Although the failure to qualify for the men’s Rugby World Cup for the first time in Canada’s history has taken some of the sheen off the tail end of Allen Vansen’s time with Rugby Canada, the outgoing chief executive officer still looks back proudly on his six years in charge.
With his tenure in the role set to end on Jan. 31 by mutual agreement between him and Rugby Canada, Vansen agreed to stay on into the new year as the organization undergoes a thorough review of its high-performance programs. The review was launched after the resignation of women’s sevens coach John Tait, who faced complaints of bullying and harassment from some of his former players.
Calling it a “very busy time” even with exactly two months remaining in the position, Vansen says he has every intention of seeing it through until then.
“No changes in terms of my level of input and my commitment, certainly to the role, and that’s something that the board and I are fully aligned on. There’s no changes from that aspect, until I step out of the role at the end of January,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
While the findings from the high-performance review are set to be unveiled just before Vansen steps down, he added that Rugby Canada is also in talks with the Own The Podium program about the next Olympics, due to take place in Paris in 2024. The women’s sevens squad, which took bronze at the 2016 Rio Games, finished a disappointing ninth in Tokyo last summer, while the men’s team reached the quarter-finals.
Exactly what Rugby Canada’s transition of leadership will look like has not yet been determined, although Vansen said the board may choose to forgo a permanent hire in the short-term.
“Will there be an interim solution until they get that recruitment finished?” he said. “That’s to be determined.”
Vansen still maintains that without the pandemic, which cost a lot of the players on the Canadian team the opportunity to play rugby for a significant amount of time, his organization may well have maintained its 100-per-cent record of qualifying for every men’s Rugby World Cup since 1987.
Canada lost 59-50 on aggregate in a two-legged series against the United States, before falling into a second-chance repêchage, where it lost 54-46 over two legs to Chile, dropping the men’s 15s team out of the World Cup and down to No. 23 in the world.
“If we hadn’t been two years of basically no rugby for that group of players, I would put all my money on our men, you know, probably taking that second win against USA,” Vansen said. “And, certainly, managing better against Chile and taking that win as well.”
Although the outgoing CEO gives a lot of credit to the development of the game in South American countries such as Chile, which, along with Uruguay, are trying to follow the lead of Argentina to become a real force in the men’s sport.
However, despite missing out on the 2023 World Cup, he feels a lot of the problems that were present coming out of the 2019 World Cup in Japan have been addressed to a certain extent. He pointed to the development of the Pacific Pride player development program, along with the rise of Major League Rugby and the Toronto Arrows, as tools to help Canadian talent find its way in a sport that has traditionally been dominated by countries such as England, New Zealand and South Africa.
“We’ve always said and continue to feel that MLR is the critical lifeline to USA and Canada being able to remain competitive and make World Cups on the international stage,” he said. “If we don’t have that it’s getting harder and harder to get players into those high-level professional clubs overseas.
“And we need to have that not just for players to develop, but to grow the game, the commercial elements and the interest and fan base.”
While delivering on-field results is a big piece of that puzzle for any sports CEO or president, equally as important, Vansen added, is ensuring that a sport is safe and free from harassment and abuse, and in the case of a physical-contact sport such as rugby union, mitigating risks around concussions.
As such, whoever succeeds Vansen in the Rugby Canada hot seat will have to contend with all that, while juggling the available resources – often limited compared with some of the other major team sports around. At the same time, they will have to contend with delivering on the objectives given to them from stakeholders and corporate partners, as well as the athletes themselves.
“The demands are significant, but that’s what draws people who are passionate and will put a lot of energy into these roles to do the best they can with the resources they have,” Vansen said. “And, you know, from that aspect, I’m really pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish in my six years with Rugby Canada.”