Rugby Canada reorganizes centralized player pool with emphasis on 15s game

TORONTO — Rugby Canada is reorganizing its resources, opting for one centralized pool of men's players rather than having separate 15s and sevens training squads.

Come September, Rugby Canada will centralize a group of 40 to 50 men under contract "to maximize the development of Canada's men's national team players."

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Canada is currently ranked 22nd in the World Rugby 15s rankings. The Canadian men's sevens squad, meanwhile, finished ninth on the 2017-18 HSBC World Sevens Series.

The two teams essentially have trained apart in Langford, B.C., with separate coaches — with some 17 carded athletes in the sevens squad and up to 30 non-carded players in the 15s — although there has been some movement between the two. Canada's top 15s talent plays professionally overseas.

In essence, the reorganization is an admission that Canada does not have the depth to run the two programs separately. Also that Rugby Canada has to focus more on the 15s program to maintain badly needed World Rugby funding.

"It is incredibly important that we are aligned and we are prioritized in our approach around our men's 15s program," Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen said in an interview.

Added Vansen: "We have not done a good enough job as a sport in terms of developing players to compete at the international level ... We see this coming together under one contact, one centralized program, as being hugely beneficial to both sevens and 15s, not just one or the other."

The centralized pool of players will train at the Al Charron Rugby Canada National Training Centre in Langford, "with increased collaboration where players will be available for selection to Canada's national senior men's fifteens and sevens teams," according to Rugby Canada.

While athletes will sign one common contract and Rugby Canada will spread out its resources among the group, there will be a scale of pay in the group with young prospects getting less.

While the two versions of the game come with starkly different demands from fitness to strategy, Rugby Canada says the one-size-fits-all approach is needed and will provide for both teams.

Own The Podium has already cut the men's sevens program funding once in the wake of failing to qualifying for the Rio Olympics, although Rugby Canada has got some of that money back.

Rugby Canada said it will continue to pursue Olympic men's sevens qualification, with the sevens program "also serving as a key development program" for the 15s team.

But the focus is clearly back on the 15s game.

"Rugby Canada's board of directors has clearly stated that our men's fifteens program is the priority program for the union," Tim Powers, chair of Rugby Canada's board of directors, said in a statement. "In the environment in which we live, key core funding for our entire union is driven by our men's fifteens performance."

The Canadian men 15s side, which has never failed to qualify for the World Cup, is headed to a last-chance repechage tournament in November in its third and final attempt to crack the field for the 2019 World Cup.

Canada lost earlier qualifying series to the U.S. and Uruguay.

"It's critically important for Rugby Canada and for Canadian rugby that we continue to have a men's 15s team that qualifies for the Rugby World Cup," said Vansen.

Failure to make the sport's showcase tournament means less money from the world governing body. According to Rugby Canada's 2016 annual report, World Rugby provided $2.1 million of its $15.1 million revenue in 2016 (an Olympic year) — its second largest contributor after Sport Canada's $2.97 million.

In 2015, World Rugby was the biggest contributor at $3.7 million, ahead of Sport Canada, in Rugby Canada's $16.2 million worth of revenue.

In January, Powers said Rugby Canada's current budget is in the range of $17 million to $20 million with some 13 to 15 per cent coming from World Rugby.

Canada has already missed out on an immediate injection of $448,000 in World Cup preparation money from World Rugby. It's money that will be lost if Canada fails to qualify. And the World Rugby cheque will be cut further as the world governing body reviews other funding formula.

In April, Rugby Canada raised registration fees in a bid to meet the reduction in men's national team funding.

It appears the Canadian women's program, where only its sevens players are carded athletes, will remain the same.

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