By Jon Newcombe
Canada Under 20 head coach Mike Shelley hopes increased contact time with his players will be reflected by an improved showing at the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in Salt Lake City which kicks off later this month.
A new Rugby Centre of Excellence in Langford, just outside Victoria, officially opened its doors in January this year, helping to bring players from far and wide to a single place where they can practice, train and live.
While a 60-room residential block is still only in the planning stages, many of Canada’s finest young rugby players have moved to the local area so that they can access the superb on-site facilities and benefit from the coaching on offer from Shelley, who played prop for England A, and his assistant, Mick Byrne, the former All Blacks skills coach.
In a country where it takes eight hours to fly from one coast to another Shelley admits the new facility has transformed Canadian rugby.
“It’s quicker for me to go to London from Vancouver than it is to get to St John’s in Newfoundland,” Shelley pointed out.
“I’ve been in my current job for two years and the biggest change in that time is that Rugby Canada now has a home to call its own.
“Beforehand we used to hire offices and training fields but we’d be one of a number of user-groups, whereas now we are the primary tenants and can use this great facility as much as we want.
“Our offices are right next to the artificial turf training field, and we have our own gym and medical facilities; the difference in having a venue such as this has been massive.
“One of the next plans is to build a four-floor residential building,” Shelley continued. “At the moment we ask guys to come here and live nearby, like students really, and a lot of them are studying in the University of Victoria anyway because this is a rugby hotbed.
“This way of doing things works much better for us because the rugby camp structure is expensive and guys can go stir crazy if they spend a week together in dormitory style accommodation.
Relocating for rugby
“Now we have a working day, pretty much 9-5, and then the players have the freedom to go off and do other stuff.
“In a way it is an introduction to what professional rugby will be like for them.”
Initially Shelley persuaded 11 young players to up sticks and relocate to British Colombia, but that number has steadily increased as JWRT 2012 draws ever nearer.
“Eighteen of our Under 20 squad have been here since the middle of January, and we brought more players in to prepare for the two games against Romania back in March.
“In the past fortnight we’ve had 30 players at the centre taking part in an intense preparation stage, where we have been working on our game plan and strategy as well as doing a fair bit of technical coaching with the guys.
Fifteen times better
“It is unheard of in Canadian rugby to have had so much time together; I’d say that the increased preparation time is 15 times what it was last year.
“My aim as the person in charge of player development is for young players aged 18, 19 and 20 to have 20-30 coaching hours a week like they experience in England or New Zealand. When I first arrived they were lucky to get 20-30 hours a year.”
A 2-0 series loss to Romania, who failed to qualify for JWRT 2012, and more recent defeats by USA, suggests that Canada will be up against it when they kick off against Georgia at the Murray Rugby Park Stadium in Salt Lake City on June 18. But Shelley is confident that they have the players to mount a decent challenge.
“Our forwards are an unassuming, hard-working bunch who will hopefully knock it about a bit,” said Shelley, captain of Leeds Tykes when they won English rugby’s Powergen Cup in 2005 – the only major trophy in the club’s 20-year history.
“I wouldn’t want to single any of the pack out; their job is to get the ball to our backline which promises to be pretty exciting to watch. We have a number of centres who will be worth keeping an eye on.
“Taylor Paris is coming to America with us; he played at the World Cup and is a veteran of the IRB Sevens circuit at the age of 20. He is a quality player.
“Clayton Meeres has been on a couple of Sevens trips as well; Michael Fuailefau is a local Victoria boy who has developed massively; and Lucas Hammond has come back from a successful trip to South America with the Ontario regional side.
“We’ve also got a good couple of 10s in Connor McCann, who is at the Clermont Auvergne Academy, and Pat Kay, another local boy who has come on leaps and bounds like all the lads who’ve been at the Centre of Excellence.
“The improvement across the board has been massive. But we won’t know until July once Junior World Rugby Trophy has finished where that will have taken us.”
Canada, whose best finish on the Junior World Rugby Trophy stage is fifth in 2011, have been drawn in Pool B with European champions Georgia, two-time runners-up Japan and African champions Zimbabwe.