By Jonathan Jenkins
Passion is one of those difficult-to-define qualities. But it’s easy to recognise. It’s what makes it possible to keep running when legs and lungs say they can run no more; to tackle when tackling means certain pain; to stay on the wind-swept training ground when everyone else is warm and dry.
Passion separates the great from the good – to have it in a player is wonderful. To be able to instil it in players is pure gold. Matt Durant, the coach of Wolfville, Nova Scotia`s Acadia University women’s Rugby programme, has that passion.
“I have never played for someone who embodies so much belief and confidence in a team,” said Emilie Chiasson, fourth-year fly-half and the Atlantic University Sport’s (AUS) 2013 most valuable player.
“His passion is contagious.”
Janna Slevinsky, an Albertan who Durant lured east from the prairies to play number eight for the Axewomen, said Durant’s motivational skills and belief in his players was extraordinary.
'I never want to let him down'
“Somehow he convinced me to go to a school 5,000km away from home but thank goodness he did,” she said.
“Matt had way more confidence in me than I had in myself and I think that is why my return to play (after a knee injury) was successful. He is one of the people in my life that I never want to let down which motivates me to work as hard as I can all the time.”
Testimonials like that help explain how Durant has energised the Acadia women’s team after years of playing second fiddle to powerhouse arch-rivals St Francis Xavier University – three-time national champions. Durant and his Acadia Axewomen whipped St F-X in the first game of the season en route to a 7-1 record but then fell 19-12 to their nemesis in the AUS final. That double overtime loss denied Acadia a trip to the national championship, which Durant says is the goal of the programme.
“I’m far too competitive a person to be involved in a programme if I didn’t think we could challenge for a national championship every year,” said the 38-year-old, who spent 10 years representing Nova Scotia in the middle of the Keltics’ front row. Still playing the game for the Valley Bulldogs RFC, he was selected on the Canada Classics team who played their American counterparts in a curtain-raiser to a Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifier in Charleston, South Carolina, in August.
“It isn’t about catching and beating St F-X anymore. Competing for a medal and a national championship every year is certainly one of our goals.”
Joins an elite group of sports coaches
It’s just Durant’s fourth year with the programme but his relentless recruiting and boundless enthusiasm won him the 2013 Canadian Inter-university Sport Coach of the Year Award. And he’s joined an elite group of coaches running successful women’s university programmes, such as Mike Cavanaugh at St F-X, Matt Parrish at the University of Alberta and Colette McAuley at Guelph.
Now an associate professor at Acadia’s School of Nutrition and Dietetics, Durant came to Rugby relatively late, having played Canadian football until he was 22. But in his last year of university at Acadia, he got a taste and was hooked instantly.
“I played for our university club team here and we won a Maritime championship for the first time in about 100 years,” he said.
“Once I had been to a couple of practices, it became pretty evident to me that this was the game I wanted to play. I’ve described it to other people that it’s a very pure sport. You have to be able to play offence and defence, you have to be tough and you have to be smart. It just hit all the right buttons for me. I absolutely loved it.”
Assembling a successful programme at Acadia – or anywhere in Canada, where the climate and geography fight against Rugby – is a challenge. Durant now gets about 80 players to training camp in late August, after they’ve spent the spring and summer playing club Rugby. That’s pared down to about 40 for the regular season, which runs from September to nationals in the first week of November. In that brief window, his charges will play 16 to 18 matches.
Olympic inclusion makes a difference
He does have the resources to offer about one-third of the team some form of financial support, ranging from CAN$1,000 to full tuition for a year. But in order to move to the next level he wants to institute a sevens side that travels and a biannual tour for the full squad – and that will require tapping new sources of revenue.
“With Rugby Sevens becoming an Olympic sport, the top high school athletes are going to want to attend programmes that have not just Fifteens but a Sevens programme,” Durant said.
“I’m starting to see girls entering the programme not as recreational Rugby players who want to add playing the sport to their university experience. There are girls who are legitimately seeking out the top university programme in the country because they have aspirations of making our national team. They want to be part of a programme that will help them go that direction.”
And if it’s an inspirational leader they need to get them there, they may just have found one.
This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about Rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jonathan Jenkins