Have Balls, Will Travel

I’m an open-minded guy. I’ve tried sushi, and I even watched ‘The Proposal’ with my girlfriend, once.

So when I arrived in Canada to play rugby I did so without expectations. A good thing I did, too.  Within my first two days I received cultural shocks; shocks that highlighted the differences, both rugby-related and social in nature, between New World rugby nations, and ‘established’ ones.

In terms of culture there are some glaring differences. My home town, Dundee, has roughly half the population of London, ON., the city I am currently in. So it is bizarre to me to come from a place with, maybe, 5 McDonalds max to one with easily 30. That and there are no nightclubs. They just have bars open until 3 a.m. As a front-rower with a rubber arm, temptation is a killer.

I am here to play rugby, though, and there is more to Canada than Big Mac’s and Tequila… unless you have just had training. In Scotland as Premier 1 has become, let’s face it, semi-professional, for many guys the idea of a pint after every session would be frowned upon. Protein shakes, power bars and cars straight home are more likely for players back in Scotland. Not here. There is almost a duty to have at least one pint with your teammates after practice.

At that practice, though, there are few differences in terms of rugby. Players here have had less time to work on their skills, with most of them picking up rugby at a much later date than we do back home. Many guys haven’t ever played before. Yet a lot of the drills are the same and with input from a Scottish coach, and some help from other guys from recognised rugby strongholds like Wales and New Zealand there are the same concepts and buzz words you would hear the world over.

This doesn’t mean that rugby in Scotland is superior. Far from it. It is just different.

I will admit it is a total surprise to see Canadians opting not to train when it rains heavily: conditions we in Scotland often train in, and conditions necessary for acclimatising oneself.  Apart from this there are actually some interesting rugby initiatives from the Canadians. For example every team in the top division, by law, must have a third XV. In short, teams are obligated to develop players and increase numbers.  So when this is twinned with their law controlling how many non-Canadian citizens are allowed per-team, they are actually ensuring Canadians play rugby.

The top division here in Ontario is, if we are honest, of a similar standard to Premier 2, sometimes 3, but there are many talented players here. For example, last Saturday I played in the front row with a prop that had, the week before, played in the Churchill Cup final for Canada. Outside of us, at 13, we had a man who had played in a few World Cups for Canada. Two good players. Unlike back home, though, these men received no special treatment and had to train in order to play.

There is no pro rugby here, only district sides picked from the best players in that region. The best players from these sides do trials for Canada along with the pros in Europe. Scotland may feel more advanced than this, with every player a pro, but at least the lesser players here get a chance to play with Internationals, prove their worth and advance. If a player trains with the Ontario Blues (the District team, here) and is better than a national team player, they start ahead of them. Where would you ever see something like that back home?!

Resurrecting the District Championship would make many Scots happy. Seeing more pro involvement in club rugby would also make many people happy, if only because a good few club players would show up certain professionals.  Development happens this way. Competition happens this way, too. How often, last season, did academy players play badly for their club, but start for that club the next time they were allowed to slink out of the gym? I spoke to someone from a rival club, last season, who said they played an experienced Scotland International in a Premier 1 game and that that player played so badly that they were partly responsible for them losing. I imagine that performance never even got spoken about with the head coach of that players pro team.

Canadian rugby is improving. Their victory against France ‘A’ in the Churchill Cup was a big one, and there is a generation of players coming through. That generation regularly plays against its peers, be it in their district matches, or wider trials. While Scotland is up to our highest ever in the world rankings- 7th– our club rugby needs a shot in the arm as we lose major sponsors. Are there some lessons we could learn from the New World? Pondering over my bucket of KFC and my Starbucks lard latte, I think there might be.

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Dundonian Alan has played rugby all over the world for various teams including Dundee High School, Heriot's and the Scottish Club International. Now writing from London he covers all issues international and unreported.

One comment on “Have Balls, Will Travel

  1. David on

    That’s a pretty similar situation to what we have south of the 48th Parallel, although there are a few differences. One is that rugby is primarily a collegiate game and if a player is any good and part of the US developmental program, they tend to go over to Europe and play in the lower divisions or, if they’re good enough like a Mike Hercus or a Zee Ngwenya they play in the Magners or Top 14. The top club level in the US therefore suffers a bit as the Eagles are missing. Good for the Eagles, not for the domestic leagues.

    Another thing is since 7’s became an Olympic sport, NBC and USA Rugby have been promoting it to death. The NCAA (Collegiate) 7’s championships were on national TV. But its almost to the point where you wouldn’t know there’s a XV version. I understand trying to promote the sport and since 7’s is an Olympic game come 2016 the USA will want to be a force. But if you forget the original and only have 7’s players, I don’t think that’s good for the sport as a whole. As a player and an avid follower of the game, I am very disappointed by this.

    I believe for the Scots especially, the popularity and success of rugby in the USA and Canada is important. While I know lately there has been a move away from the Och-ayes and Kilted Kiwis, those two countries are ripe for Scottish qualified players. Between them roughly 13 million people claim Scottish ancestry. I know all the arguments against selecting foreign blood to the squad, but if a player wants to represent Scotland and is of Scottish heritage, he should be able to.

    That’s just my two cents on North American rugby…

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