reflective, poignant moment isn’t what defines Jebb’s career.
There are many more chapters left to be written in Jebb Sinclair’s rugby biography, so that Scotland match will be a mere footnote. For now, it is all about getting those Lomas up the table and into the playoffs in the second half of the season.
And have a good time doing it.