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Rugby Canada expands young talent search both in Canada and abroad


Canada rugby coach Kingsley Jones is back on the field, finally coaching again — albeit with small groups and under COVID-19 restrictions.

Jones has been helping out with the developmental Pacific Pride program run by former Canadian international star forward Jamie Cudmore on Vancouver Island.

There are rules and protocols to follow these days. Jones said the training sessions involved three groups of 10 players with Jones and Cudmore unable to switch positions in order to lessen risk of the virus.

"It's just a minefield," said Jones.

Jones and his coaches, who would normally meet in person to review practices, now discuss them by webinar.

"The training finishes and you just jump in the car and go home. Because there's no office I can go into either. It's bizarre," Jones said.

Rugby Canada's office in Langford, B.C., remains open but access is limited.

Sevens players have also returned for optional practices, with some opting out.

On the plus side, the pandemic has allowed time for Jones and his staff to review how they do things. 

To that end, Jones and Rugby Canada have expanded their talent identification program. Former Canadian international Adam Kleeberger has been tasked with leading a team of 50-plus scouts, nominated by provincial rugby bodies, searching for elite athletes and rugby players across the country to enter Rugby Canada pathways.

"We need to make those right choices early and invest in the right people at the right time," said Jones. "This allows us to do that."

Once identified, the prospects can be funnelled into provincial or national age-group teams, the sevens program — and hopefully, down the line, the senior squad.

The ID program will also cover the United Kingdom and Ireland with former Bath pro Scott Hobson, a Canadian based in the U.K., leading the search there. The hope is to unearth another James Pritchard or Peter Nelson.

The Australian-born Pritchard, now retired, is Canada's all-time leading scorer — winning 62 caps including trips to four World Cups. He was eligible to play for Canada thanks to his Saskatchewan-born grandfather, whose father came to Canada from the U.K. to work on a farm just outside Regina.

The Irish-born Nelson, who has seven caps, qualifies for Canada by virtue of his Toronto-born grandmother.

While Jones is committed to finding and nurturing homegrown talent, he says every country is scouring the globe for potential talent with the right bloodlines.

"It's a big part of the jigsaw puzzle now and a lot of the Tier 1 unions have three or four staff looking for that talent ID part of the pathway," he said.

To be eligible to represent Canada, players must be Canadian-born or have a parent or grandparent born in Canada. They are also eligible if they have completed 36 consecutive months of residence immediately preceding the time of playing (that requirement increases to 60 straight months come January 2022).

The hope is the talent search will eventually expand to other regions such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Jones is no stranger to finding talent. In his previous role with the Welsh Rugby Union, the former Wales captain headed up the WRU's exiles program — identifying and recruiting new talent to the pro game in Wales.

The introduction of Major League Rugby, the North American pro league that kicked off in 2018, is helping the cause with overseas players looking for North American family connections to ease their path into the league.

That has already produced Canadian-qualified players of interest to Jones, who cites two players who have played at the youth level for other countries. One has a Canadian father and the other, a South African, also has a Canadian parent.

Another goal is to centralize a Canadian rugby database. Jones says in the past the talent search was a patchwork effort.

To that end, Rugby Canada has partnered with The Sports Office, an English-based company that specializes in athlete data management and sports performance analytics in its talent search.

Jones, who doubles as Rugby Canada's director of men's rugby performance, will be joined by John Tait, his counterpart in the women's program, in tracking and monitoring current and future national team players.

As for future games, Jones is still unsure give the travel restrictions due to COVID-19 although he is exploring all options.

He is hoping to hold a national team camp in November, possibly with a trials match.

"I don't see us playing for a while, to be honest with you," he said. "I think our camp is a best-case scenario."

An Oct. 30 match against the U.S. in Vancouver is expected to be scrapped, along with an accompanying match the next day between New Zealand and Fijian sides — not their test teams — given quarantines and travel restrictions.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2020.


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press