High Performance Rugby – 2021

Interview with UBC Head Coach Curry Hitchborn on High Performance Rugby in BC

BCRN: Hi Curry, we’d like to talk about High Performance rugby in BC and what plans UBC has to fill that space.

Curry: There is a growing movement amongst the rugby players in BC around the idea that they can see where all the hard work pays off, and that’s domestic professional rugby. UBC, much like UVIC and TWU, are in a position where they are beginning to place more and more guys in MLR, on national teams or overseas. UBC plans on competing with these other two university programs, the regional unions and the Pride in a revamped McKechnie Cup season that would take place in the fall. Think Mitre 10 to MLR’s Super Rugby.

The current idea is to roll this out this fall while the BCRU helps set up an exhibition fall club league. I really do support that decision on behalf of the BCRU to play club exhibition as it comes from a position of player welfare. We haven’t done this in awhile. While the clubs find their feet we want to ensure that we are supplying our members with more opportunity. Using historic cup games (Miller Cup and Barnard Cup) to add value to fall club play will go a long way.

If it works and support is there, the goal is to open this up for seasons to come and have Regional Unions (VRU, UBC, VIRU, FVRU) and HP environments (UVIC, PRIDE, TWU) compete in the fall. And no, there is no U23 league. Nor will there be restrictions on imports.

BCRN: The UBC Academy just started up, what has the reaction been so far?

Curry: Incredible to put it simply. We have never done one of these before and with so few opportunities outside of high schools to work in a dedicated environment, the enrollment jumped right up. We plan on running this year round to best support any rugby player who wants that added training in an environment that has S&C, tracked development, paid coaches and an environment that allows them to focus on what’s being offered. We will be putting a U19 and hopefully a U17 team in the age grade club competitions. As a regional union as well as a club we have a lot of opportunity to really get this right.

BCRN: With COVID local rugby has been at a standstill. High Performance will be the first to start up due to Provincial exemptions. How do you see this rolling out?

Curry: The current goal is to re-engage with the regional unions on identifying athletes in their regions and then getting them into a cohort that can begin to train in an environment different from what they may get elsewhere. Again, with MLR on the rise and the pool drying up, I firmly believe that BC can play a big role in becoming an off season destination for loads of guys as well as cementing itself as a provider to the rugby world at large. The discussions with the BCRU have been ongoing but they have so many things they need to focus on above and beyond senior men’s competition – to rely on them as the sole delivery mechanism would be unwise. They are supportive however.

BCRN: You were instrumental in recruiting players for the first Seattle Seawolves team that won back to back MLR championships. What role do you think MLR plays in Canadian High Performance development?

Curry: That’s a loaded question. Not every guy that picks up a ball wants to play provincially or even nationally. The guys that have national team selection on their radar will hopefully use the MLR to achieve that but that’s the tricky part. Unless you’re playing for the Toronto Arrows, your options for getting into the league are contingent on getting a cap or having represented Canada. Not every guy has had that opportunity so the need for more dedicated competition streams is paramount.

BCRN: Obviously in your role in creating the initial Seattle Seawolves player base you’ve made some contacts in the MLR. Do you keep in contact with various MLR teams?

Curry: I do.

BCRN: Looking closer at rugby in BC what role do you think we can play in providing players to MLR and to the Canada national team.

Curry: Again, I think this is too narrow a focus. I think BC needs to look much more closer to home before we begin looking over the fence. We have so many people playing in various leagues that it’s hard to keep up. Having said that – Men’s senior rugby at a club level is way down in terms of registration in a lot of areas. There are so many factors that lead into that. Some of them are the onerous length of the season for some leagues here in BC, injuries due to training twice a week and then having to play 80 mins on the weekend. Add into that the import rule that restricts clubs to a number of “imported” players thereby not allowing for proper injury cover. It’s no secret people are getting bigger and faster in our sport and we simply need to do a better job on affording those that want “it”, the option to achieve that intention. I believe that a robust fall McKechnie Cup over top regional club play (Miller Cup on the mainland and Barnard Cup on the island) will go a very long way in terms of helping those aspiring, current or in between guys the opportunity to get scouted well in advance of any seasons or test windows. The desire is there but the pathway forward needs some significant consideration

BCRN: We’ve talked about the McKechnie Cup, the competition between regions that’s a deep part of our BC Rugby history. It was started in 1896 so it is 125 years old this year. Can we rejuvenate that to be part of the High Performance pathway? What are your thoughts?

Curry: Absolutely! A group of us have been talking around this concept for around 4 years now. In the last 6 months the concept has really picked up steam as well. Like I mentioned previously, the value is plain to see but the obvious question will be “will the clubs support it”?

I think we need to review that approach. If a guy pays club X to play for them and gets selected to a McKechnie Cup squad and that club says “NO” then you have to ask the question, why is that guy paying to play for that club in the first place? Now, if club X says “What a great opportunity to have a representative of our club on this squad and now we can fill in his spot with the guy in behind”, come spring rugby that club has now put themselves in a spot where they’ve doubled their development and strengthened their side.

The entire premise behind this is that fall rugby is historically like pulling teeth. Play McKechnie Cup in the fall over top a regionally specific club season that doesn’t have cross strait travel. I have had numerous conversations about this and so far support is there, including the BCRU in a supportive role is also important. It’s time they step off enforcement, sanctioning and permission and adopt an approach of “how can we help”. I believe, based on my numerous conversations with key BCRU personnel, that they are supportive of this and recognize that continuing to do what we have always done is simply damaging. We are no longer in a position where we can or should rely on our PSO’s or NSO’s for anything other than coverage. They have so many issues they need to fix and I know a mutually supportive vision will go a long way in not only buying back trust for both parties but also add in much needed clarity on what advancement looks like, because it isn’t the BC Bears.

