Curry Hitchborn has seen a lot coaching rugby in Canada for the past decade.
He built the UBC men’s rugby program into a dominant power in the province. He has helped start up a team in Major League Rugby. He’s coached at the national age-grade level.
He is still the coach of the B.C. Bears, the provincial men’s representative side that is steeped in history.
And he is very frank when asked to explain why things have gone so badly wrong for Canadian men’s rugby — and why they are going so well for Chile, who will make their Rugby World Cup debut on Sunday versus Japan at Stade Municipal in Toulouse, France.
For the first time in the 36-year history of the Rugby World Cup, the quadrennial tournament won’t have Canada involved.
“Chile simply has better domestic competition. Canada has nothing below (the national team). So as much as everybody wants to sit there and go, ‘Oh, it’s (national coach) Kingsley Jones this, and Kingsley Jones that,’ what does he have to work with? Why is it that this guy has to coach rugby in a country where the top-end players are coming out of a university?”
The Canadians have never been a threat to win it all, but for most of their World Cup history, they have been a respected competitor, one that the top teams have always taken seriously. And when you look at the mid-tier teams that are once again at this World Cup, you see the likes of Tonga, Samoa, Japan, Namibia, Georgia, Samoa, even Fiji, all teams that Canada was often defeating as recently as a decade ago.
Then there are top-tier countries such as Scotland and Italy, who Canada has beaten in the recent past.
But their 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign was a disaster, their final game in Japan somewhat fittingly washed out by a hurricane, and this year’s tournament was over nearly as it started, with the Canadians thumped at first by the U.S., then upset by the long-shot Chileans.
Chilean rugby journalist Isco Saavedra said his country’s ascent was about a few things, starting with a focus on building up their sevens program, then hiring former Uruguayan national team player Pablo Lemoine as Chilean head coach in 2018.
And then there was the development of a Chilean professional team, Selknam, which now plays in Super Rugby Americas.
“In a short time, we saw how players who could now fully dedicate themselves to rugby underwent significant physical transformations, gained more experience, and got accustomed to high-level international competition,” Saavedra said in an email.
All but one of the Chilean national team players selected for the current World Cup came through Selknam, he added.
Lemoine instilled a highly qualitative process, he added, focusing on improving the team’s processes over short-term wins. And, he said, the Chileans also were able to channel greater passion in the crucial upsets of Canada and the U.S.
“I believe Chile made the difference in aspects that have forged the most epic moments in sports — mentality, faith, conviction, heart, courage, and dedication — that combined with the intense and professional work in this process, made that slight difference for the Cóndores to secure the qualification,” he said.
Hitchborn is proud of his Thunderbirds, who won the B.C. Rugby Premier League title in five of the last seven competitive seasons played. He is proud of how the program grew, how his players made themselves the best they could be.
But he is also not shy to admit that UBC’s success came as the overall quality of the league went into steep decline.
And above that, where there was once a national men’s rep competition, called various things over the years — the Canadian Rugby Championship, the Coast to Coast Cup — there is now nothing.
That’s a huge gap that must be fixed, Hitchborn believes.
A decade ago, domestic players with national ambitions had a place to test themselves at a level higher than the B.C. and Ontario club leagues. It was far from a perfect pathway, but it was better than the non-existent process that now exists.
Major League Rugby was supposed to help raise the overall standard of play for players pushing for the national team, especially as overseas opportunities in places like England and France dried up.
But Hitchborn has been disappointed with Major League Rugby, which has now completed five seasons, mostly with U.S.-based teams, but with the Toronto Arrows one of the more stable members.
“Major League Rugby is a bust. We all know this. They’re in loads of financial trouble. The players aren’t happy. You’ve got all manner of people coming in, coming out, coming in, coming out. And neither country that helped really support it is in the World Cup,” he said.
Former Canadian player Jebb Sinclair, one of the original Beardos who drew national and international attention while playing for Canada during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, is president of the Meralomas rugby division, the long-standing sports club centred at Connaught Park on the westside of Vancouver.
He also now sits on the board of Rugby Canada, and while he still sees Major League Rugby as part of the solution, he agreed with much of the rest of Hitchborn’s assessments.
“You’ve got to find a way to get rid of pay to play at under-18 and under-20 national levels,” he said. Forcing players to pay to play for the country’s most important development teams is a huge issue.
“If I had five to six million dollars to play with, that’s where I would spend it,” he said.
“We had a nice purple patch from 2011 to 2014, and a lot of it was on the funding the U20s had in the late 2000s, for guys like Harry Jones and Nate Hirayama, the Mackenzie brothers.”
And finding internal competition below the national team level, such as the Canadian Rugby Championship which ran from 2009 to 2018, was a good thing, he believes.
“I remember those games. I was playing for The Rock. Those games were so good,” he said of the four-team competition, which featured sides representing, B.C., Ontario, Atlantic Canada and the Prairies.
“There were some future 50-cappers who had just played a few times for Canada, they went in the 2011 World Cup and then went professional.”
The other item he can’t ignore is one he knows well, but is much more complicated: Canadian players need to challenge themselves by playing professionally overseas.
Sinclair played from 2011 to 2017 for London Irish in England’s top division, and also spent a season playing in South Africa.
“The competition overseas, in New Zealand, Australia, France, England is just better,” he said. But finding a spot is harder than ever.
“When I was over there, you had two foreign player spots,” he noted. That meant you were competing for a position against players from New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.
“Everyone else was from an EU country, so they were exempt from roster rules, or players from countries like South Africa and Argentina were covered by Kolpak,” he added, referring to the legal status that players coming from developing countries generally have in all European Union countries where a trade deal exists between their home country and the EU.
“To get into the team I was fighting against two All Blacks — and so that meant I had to price myself accordingly,” he said.
A few facts and figures to know as the 2023 Rugby World Cup kicks off this weekend in France:
This is the 10th edition of the Rugby World Cup, which was first contested in New Zealand in 1987. It’s the second time France has hosted alone — they also hosted the whole of the 2007 tournament. Games were also played in France during the 1991 and 1999 World Cups.
New Zealand and South Africa have each won the tournament three times. Australia has won it twice, and England is the only Northern Hemisphere team to have won the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
France have been runners-up three times, most recently in 2011 when they lost in the final to New Zealand 8-7. England have also lost in the final three times.
It’s been 200 years since, according to myth, schoolboy William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it during a game at Rugby School in England.
There are 20 teams in the Rugby World Cup. Playing for the first time is Chile, who beat Canada and the U.S. in Americas qualifying.
This is the first time that Canada hasn’t played at the Rugby World Cup, and the Americans had only missed once before, in 1995.
Before losing Friday’s opening match 27-13 to France, the New Zealand All Blacks had never before lost a pool match.
Ireland go into this World Cup as the top-ranked team in the World Rugby rankings. The Irish have never played beyond the quarter-finals, so there’s big pressure on them to progress into the final four.
South Africa are the defending champions — they defeated England in Tokyo.
England came into the tournament ranked eighth, their worst-ever World Rugby ranking. They lost their final warm-up game to Fiji, the first time the Flying Fijians, who are now ranked seventh, had ever beaten England.
Eight is also the most tries scored in any one tournament, by Jonah Lomu (1995), Bryan Habana (2007) and Julian Savea (2015).
Marc Ellis scored six tries in one game for New Zealand in 1995 vs. Japan, the most ever in a single game.
England’s Jason Leonard (1991-2003) and New Zealand’s Richie Macaw (2003-2015) each appeared in 22 Rugby World Cup matches, the most in history.