Proof of rugby academy’s success is in the trophy case

A year-old initiative by United Rugby Club to foster the next generation of top players is already paying dividends.

On May 7, the club’s Academy squad won the U23 provincial championship by defeating Capilano 64-5 at Rotary Stadium in Abbotsford.

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The team’s head coach, Andy Evans, said the result was more than he expected from the program that only launched last May.

“This was definitely our first big success,” Evans said.

And likely not its last, if its take-up by top players who’ve graduated out of high school teams but who continue to want to develop their game is any indication. The team, comprised largely of recent grads from School District 43 teams like Terry Fox, Gleneagle, Centennial, Riverside and Dr. Charles Best secondary schools, is also capturing the attention of officials from BC Rugby and Rugby Canada.

In fact, Evans said, the talent identification and development manager for the national rugby program, Kenny Goodland, took an early ferry from Victoria so he could catch last week’s championship match.

Getting the attention of those kinds of eyeballs is the whole point of the Academy program, Evans said.

A former strength and conditioning coach for Rugby Canada, Evans devised United’s Academy program as a way to bridge the need for top-level development of young rugby players graduating out of junior and high school programs but not yet physically ready to play at the senior men’s level. He said attracting the first cohort of players to the program took a lot of relationship building with local high school coaches to identify talented players with the desire to take their game to the next level.

“Today’s youth, you definitely have to chase them down,” he said.

Sweetening the allure by helping some of them secure jobs that mesh well with their rugby commitments won some players, Evans said. The prospect of better opportunities to play at the post-secondary, provincial and even national levels lured others.

Evans said the wealth of sports available to young people in the Tri-Cities makes it a fertile ground for breeding potential top rugby players.

“We have all kinds of athletic talent,” Evans said. “The cross-sports recipe of hockey, lacrosse, soccer and wrestling is a great recipe for success that produces a lot of tough athletes.”

But brawn is only half the battle. Players also need the assurance of a positive culture that can foster the development of their capabilities on and off the pitch.

“You really have to care for these athletes,” Evans said. “It’s a ton of effort, lots of hours.”

Evans said while it took the team some time to build momentum from its hodge-podge schedule of training, BC Rugby Union league matches and exhibition tests against touring and national teams, the formula for success started mixing properly about a month ago.

“They were buying into training, they were competing, they had a great attitude towards the work they were putting in,” Evans said.

If they can maintain that momentum, there’s no telling how far they’ll be able to take their talents, from improving the prospects of United’s senior club teams to taking the pitch wearing the red and white of Canada’s national team.

“We anticipate the quality of rugby will improve,” Evans said.

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