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New training centre a way forward for Canadian rugby

Light rain drizzles down on a grey winter day in this Victoria suburb.

Some of Canada's best female rugby players, on a turf field at a small new stadium, practise game scenarios.

"Up by five points, 30 seconds left in the game," a coach instructs before the battling begins.

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Inside a nearby two-storey building, its fresh black-and-red paint barely dry, several of Canada's top players from the men's side sit in a conference room in a video-analysis session, going through tape of a recent Six Nations match between Wales and Scotland.

Welcome to the new Canadian Rugby Centre of Excellence, the epicentre of the nation's aim to capitalize on recent international success in a sport long dominated by other countries.

The centre brings Canada's formerly fractured top-tier rugby world to a single place where athletes can practise, train and live.

There's everything from fields for players and offices for staff, to dedicated exercise and medical facilities, to a soon-to-be-built four-storey condo that will house 60.

"What I'm seeing, there's a new excitement," says Mike Shelley, head coach of the under-20 team and national-team scrum coach. "Now we have to raise our level, not just sit here in a nice facility. It's a culture shift, a higher level of expectations."

The centre, officially opened in January, comes after a string of recent successes. In classic 15-a-side rugby, Canadian men fared fairly well at last year's World Cup. And the women's team has booked a long run of victories in sevens, a smaller, faster version of 15s. Sevens made its debut at the Pan American Games last year (the men won gold; women weren't included) and will join the Olympics (women and men) in Rio de Janeiro for 2016.

The tests keep coming. This weekend in Hong Kong, the women's sevens squad looks to extend its dominance, and the men aim to finish in the top three among a dozen nations in the second tier of the tournament, hoping to secure a spot on the world series sevens circuit.

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On Friday, the men beat Philippines 35-5, and face Spain on Saturday morning, and Zimbabwe in the afternoon. Playoffs are Sunday.

The women on Friday rolled through Brazil, 45-0, and Russia, 24-5. Canada plays England in the women's semi-finals Saturday, which is followed by the final, against Australia or the United States.

Come the end of spring, the men's senior team – No. 13 in the world and featuring Adam Kleeberger (he of the fierce beard) – has a trio of big test matches. All are against top-20 countries. The first is June 9 in Kingston against the United States (part of events marking the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812). The biggest game is June 15 at BMO Field in Toronto against Six Nations member Italy. And on June 23, Canada plays Georgia in Burnaby, B.C.

The rugby centre has been made financially possible by the ascent of the City of Langford.

Located 15 kilometres west of Victoria, Langford was incorporated as a city two decades ago. In the past five years, the population has surged 30 per cent to nearly 30,000. Langford is the second-fastest growing city (among those with populations of more than 20,000) in Western Canada, after Airdrie, Alta., and the fourth fastest in all of Canada. (The top two are the Toronto satellite cities of Milton and Whitchurch-Stouffville.)

Langford's boom began when it welcomed a Costco store after every other place in the capital region said no. The city, once a backwater, foresaw its growth prospects and invested heavily – roughly $30-million – in what's called City Centre Park near the shores of Langford Lake. The park features a series of fields and other recreational facilities such as an ice rink and a bowling alley (the last two the top picks in a community vote). The goal was threefold: To encourage a healthy community, to give children from the city's many young families a place to play, and to become an important athletics hub for southern Vancouver Island.

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With the infrastructure in place, the City of Langford latched on to the ascent of rugby. The city paid more than $1-million to build the Rugby Canada offices, to be repaid by a long-term lease. Rugby Canada, no surprise, couldn't have done it alone with an annual budget of just $10-million.

"They went as far as outfitting the medical centre and the weight room," said Graham Brown, chief executive officer of Rugby Canada. "Langford stepped up and said, 'You know what, we want you here and here's what we can do for you.' It's a good partnership. It's pretty cool to have Olympic athletes walking around your community."

They're not Olympic athletes yet, but soon.

Right now, it's all about building a stronger rugby program, and having players together in the same place rather than bringing them together for short periods, as had been the case, is a big part of it.

Shelley, the coach charged with developing the future, knows rugby isn't the first choice for young Canadians, with hockey and the rest. On a break from the video session, he says: "I don't care who they are. I just want them big. I can turn them into a rugby player."

Lucas Hammond, 18, is already a rugby player and is among the first to benefit from a central home for the sport. He moved to Langford two months ago from Toronto.

On a quick morning break, sitting near the weight room, the product of Toronto Nomads RFC spoke about the future of rugby in Canada, but could also have been thinking about his new home.

"It's only going to get bigger."

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