It’s not hard to look around the world of “professional” rugby and see warnings signs.
Four teams in the top two divisions in England have collapsed in the past year, for instance.
Closer to home, Major League Rugby has managed to get itself to six seasons, an impressive feat in the world of North American minor-league sports, but it’s rarely been an easy ride. Teams are varied in their funding levels, teams have disappeared, players have struggled for job security.
Unless you are playing at the very top end of the game — or in New Zealand — the model that has developed for most “professional” rugby players has mostly been very unsettling.
Which brings us to the Vancouver Highlanders, a new rugby team that is looking to launch next year.
Players will be paid. They will have a full-time training base, with a full-time rugby and training staff.
Just don’t call it “professional.”
The two men behind the project, former University of B.C. head coach Curry Hitchborn and local businessman Ralph McRae, say that word casts the wrong idea.
Look at all the rugby places that have called themselves “professional” over the past three decades, McRae argues. There is a lot of variation in how being professional has played out.
“We’re looking to strip away all the structure that’s developed over the last 30 years,” he says, bluntly.
McRae is 66. He made his money restructuring companies and investing in businesses he thought were about to find their opportunity. When he was young, he spent 15 years as as reservist in the Canadian army.
He played rugby in law school, helping to found the Legal Beavers club at UBC’s law school in the late-1970s, then continued to play socially over the years.
“I wasn’t a great player, but I loved it,” he said.
His sons were very accomplished players in their own right.
Now it’s time to give back to the game, he says. And from his friendship with Hitchborn as well as his sons’ own rugby experiences — with a touch of his own — he sees a path forward.
When McRae was young, rugby clubs were thriving in Canada. They were a way for young people to find a home in their community. They had a unique ability to connect young players with jobs, sometimes even careers.
But as the way our communities have evolved, such opportunities have lessened.
McRae’s sons were both players of promise, he says, but when they finished university, they had to choose whether to keep playing or focus on their careers. Where once they might have been able to do both, that didn’t seem possible anymore.
In Hitchborn’s experience, in a decade running the highly successful UBC men’s rugby program he has witnessed scores of young players develop into some of the nation’s top players, then graduate and not really find anywhere realistic for them to continue playing.
The number of national-team quality players who Hitchborn has seen simply walk away from the game is staggering.
One or two might be willing to accept chasing the dream of the Olympics for sevens, or getting to play at the Rugby World Cup in fifteens, but to do so meant mostly accepting awful work conditions, being paid in grocery cards, barely able to make rent each month.
“These are competitive people,” McRae said. “They want the highest level possible.”
“The game has a capacity for young people to grow,” he adds.
Enter the Highlanders.
Hitchborn has long been ready to eschew convention. He built the UBC program up by figuring out how his players operated, by evolving toward the modern athlete. The varsity program followed many of the usual strictures in terms of organization, but putting the athlete in the centre of the process was key.
Canadian men’s rugby, it must be acknowledged, has been on a troubling trajectory for at least a decade, if not longer.
Neither Hitchborn nor McRae say they are trying to save Canadian rugby. They just want to do something different from what has already been tried — and maybe there will be some positive knock-on effects in the big picture.
“We’re not doing this to challenge or criticize anyone,” Hitchborn insists. “It’s about the player.”
Hitchborn’s met plenty with Rugby Canada about this plan. The Highlanders will be registered as a club, like every other club setup in Canada.
The difference is that the Highlanders won’t play in any of B.C. Rugby’s leagues. They will run in rugby’s traditional off-season.
Players who sign on will be guided to play for local clubs during the regular B.C. season. The Highlanders intend to play most of their games at local rugby fields, with a carnival off-field atmosphere — think food trucks, the atmosphere of Vancouver Canadians baseball games — travelling with them.
And they won’t play in a conventional league, although they will have a competition, which the Highlanders are calling the Rugby Players’ Challenge, guided by 10 “commitments” which the Highlanders will seek out from potential opponents.
Hitchborn says he has a number of intriguing opponents lined up for next season, the final details set to be sewn up.
“This is empowering rugby at the grass roots,” Hitchborn says. “We’re here to help guys pay their rent.”