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Written By: Adam McQueen
On a snowy November Sunday at the University of Guelph’s Alumni Stadium, the UBC Thunderbirds made history.
They also made a statement.
Long perceived as one of the top university rugby programs in the country, UBC settled the argument – at least for this year – in emphatic fashion, winning the inaugural Canadian University Men's Rugby Championship with a 37-12 victory over the Victoria Vikes.
“We’ve been working to establish ourselves as the premier university program, not only in Canada but North America and even internationally,” says UBC coach Rameses Langston. “(This win) gave some official confirmation.”
Beating the Vikes in the title tilt capped an impressive weekend for the Thunderbirds, in which the eventual champions also earned a 46-0 win over Concordia and a 38-6 victory over McMaster. In the end, it seemed only fitting that UBC captains Theo Sauder and Jake Ikeda were the first to ever raise the Spencer McTavish Trophy – named in honour of the Canadian rugby legend who spent nearly 30 years with the UBC program as player and coach. One of the godfathers of Canadian university no doubt smiled when this tournament finally came to fruition. Surely, he cracked a little extra smile when his Thunderbirds cemented their place as the best in Canada.
“We just had complete buy-in from our guys,” Langston says. “They definitely continued to raise the bar for themselves and as the games got progressively harder, they kept raising their level. They had confidence, but they always understood what degree of work it would take to actually obtain the title.”
The event, which was organized in partnership with Rugby Canada, put the men’s university game on a national scale for the first time and gave the B.C. teams, who typically lineup against much older players in the B.C. Premier League, a rare chance to compete against players of similar age.
“The guys were really into testing their mettle against some other university programs to see where we stood,” Langston says.
Turns out they stood above the rest and the result proved UBC’s power.
Relying on the strength of their pack, the Thunderbirds were dominant amongst the forward ranks from Thursday straight through Sunday.
“For us, it was about being physical up front,” says Sauder, who finished the event as the tournament’s leading scorer with 41 points. “We had a really strong scrum. We won a bunch of penalties that way. We just kicked to the corners and played in their end and let our big boys go to work.”
Proof of the Thunderbirds' impressive work in the engine room was never clearer than when second-rower James Carson earned Man of the Match honours in the championship contest.
“I have to give credit to Curry Hitchborn and Bruce Ranier,” Langston says. “They’ve done a great job coaching our guys in the scrum. I thought that was a particular piece of our rugby planning that was definitely dominant and set us up to play effective rugby.”
And with this year’s UBC team leading the charge, there’s every reason to believe the championship tournament marked a critical step in the Canada’s development as a rugby-playing country.
With Canadian U20 stars littered throughout the tournament – the top three scorers all played with Canada’s U20 side this past summer, including McMaster’s Will Kelly, Victoria’s Brennig Prevost and Sauder – the championship had a unique vibe with rosters chalk full of ripening potential.
With Canada intent on looking to all corners in pursuit of improving development, some of the best Canadian youngsters on offer were in Guelph, and there’s certainly a belief that this might just be the first steps down a valuable developmental path.
Tournament Dream Team
*Queen’s University, who captured the 2017 OUA Championship with a 62-17 victory over Guelph the week prior to the national event, chose not to attend the Canadian championship.