One glance at the front of the Grey Cup tells you all you need to know about the importance of rugby to the history of this country:
“Presented by His Excellency Earl Grey for the Amateur Rugby Football Championship of Canada.”
Of course, that was before the introduction of the forward pass that inexorably altered the sport in much the same way that William Webb Ellis once ruined a game of soccer by picking up the ball and running with it, simultaneously creating a new pastime and making England’s Rugby School famous for something other than Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Although Canadian football and the CFL have been key players on the Canadian sports scene for much of the last century, rugby union never went away, and is undergoing something of a revival.
When Aaron Carpenter leads his Canadian teammates out to take on Ireland Saturday night, it will be, in the words of Canadian coach Kieran Crowley, “one of the biggest days in Canadian rugby for a while.”
A record crowd of 20,000-plus is expected at Toronto’s BMO Field, comfortably trumping the previous mark of 12,220 established 12 months ago against Italy at the same venue, and almost double what Canada drew against the United States at BMO two years ago.
The match comes at the end of a watershed week for the sport in this country, what with TSN announcing a multiyear commitment to the sport on Tuesday, one that will include live coverage of four men’s national-team matches between now and the end of the year, coverage of the Rugby World Cup Sevens this month, and continuing through the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
“The TSN Turning Point for us was the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which we broadcast exclusively on TSN and TSN2,” Shawn Redmond, vice-president of programming for TSN, said of a tournament that drew viewing figures of 200,000 for some Canadian matches. “We received tremendous feedback from viewers, our audiences were great considering the games took place from New Zealand in the middle of the night, and just a tremendous response from viewers. In addition it was the first time the Rugby World Cup was broadcast in high definition, and it looked fantastic, and I think everybody here at TSN and our viewers fell in love with Team Canada.”
The 2011 Rugby World Cup drew 3.9 billion viewers worldwide, and alongside the soccer World Cup and the Olympics, the event is one of the three biggest sporting competitions on the planet. Australian-born winger James Pritchard, who needs just six points to tie Gareth Rees’s Canadian record of 491, feels the surge in popularity is anything but a blip on the sports landscape in this country.
“I definitely think it’s here to stay because there’s that market,” Pritchard said. “It’s a fast, contact sport, and we know how much you love the ice hockey over here and the football as well, and it’s something that can fill that gap during the summer when there aren’t some of those sports on TV.”
The game has also found an important ally in Rogers Sportsnet, which broadcasts more than 800 rugby matches from across the globe annually on its subscription channel, Sportsnet World. As the company’s vice-president of programming, Navaid Mansuri, explains: “Sports like rugby and our recent investment in cricket, those are sports that I think will continue to grow in Canada … because of the changing demographics of the country.”
But it’s not just in the international arena that rugby is taking hold in this country. The club scene is also thriving in Canada, where 324 clubs cater to 73,664 registered players, although it’s worth noting that that total is less than one-eighth of the 617,107 registered hockey players.
“We started this club for what we call champagne rugby, where we just go out on the Saturdays and play,” said Jordan Laurin, who five years ago helped found the Bay Street Pigs, which now fields three teams comprising mainly lawyers and bankers. “The caveat to that is we’re not a training team or a development team, so we can only bring on guys that know how to play the game at a competitive level, and it’s proven to be very successful. We’ve won the Toronto rugby union three years in a row now.
“And looking at how many clubs there are now versus how many clubs there were in Toronto and across Ontario 20 years ago, I can’t see any other sport that’s having the growth that rugby’s having across Canada.”
That growth will likely be enhanced with the debut of rugby sevens at the 2016 Rio Olympics, especially when you consider the success of other Canadian representative teams at the Games.
“If we can get to the Olympics, play on a world stage and secure a bronze, a silver or a gold medal, you just imagine how much of a boost that would be for the sport,” Pritchard said. “You see women’s soccer and that, how well they do at the Olympics and then the crowds they get here, they’re selling out BMO Field and that’s fantastic and that’s the sort of wave we want to ride.
“If we can perform well at an Olympic level, the amount of coverage that it gets and the amount of people that can see the sport, I think it can really boom.”