Rugby amateurs take pro approach to World Cup

Pair of Castaway-Wanderers sign pro contracts ahead of Rugby World Cup

Castaway-Wanderers flanker Jebb Sinclair is tackled by James Bay's Phil Mack in a B.C. Premier League rugby game in 2009.

Pair of Castaway-Wanderers sign pro contracts ahead of Rugby World Cup

Before championships are won and legends are made, a player needs to make it to the top level. By signing a pro contract in late July with England’s historic London Irish rugby club in the Aviva Premiership, Jebb Sinclair, a Team Canada back row forward, has taken the next step.

It marks a new chapter in Sinclair’s career, one that’s brought him from high school in Fredericton, N.B., to spending several seasons developing with the Castaway-Wanderers in Oak Bay while earning 23 caps on the national team.

It’s a similar route taken by Chauncey O’Toole, another back rower who came from New Brunswick to the Castaway-Wanderers with Sinclair in 2007. In early August, a week after Sinclair signed, O’Toole put his name on a contract of his own with the RaboBank (previously known as Magners) League club Ospreys of Swansea, Wales.

For Canada, professional players like Sinclair and O’Toole are the exception.

National coach Kieran Crowley, a former New Zealand All Black, would love to see the day he can select an entire Canadian roster from overseas. But the duo are just two of eight professionally contracted players on Canada’s 30-man roster named to the Rugby World Cup, taking place in New Zealand, Sept. 9 to Oct. 23.

Rather, the majority of the national team comes from the B.C. Premier League and the Canadian Rugby Championship provincial competition.

“(Playing pro in Europe) exposes the players to the day-to-day rigour of playing at the highest level of competition seven to nine months of the year,” Crowley said.

“The games are at a level massively higher than anything in Canada. If we think our players are physically developed and capable of playing there, we try to get our players signing over there.”

Back to Sinclair, who celebrated his contract with his first international try in the opening minutes of Canada’s 28-22 win over the U.S. in Toronto on July 30. Sometimes known as Big Jebb for carrying 238 lbs. (108 kilograms) on a 5-foot-10 frame, he usually wears No. 6 for Canada.

When his agent told him representatives from the London Irish watched him play in June’s Churchill Cup in England, Sinclair didn’t want to get his hopes up.

“The (London Irish) said the Churchill is what got me noticed.”

Sinclair, 26, joined the national team for its November 2008 test window and toured Portugal, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

“Every player on the other team was a pro. I was thinking, ‘I can keep up here.’”

But Canadians get unlucky when it comes to signing pro contracts, he said. Just two foreign players can be named to a match roster in the Aviva Premiership, creating fierce competition for the remaining spots.

Of the eight World Cup-bound Canadians playing pro this year, four are in a division one below that of the Aviva and RaboBank.

On Aug. 8 Canada jumped to 14th from 16th in the International Rugby Board world rankings. The gains are the result of Canada’s sweep over the U.S. in the recent two-game Can-Am series.

However, it could be a lifetime before Canada has more players at all 15 positions, preferrably two deep, playing at the elite professional level, said Ian Hyde-Lay, a former national player who coaches the Castaway-Wanderers and St. Michaels University School teams.

Plain and simple, Canada’s up against a ceiling, with all 13 teams ahead of them in the world standings featuring fully pro rosters.

Getting there would take a complete overhaul, which could take as long as 15 years, starting from the bottom up, Hyde-Lay said.

“All we can do is put as much resource into developing the B.C. Premier League as best we can,” said the seasoned coach and former international referee. “Conversely, there are a lot of amateur players with a very pro attitude, who bust their ass, and that’s what we’re seeing. The hope is if you’re playing in Europe you’re there too improve but being there doesn’t guarantee anything.”

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