Our rugby community is passionate and dedicated, a fact I believe we can all agree on. If you had a conversation recently in a clubhouse however, or on the side of the pitch, it would have inevitably turned to Rugby Canada’s recently changed programming and that’s where the common ground ends. 7s versus 15s. It’s about the money. It’s not about the money. Worst decision ever. It’s great for the future.
The debate around the decision is dividing the community and that perhaps is my biggest concern. I happen to think this change is a decade or more too late and that it will be seen eventually as a watershed moment where rugby in Canada got back on track. I could be wrong. So could a whole bunch of other people but we won’t know until hindsight becomes part of the conversation. But I fear there are bigger issues at stake moving forward.
These types of changes for any organization are always difficult and controversial but in this case something had to be done. Watching the 15s program slide the way it has in the last decade and more has been painful for everyone. We take our losses to the USA much harder than any 7s tournament we don’t win. Never mind losing to Brazil.
Add in the World Rugby funding issue and we get the point. But don’t get me wrong, 7s is
important. It has energized the younger generation and the public as a whole better than 15s could (barring a win like in 1993 over Wales). And the rugby community has to stop fooling itself, we are an Olympic nation. We love it.
We sit in front of the television absorbed by the stories. We identify with them; the athletes are us and that Olympic dream is very real. The landscape completely changed when 7s entered the Olympics but in retrospect we paid a price as a sport. We lost focus on the bigger picture and, in my opinion, decisions were made that exacerbated the fall of the 15s. A fall that I believe started well before Olympics was in the picture; but that’s
another story for another time (‘cough-pacific pride-cough’).
As an amateur sport we rely on outside funding and those new dollars for 7s were accepted with hard strings attached. These strings restricted the organization in several ways and in one particular case stymied a crucial development program. As part of the coaching staff for the National U20 side I witnessed this firsthand when a strength and conditioning coach was forbidden to work with that program because of those Olympic funding strings.
Whoever was at the table should have been stronger in explaining how the sport actually worked in Canada and that success on the international stage, in either code, is dependent on our ability to attract, retain and develop as many top athletes as possible. Not by creating a divide and forcing further limitations on already stretched resources.
Now, let’s be honest, name a country that pays its 7s players more than the 15s, or actually emphasizes the short game over the other. But, we are an Olympic nation and the blinders were put on when the money came in. The balance shifted too far and this change is a chance to press reset and build for the future. However painful.
So we can take sides, argue and blame someone for a decision we don’t like.
But we are creating more division when we need more alliance. Put aside our personal, likely emotional bias and look at the big picture. The more athletes we have training, vying for selection and playing at a higher level in both codes is simply better for our game. And it is about the athletes. We can’t function without them and they deserve to be part of the conversation. Include them.
But we’ve relied on the same players for years and this can’t continue if we are to achieve our goals as a nation. We simply can’t operate the same as other nations with larger resources and player pools. The effort to return to the top 20 or even 16 in the world for 15s and make the Olympic’s is now monumental. But we can do it with a collective approach.
If I learned anything over the last four years working with the youth and visiting the provinces is that we absolutely have the athletes. I’ve watched hundreds of games, seen hundreds of players and a great many of them have something to offer. The issue has been our ability to offer and sustain a real player development tool and not just hope they get better. We have a duty to build and support that environment where they are excited to be and their dreams are taken seriously.
And yet here we are at another crossroads. I hope cooler heads prevail sooner than later but both sides need to find a way to meet and talk about the game and the effect this could have moving forward, maybe without lawyers. The sport is more important than money. I believe as a community we have to find a way to come together and ensure this does not split us further and affect the future generation of athletes that simply wants to represent our country.
We all want to witness our very best players come together for the jersey and energize a nation on the 15s field in a way we haven’t seen in a long time. Qualifying for the World Cup is one thing, a positive thing and much needed, but all will be for naught if we don’t use this moment as an opportunity to move forward together. The sport is bigger than all of us and it deserves that respect.
Bio: I am a former national player for both 15s and 7s. I spent the last 4 years as Head of Player Development and Talent ID for Rugby Canada. I now teach in Victoria, BC and coach at Castaway-Wanderers in the men’s premier league.