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OPINION: The Villagers are at the Gates

Written By: Doug Crosse

The pitchforks have been sharpened, the torches lit and, figuratively speaking, the villagers are at the gates. The gates in question happen to be in both Richmond Hill, Ontario and Langford, BC – the two physical locations of Rugby Canada – from whence disappointed fans are looking for answers, and perhaps someone to fall on their petard for good measure.

It appears that Canada is on the precipice of setting a new standard for poor performance, in missing two bites at the World Cup apple. After falling first to rivals USA, and more recently to Uruguay in two match qualifiers, it will be an all-in grimy affair come November with a Hell in the Cell-style four-team tournament, where only one team leaves victorious.

Angry fans want to know how we got here and what can be done to make things right. The first instinct is to insist on people apologizing and taking the high jump from their position. While emotionally this may be satisfying, organizationally it is burning unnecessary calories without really showing a net benefit. Fire the board, get CEO Allen Vansen to resign – but the result would be hurting the organization from both a financial and planning perspective.

When all focus should be on preparing the team for that third and final qualifying attempt, instead there would be search committees, and turmoil as an administrative vacuum is left by staff positions moving west and new people taking over key roles. Throw in a new CEO, and you will have completely lost the plot.

It is a tumultuous time indeed, and not the first time we have seen the revolutionary fires burn. In 1999, there was a dysfunctional board at odds with each other and the staff at the time. There were deeply interpersonal problems at the top level leading to public and private rows amongst board members, and at the same time the men’s senior team was going through a rough patch following a poor World Cup outing. The coach, Pat Parfrey of Newfoundland, stepped aside to make room for Australian David Clark who was running the very successful academy side The Pacific Pride.

This squad, which played in the BC Premier League, brought in the very best prospects from across the country and, like a professional club, trained five to six days a week, played a challenging match once a week, and ruled the BC roost.

It was in 2001 that the board felt Canada was under-performing on Clark’s watch and he was removed as coach of the men’s senior team. The players were upset, as was a vocal group of rugby supporters. In short order the players signed a collective resignation from the team, saying either Clark was reinstated or the undersigned would not be available to play for the team. It resulted in Scotland cancelling a match and Australia, who was due to play in Canada in November of that year, also pulled out.

The pressure worked, resulting in Clark’s reinstatement, and ‘The Agents of Change’, which included Pat Parfrey and Chris Lefevre among others, was elected to the board at the Annual General Meeting.

Suffice it to say, there was a lot of upset, expense and embarrassment for Rugby Canada. But it started the organization on a new course, which went on to hire Graham Brown as its CEO.

Are we there again?

Possibly, if cooler heads don’t prevail. But it is important for those baying for blood at the palace gates to understand that there is no solitary reason resulting in the decline of the men’s national team. The sport itself is going through a global struggle when you look at participation numbers, even among the top ten nations. That, coupled with a new generation of parents who are looking at the realities brought on by concussion in all sports, sees a reduced number of players at the high school level, progressing through the provincial ranks, and on to the national team.

Would Kingsley Jones and his selectors have liked to pick a more robust side for the Uruguay test? He had nearly everyone at his disposal, with all clubs adhering to Article 9. Where Canada is starting to really feel the pinch is those players on the bench. There may be too much of a leap in some positions, and that makes a coach less interested in getting fresh legs on at the typical one hour point. And, this is when the cracks began to show in both games against Uruguay. Los Teros beat us with their bench.

And that wasn’t because Kingsley Jones is Welsh or Allen Vansen flew out to the game or because the players didn’t play their hardest. It is the culmination of a slow slide nationally, provincially, and locally.  You can trot out the likes of the Oakville Crusaders or Capilano Club in North Vancouver, clubs that run multiple sides that include mini-rugby down to U12. But a more honest look around domestic rugby tells a much different tale. Once venerable clubs that ran four and five sides are lucky to put out firsts and seconds sides now. And that is the canary in the coal mine. Extrapolate those numbers nationally and that gives you a much more shallow talent pool from which to select.

Many naysayers will point to the once robust Rugby Canada Super League, which was at one time 14 teams across the country and under Kieran Crowley’s guidance became the four team regionalized Canadian Rugby Championship. Money was saved in terms of teams travelling, selectors going all over the place, but the RCSL competition did provide more high level rugby overall.

One could argue that in domestic rugby’s current climate, the RCSL model would not survive. Regardless, the point is moot because we are where we are.

The bottom line is the solution to finding Canadian men’s rugby back to its former self is potentially an impossible dream. At a minimum, it needs to be approached like owning a Christmas tree farm. Plant them now, but it will be 2025 before we sell our first tree at the mall parking lot. Between now and then there will just be watching, planning, waiting, and hoping. Throw a coup at the current Rugby Canada board and it might never happen, as whomever takes over will discover that fans want an instant solution, when really the only answer is time and patience.

(Full disclosure: I worked for Rugby Canada from 2007 to 2011 and also served as editor for RugbyCA magazine. Currently I am a freelancer for Aedelhard Rugby and I do small technical contracts for some of Rugby Canada’s web properties.)