Elite camps just the job for Canadian hopefuls

Canucks coach hails World Rugby's Americas Combine programme for giving players an incentive and a pathway to become professional athletes.

KAMAISHI, 13 Oct - Pursuing a career in rugby is not an easy decision for many Canadian players, who are often torn between a passion for their sport and the need to earn a a living.

Canucks head coach Kingsley Jones, above, hopes making that choice becomes easier thanks to the Americas Combine programme, which gives players a taste of life as a professional athlete.

"It’s a tough one for young guys," Jones said. "Some are qualified engineers. They’re a bright group. They can earn 80,000 dollars as a 23-year-old, or more. Why would you earn nothing being a rugby player, or 10,000? It is a tough decision, so hopefully that pathway makes their mind up for them."

The Americas Combine, part of World Rugby's high-performance initiative, offers players from North and South America a week of full-time training where their physical condition and rugby skills are tested, and a competitive match. The Combine also has programmes for coaches and referees. 

National team coaches select players based on the vacant positions in the temporary Combine squad, and those positions they would like to develop in their own team. In Canada's case, these tend to be players who have not previously experienced a daily training environment, such as student athletes.

A good performance at the Americas Combine has led to some players being contracted to Major League Rugby (MLR) teams.

"That's a great opportunity for young players to show their skills," Jones said. "They really come back from that Combine full of enthusiasm. Every player who has gone has been really excited about what they've learned in a short space of time, keen to get an opportunity on a professional stage and to train in a daily training environment.

"Once they get a taste of that, it drives them on to try and get professional contracts." 

The players Jones puts forward are prospects also for the national team. While he does not observe the camp in person, he receives feedback so he can track how the players are progressing.

Two players who have gone through the programme are Will Kelly and Josh Thiel. Versatile, both can play fly-half, centre or full-back, which bodes well for Canada’s lack of depth in the No.10 position.

"Those two are examples of guys who really want to be professional players. They got all the skill set, they got the mental toughness, and it's a chance for them to get a taste for it and measure themselves against lads their own age. It gives them confidence to know that they're here and to know that they got a future.

"Hopefully they will want to be in the MLR. They will want to be playing rugby for a profession."

While the Americas Combine is still in its early stages, Jones says he has already noticed how it is helping to improve the depth of the Canada team.  

“Without it, I don't know where we would be. At the moment, it's a lifeline for us. It's in its infancy but, without it going forward, it's unrealistic to think we could continue to be in the top 20 teams in the world, playing against full-time professionals when we're amateur. It's unrealistic."

RNS ls/co/sw