Written by: Mark Janzen
Photo Credit: Chris Weyell
Rameses Langston has the shades to match his aura.
With a just-out-of-the-box Thunderbirds hoodie and a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, the UBC men’s rugby head coach saunters around the pitch as practice begins, kibitzing with players. This would seem to be his happy place. And the players seem to love him – the cool middle-aged coach who always has a moment for a quick chat, especially if it’s about rugby.
The Thunderbirds’ second-year scrumhalf, Fraser Hurst, fresh off a stint with Canada’s U20 team at the World Rugby Trophy, leads his training group in a fitness drill, running past Langston well ahead of his teammates. Theo Sauder (who will go on to kick for nine points in the Thunderbirds next match against Victoria) follows Hurst. A good-natured chiding from Langston reminds Sauder of his younger teammates’ lead. The UBC winger, in his fourth year with the program, smiles and keeps running.
Langston moves on.
There are nearly 100 athletes with UBC’s rugby program. Langston and Curry Hitchborn, the forwards coach by title, but works alongside Langston as a co-head coach, are in charge of them all. On this late afternoon, about 60 athletes are strewn across Wolfson Field at Gerald McGavin UBC Rugby Centre in a perfectly timed organization of theatrics, with every actor playing a valued part. It doesn’t work otherwise.
Winning three consecutive Premier League titles in British Columbia’s top men’s league doesn’t come without its challenges, but Langston and Hitchborn have continually worked to do so while maintaining the much-heralded culture of UBC rugby – the historical ethos that has permeated the program for more than a century.
“Culture is number one,” Hitchborn says with a certain authority that comes from years of coaching rugby at various grassroots levels. “The proper culture isn’t ‘how does it work for you.’ It’s ‘how do you work for it.’”
Since Langston, who came to UBC in 2012, and Hitchborn, who arrived in 2013, took over the coaching reigns from legendary UBC coach and former Canadian rugby-playing star Spence McTavish, the duo has helped take the Thunderbirds on a meteoric rise from BC Rugby’s second division to three-time Premier League champions.
At the start of the 2013 calendar year, UBC Rugby launched its “Return to Excellence Campaign.” The year marked the opening of the Gerald McGavin UBC Rugby Centre, and with that was a renewed vision – one that called for UBC to become the best university rugby program in North America. The history of rugby at UBC is deep, going back to its inaugural season in 1906. Few university programs in the world can boast their history of winning at various levels. Few can say they played the New Zealand Maoris in 1927 and only lost 12-3. According to historical reports, UBC’s student population was 1400 at the time. A whopping 1210 of those students watched that game.
Yet, the program had started to stumble through the late 2000s. It needed an injection of life. Through a fundraising campaign and an outpouring of support from alumni, the last five years have very much been the aforementioned “return to excellence.”
In fact, there’s a valid argument to be made that UBC has already arrived at its intended goal. Four consecutive wins over the University of California, Berkeley in the annual two-legged “World Cup” series – a competition that has been going on since 1921 with UBC facing the winner of the annual Pac-12 contest between Stanford and Cal – is a clear statement the program is in fine form when it comes to their continental competition.
Prior to their win over Cal in the 2014 “World Cup,” UBC hadn’t knocked off its California counterparts since 2006.
However, for Langston, who took his team on a preseason tour of Australia this past summer, consisting in part of games against Queensland University (a 31-5 win) and Bond University (a 26-21 loss), his goal is now bigger.
“I think North America is too short-sighted,” Langston says. “If we get it right, we want to be amongst the best universities in the world.”
A third place showing at the inaugural World University Rugby Cup in 2015 – including a win over Oxford University – has UBC on the right path.
While Langston stands in the middle of park, a shaggy-haired Sean Duke trots over to him. He’s a few minutes late. He asks if he can jump in a drill with the boys.
Duke, who retired from Canada’s sevens program as Canada’s all-time leading try-scorer on the world circuit, is at UBC studying to become a doctor. When he can make it out, he joins the boys and becomes just one of the guys. His talent stands out, but his character fits the culture.
This week, he plans to play in UBC’s upcoming contest against the Vikes. While earning a Master's degree in kinesiology, he used to play for the University of Victoria. So, yeah, this game is a little more special. In practice, he’s happy to lend advice, but he’s more just there to be part of the group and prepare for the team’s Saturday afternoon tilt. With his ability, he could step into the Thunderbirds at a moment’s notice and play a key role, but that’s not how Duke operates. “If I can’t practice an entire week, I shouldn’t be able to play in the game,” says the star player with 124 tries to his name on the sevens series. “It’s not fair for everyone else.” Nor would it fit into the UBC way.
Amongst a deep pool of talent, this year’s roster features six players, including Hurst, who recently represented Canada at the World Rugby U20 Trophy. Last year, the team included both Duke and Andrew Coe, who was capped at the senior level this summer and is now training in Langford, B.C. with Rugby Canada’s senior men’s program. Yet, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a bevy of players who just want to play rugby and be part of the program.
“They don’t turn any players away,” Duke says. “It’s really inclusive.”
Langston and Hitchborn have never cut a player who wanted to be with the program.
Indeed, winning is important. A team can’t have as much success as the Thunderbirds do without a focus on the on-field product. But, it’s not the only thing.
