A Canadian University Rugby Adventure With The Toronto Arrows

December 15, 2022

8:38 PM

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Written By Joe Harvey I Photos Provided By Toronto Arrows

From the end of November through the end of December, the Canadian University Men’s Rugby Championship took place in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

Competing for the Spence McTavish Cup, the country’s top eight university rugby sides in Canada, all descended upon the University of British Columbia’s Point Grey Campus.

Playing three games over the course of five days, there was plenty of Major League Rugby interest in a competition that saw four previous competitors selected in the 2022 MLR Collegiate Draft.

Assistant coach for the Toronto Arrows, Academy lead, and University of Guelph head coach Cory Hector was on Canada’s west coast with his team and concluded their week with a third-place finish.

Amongst his charges that weekend was Kobe Faust. Still only 20, the back debuted for the Arrows senior side in 2021 while continuing his studies at Guelph.

Gaining a good seeding thanks to winning the Ontario Provincial Championship, the entirety of the Canadian University Men’s Rugby Championship was broadcast on The Rugby Network and offered insight into the next generation of rugby players coming out of Canada.

“With rugby being such a late entry sport in Canada for a lot of athletes, it [university rugby] extends the runway, compared to a player in Europe who is somewhat polished at 18, 19, whereas our athletes probably take a bit longer due to the late entry,” Hector said.

“University extends that runway to putting up players that are of reasonable quality when they are 22 to 23 years old, and they have a university degree.

“It does a lot to help prepare athletes for professional rugby, in terms of the programs being run as a varsity sport, which affords certain facilities and access.

“Players will be in, training on a field four days a week, full access to strength and conditioning, which might be two to three days a week in season and one or two days a week out of season.

“It really does prepare them for the grinds of a professional rugby season and the importance of strength and conditioning, athletic therapy, and the rugby side all working together.

“The other important side is they are that while they’re students as well. That’s when they begin to understand the competing priorities of rugby and work or rugby and school.

“From that respect, it really does a lot to help prepare students to become a really good person and rugby player down the track.”

A FIRST PODIUM

“It was a great weekend,” Faust said. “Especially just for development reasons. I think that tournament is very well run. But first time in program history that we’ve had a medal and an overall performance across the three games.

“We were pretty happy with ourselves, but nonetheless, I think going out there and playing three games in five days was tough on the body, but you see a lot of good players come out of that.

“You’d see the best players were able to perform all three games across the five days, who were able to keep their body healthy and make sure that they are going to be able to be at their peak performance coming into every game day.”

At the end of the competition, the University of British Columbia finished with a trophy. Winning for a second year in succession for the team, the Thunderbirds’ Jack Carson was named Player of the Match for his part in the 48-5 win.

Faust captained his team in each of their games and was a significant contributor to the Gryphons’ bronze medal match victory over the Trinity West Spartans. 

The first time in which the side walked away with a podium finish, Faust believes that university rugby in Canada will only grow in the future.

“Whether it’s through the Draft or being from Ontario and how I got in through just going to training camp, seeing a couple of other young guys getting an opportunity to do that in the future for the Arrows,” Faust said.

“Seeing guys from BC and stuff get drafted to teams in the States or even the Arrows themselves, I think that is something you are going to start seeing more often.

“Especially after this weekend when you watch a ton of guys play super well across the three games. I think it is only a matter of time before you start seeing those names pop up more often, whether it is on the Canada side or through MLR.”

Photo by Davey Wilson

BRIDGING THE GAP

In years gone by, the Arrows have had a dense population of players that have competed in university competition. Tyler Rowland, Jack McRogers, Mike Sheppard, James O’Neill, Lucas Rumball, Cole Brown, Mitch Richardson, and Faust have all represented their universities at one stage before graduating as professionals.

For the most part, the universities on the west coast have dominated the Canadian rugby landscape. However, with teams competing in men’s competitions and against other university sides, that is a trend that Hector is looking to change.

That dominance has now seen Cali Martinez, Owain Ruttan, and Ethan Hager all picked in the first round of the Draft, Hector of the belief that it is a pathway that could prove extremely valuable in the years to come.

“The players are as close to a full-time setup as they’ll get to the outside of professional sport,” Hector said. “It isn’t a professional academy, it is not the same, and there are strengths in some programs and not in others.

“In terms of the preparation that it does for players to get used to the professional setup, it is massively valuable. 

“The day-in, day-out schedule of a student athlete at some of these top programs faces is very similar to a professional side, and I think from that respect, if the quality of rugby continues to improve through the university programs, I think you will see an effect on both MLR and the Canadian national side.”

A year ago, Hector spoke to Major League Rugby about the Toronto Arrows Academy. For the work it did at the high school level, the team’s program was named the best in MLR, and the Canada age grade coach is still looking to develop and grow the Academy further.

University rugby has its place in this, too. Hector is looking to give student athletes experience up against full-time professionals and reduce the step up to professional rugby in the long run.

“We are looking at trying to tier our academy moving into this year,” Hector said. “Recognizing that the quality of MLR has got much better, we are seeing more and more players come over, from All Blacks to players from Ireland, and Argentina, so it is tough to go from university right into MLR. 

“So, the polished piece is changing. We are looking at integrating groups of players into our full-time training environment as much as possible, as much as their studies will allow.

“Then having another group train maybe one day a week with the professional side and then another group who are perhaps not quite there with the professional side.

“If we can identify guys in their first or second year of university and then work with them for three or four years and polish them, hopefully when they finish, we have closed the gap to MLR.”

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