Editorial: The Importance of the BC Premier as the Canadian Winter League for National Player Development
Those who have been reading BCRN over the years (since 2005) know I have been championing the BC Premier league as the unofficial Canadian Winter League. In 2013, slightly tongue in cheek, I even made up the acronym CRWL "The BC Premier league, or as I like to call it, the Canadian Rugby Winter League (CRWL) is a key link in the development of national team players". I've watched it's role in Canadian rugby decline over the years, and sadly the playing level of the men's XVs program along with it. I've seen Tyler Ardron, DTH, Taylor Paris, Jebb Sinclair, Chauncey O'Toole, Jeff Hassler, John Moonlight and many others suit up in the BC Premier league while playing for the national team. It used to be a very strong league for domestic players, if you were serious about playing national team, you would be out here as a player in the winter. BC in the winter, in the summer RCSL/NA4/CRC whatever was the flavour of national competition that year or back to your summer club.
Looking at the 2012 team that gave a good account of themselves vs NZ Maori losing 32-19, all except James Pritchard had recently or were currently playing BC Premier. Some had gone on to pro contracts in Europe. The BC Premier players who played against them and with them in league play learned the standards needed to make the national team and perhaps go pro in Europe.
2012 Canada vs NZ Maori
1 Hubert Buydens (Saskatoon Wild Oats/ Prairie Wolf Pack) Saskatoon, SK
2 Ryan Hamilton (Capilano/ Pacific Tyee) West Vancouver, BC
3 Jason Marshall (Aurillac) North Vancouver, BC
4 Jebb Sinclair (London Irish) Charter's Settlement, NB
5 Tyler Hotson (London Scottish RFC) Vancouver, BC
6 Tyler Ardron (Brantford Harlequins/ Ontario Blues) Lakefield, ON
7 Chauncey O’Toole (Bridgend Ravens) Belleisle, NB
8 Aaron Carpenter (Plymouth Albion RFC) Brantford, ON (C)
9 Phil Mack (UVic Vikes) Victoria, BC
10 Connor Braid (James Bay AA/ Pacific Tyee) Victoria, BC
11 Taylor Paris (Glasgow Warriors) Barrie, ON
12 Phil Mackenzie (London Welsh) Oakville, ON
13 Ciaran Hearn (Castaway Wanderers/ the Rock) Conception Bay, NL
14 Jeff Hassler (Okotoks RFC/ Prairie Wolf Pack) Okotoks, AB
15 James Pritchard (Bedford Blues) Parkes, NSW, Australia
A noticeable shift in attitude from Rugby Canada happened when Kieran Crowley took over in 2008 as head coach. His predecessors had great respect for the BC Premier league, Ric Suggitt (2007) coached in the league, David Clark (2003) put his Pacific Pride team in the league, even Pat Parfrey (1999) knew its value although he was based in Newfoundland. Ian Birtwell (1991/1995) was unabashed about picking players who were playing in BC. Crowley had other ideas and when fellow kiwi Mike Chu arrived in 2011 the pace of decline picked up. They were adamant that the CRC was the saviour of Canadian rugby, they loved the league heirarchy from NZ, everything up and down from top to bottom on a small island with a zillion rugby clubs. The concept of summer and winter leagues in a large country about 40 times the size of NZ was a concept they just couldn't wrap their head around. The BC Premier as a national team development league began a slow but constant descent under successive offshore coaches, Mark Anscombe and Kingsley Jones showed the same disdain for the league and its role in Canadian rugby. Jones has even upped the ante by taking centralized players out of the league completely.
It was interesting then this morning to see some twitter activity (posted below) that prompted this article. The comments seemed indicative of the current situation and a good snapshot. Clay Panga has seen this from every angle, he originally played in the BC Premier as a young man trying to make the national team. He's originally from New Zealand. He moved to Alberta and played CRC with the Wolfpack when that seemed the pathway in fashion. Now he's back in BC, married and Director of Rugby of a BC Premier club trying to build a strong rugby program. He did attain his goal of being capped for Canada but several years too late, a failing of the Canadian talent ID system, but that's another story. Then there's Phil Mackenzie who joins the conversation, again a player who has seen it from many angles, a young player in the BC Premier who went on to play national and then pro. Finally Maria Samson joins the conversation, a former women's national player, who is currently a Rugby Canada board member. Their comments pretty well sum up the situation, Clay frustration at the current system, Phil with good memories and questions on why it has changed, Maria indicating that's the way it should be. It typifies Rugby Canada's attitude for the last decade towards the BC Premier league, and that attitude and the subsequent decisions have had a detrimental effect on the men's XVs program.
The rugby landscape is changing, the MLR league and its predecessor PRO Rugby, is adding another option, an American focused one, that is accelerating the growth of rugby in the USA. The Ontario Arrows will attract more domestic players to Ontario if they get in MLR in 2019, Rugby Canada is behind it, Bill Webb a Rugby Canada director is the main backer.
It's not all bad news for the BC Premier however, the UBCOB Ravens went down and defeated the Houston Sabercats in preseason play, a better result than the Ontario Arrows achieved. The level of the top teams in BC Premier is still up there with the best in North America. Club directors are realizing now that to maintain that top level the answer is quality imports mixed with locally developed players. Some have said they're not investing any resources in domestic national team players under the current national team administration. Why would they, pay their flights out, give them lodging and a job and then they can't play for your club? Also the amateur clubs are getting more wise about contracts, Nanaimo Hornets flew Tim Metcher out from Australia and invested considerable money but he was signed by the Seattle Seawolves after that and became the best tighthead in the MLR league. Nanaimo were never recompensed, lesson learned.
It's an evolving rugby landscape and that's why clubs, leagues and the BCRU have to be agile and responsive to the environment around them. Rugby Canada have been indifferent, even hostile, towards the growth of the BC Premier league and dismissive of its historical contribution to the quality of the national program. They're now reaping what they sowed.
Tweet by Clay Panga
Reply by Phil Mackenzie
Reply by Maria Samson