BCRN: The Pacific Pride under Jamie Cudmore, which is based in BC, has a key role in High Performance development. How do you see BC universities and clubs supporting the Pride in that role.

Curry: I think that the guys that come through these systems are going on to the Pride due to the environments they come out of. That’s the goal with the McKechnie Cup fall season. Give those athletes similar resources, paid coaches, financial support, S&C, nutrition, mental health support. All of these help firm up intent from a player’s perspective. Again though – not everyone aspires to play there and that’s where I think we get a lot of this wrong. ID the guys that want it, nurture quality competition for those that don’t and reduce injury, burnout and acrimony along the way.

Jamie has proven to be an excellent rugby person here and he is also keen to put the Pride into a more robust competition in the fall with a dedicated, fully rostered and healthy Premier season in the Spring.

BCRN: UBC has always been a major source of Canada U20 talent which in turn feeds the senior national team. What are your current thoughts on that pathway and how it can be maintained and perhaps even improved.

Curry: The Rugby Canada U20 men’s program is a “check in” spot for a lot of guys. Getting that exposure and that final polish before they go onto further selection is paramount. Some make it, some don’t. Those that do get a taste of what it means to play for your country. I don’t have much involvement there outside of sharing information around guys they’re looking at in the UBC program. My job is to support the people that aspire to that.

BCRN: The national University Championships were recently started in 2017 with a grant from the Canadian Rugby Foundation. BC has won all 3 titles, with UBC claiming two, how has this changed the landscape of High Performance in Canada?

Curry: I’m not sure it has just yet. I’d like to see some data over the years on what conversion and retention looks like. It’s easy to get carried away with a lot of the stuff going on but the true test will be if those guys who have come through stick it out and go on to play elsewhere wherever that may be.

BCRN: Final thoughts on High Performance rugby in Canada and pathways to the national teams and improving Canada’s end product.

Curry: I have been a coach for the VRU (Vancouver Rugby Union) for around 10 years now. I love it. It’s an amazing window into a scope of athletes and people that are getting their first look into rep rugby. I’ve been the VRU senior men’s coach for some time and we have yet to lose a McKechnie Cup. It’s time to put the knives away. It’s time to stop operating in silos and echo chambers. There are some amazing people heading up various rugby initiatives around the province and the responses have been predictable and shameful. Accusations of “stealing players” or “not doing what’s best for rugby” usually come first. Never underestimate Rugby’s ability to get in the way of Rugby.

I have been in concerted and dedicated discussions from my role as the HP director for the VRU with Andy Evans of TWU, Clayton Panga who is the current Director of High Performance for the VIRU, Jamie Cudmore, the administration at UBC, Doug Tate and a slew of others. I am fully anticipating the usual blow back from some historic personalities on this concept and to them I can simply say “pick up the phone and call”. If you truly believe that nothing is wrong with senior men’s club rugby at most levels in the province and you want to continue doing what has always been done then have at it. I choose to look forward with some very excellent people in order to do our best, AT LEAST trying something new.

I do not think Vancouver needs an MLR team. I did. The depth isn’t there yet nor is the interest. I do believe that regional play in the fall and an ACTUAL Premier League in the spring is not only sensible but what a lot of people want. Stream these games, play them at the clubs that have given the most guys and let that club keep the gate and sales from the day. Find a way to move the needle. Go through the history books and look at what the conversion rate from the McKechnie Cup teams to national sides were for guys. It used to be that you didn’t get a shot at Rugby Canada unless you got selected. Why did we get rid of this? Rugby Canada sent out a letter in ‘12 or ‘13 in which Mike Chu said “The BC men’s premiership is no longer a viable source of national team development” and no one blinked. We literally kept doing the same thing. They weren’t wrong – it isn’t. You can’t train two days a week and then expect those guys to succeed in a daily training environment. Now, can clubs play a role in getting guys onto the Pride? ABSOLUTELY. Can BC shake off the oppressive negativity and infighting in order to improve our role in the future of our sport? Yes.

I am going to close with this – myself and the current working group are committed to this. We have funds, we have staff, we only need a start date and we’re up. The ball is already rolling and the time to engage beyond our current working group is now. We have the tools to do something unique and ultimately profitable. But can we all work together on it? I think so but for every person who gets it, three more will have read this and say “they’re trying to kill club rugby”. To that I say – show me a solution. Senior men’s club rugby is in a potentially perilous position. Look around at who isn’t playing. Look at the quality of play come mid season in the second half. Where have all the coaches who coached the Bears wound up? What are we doing and why are we doing it? The only way we’re going to develop as coaches or players is by managing our own environments first and not waiting for others to fix it. They can’t. So we have to. This initiative serves so much more than just the people on the field. Coach development is right at the top. With the laughably narrow gate toward getting a level 3 Coach certification in this country being what it is, this league provides contextual coach development and will serve as a vetting process for coaches who want to move beyond. I got my start coaching regionally.

So many countries already do what we are proposing. You have the Vodacom Cup, Mitre 10, etc, etc… Its value is right there in plain sight and we already do this regional competition at U19 and below for the PRC’s so we know it can be delivered and that people see the value.

BCRN: Thanks Curry, appreciate you taking the time to provide these insights.

Curry: You bet, Mark. I’m looking forward to working alongside those that have a stake in the future and aren’t held hostage by the past.

Posted in Coaching, Features.