“We’re not in it for the glory,” says Langston, who’s helping to coach three teams this year. Along with the Thunderbirds, UBC also has the Braves, who play in the Men’s Premier Reserve division, and the U23 Totems, who play in the U23 division. “The agenda is to try to give back to the game and encourage more people to take an interest in the sport.
“I think the culture we’re trying to build here emulates all the great cultures. It includes senior players taking the time to clean up just as quickly as our new players. That whole idea for respect for all. We’re so diverse. Culturally, we’ve done a lot of work to make sure we have players from all over the world if we can, so it’s a really rich environment here.”
Hitchborn has been around the game of rugby for a while. Yet, he’s the first person to greet a newcomer, and he’s the beacon of inclusivity.
“Is it culture that’s important? Yes,” he says with a gusto that suggests he’s winding up to say something of value. “But you have to go with people first in everything you do. No matter what, it has to be about the people in front of you first. Every second of every minute of every game of every training has to be about the people in front of you. It’s not about you. It’s not about the preservation of your culture. It’s about those players defining themselves within this arena of conflict and giving birth to something that is inherently theirs. We just happened to call it culture.”
With the fitness-focused drills complete, Hurst walks over to Langston. The prodigious scrumhalf has a bandage on one of his fingers covering up eight stitches. A few days before, an accident in the kitchen sent the second-year Thunderbird to the hospital. Langston makes a joke at Hurst’s expense, deservedly so. But then the Coach sends him down to the far end of the field to practice his kicking with a rugby legend.
Awaiting Hurst is Ted Hunt. Standing there in an old Rugby Canada jersey – the thick, heavy type that turns into a weighted vest when it gets wet – is an unassuming 83-year-old. But, as Langston clarifies, this is the Ted Hunt.
A sportsman if there ever was one, Hunt competed for Canada at the 1954 world championships in ski jumping, played two years of professional football with the BC Lions, and won two Canadian box lacrosse championships with the Vancouver Burrards. And that doesn’t even include his rugby prowess in which he became one of a very few number of athletes to captain teams against both the Barbarians and the British and Irish Lions.
At Wolfson Field, he’s teaching second-year players Hurst and Elias Ergas, who started for UBC in last year’s championship contest, how to kick a spiral for distance.
Hurst sends an offering skyward without so much as a wobble. Before the ball even strikes the outside arch of Hurst’s foot – exactly where Hunt had instructed – the veteran rugby star exclaims with delight. He knew it would be a good one.
As Hurst and Ergas head over to retrieve their kicks, Hunt tells stories about when he was the one doing the kicking. He tells a tale of a 90-yard kick that he once sent into touch to set the table for a last-gasp game-winning try against Japan. The story is from a non-descript year.
But like everyone else in and around the pitch at UBC, Hunt just wants to play a part.
“Obviously there are great facilities and great coaches, but it’s more about the camaraderie between the boys and everyone else here,” Ergas says. “It’s more of a brotherhood.”
Walk into the Gerald McGavin UBC Rugby Centre and you’ll see featured prominently one of the walls former Thunderbird Harry Jones. Since graduating in 2012 with a Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing, Jones has become a mainstay with Rugby Canada’s sevens program.
While the on-field success may not have been as prominent in Jones’ days with the Thunderbirds, his experience playing under McTavish is the reason he’s amongst a proud alumni group.
“It’s really special,” he says. “The culture of playing for a university side that has a history like UBC does is really cool. Whether you’re winning all games or not, that doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. I know some people will say differently and argue that winning is everything, but when you’re at a university, being part of that culture was the number one thing for me.”
That being said, Hitchborn admits, the program “isn’t for everybody.”
In fact, he’s rather blunt.
“You can be really good at rugby, but if you don’t want to go to school, don’t come here. The odds of these players retiring as rugby players in North America are not that good, so you have to have something to fall back on. Set people up to succeed. Don’t give them excuses to fail. Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to make them choose.”
He pauses for effect.
When Ergas is asked about his professional aspirations, he’s probably like a lot of his teammates. While a select few see themselves on a path towards a playing career in the sport, Ergas might better fit into the majority – sure he’s considered the idea and would entertain any opportunities, but it’s not at the forefront of his ambitions.
Like most of the 100 athletes who train within one of UBC Rugby’s teams, Hitchborn sees players like Ergas enjoying the sport, but perhaps striving to do something altogether different.
“I want these people to do the best they possibly can in anything,” Hitchborn says. “If your best is to play rugby for Canada, I’m right behind you. If your best is to join a law firm, I’m right behind you. If your best is being the captain of your club team, I’m right behind you. I’m not pushing anyone to do anything except be your best.
“I don’t care what you do once you graduate from here. I just want to you be happy and successful. It’s not about me or Ramses. It’s not about this university.” He motions to the players warming up in front of him. “It’s about those people.”
The first leg of this year’s annual two-game series with the University of Victoria for the Wightman Boot, which is named for former UBC head coach Brian Wightman, went to the Thunderbirds. UBC won 44-24.
The victory marked the Thunderbirds first win of the 2017-18 Premier League season. The win puts UBC on even footing in comparison to last year’s championship campaign. Both teams started the season with a 1-2 record. Last year, UBC’s next loss came in early March. This year, as the team attempts a four-peat, the process might not be all too dissimilar.
“These guys could do anything they choose,” Langston says. “This team is so talented. I think just getting them all focused in the right direction is going to be the first task. We can compete with any team on the day.
“It’s just about getting it right.”