McKenna: Watching the CFL Draft from another perspective

Kate McKenna
5/6/2013 10:12:20 AM
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Steve Lancaster will watch Monday's CFL draft with interest not because he is a CFL coach or CFL player, CFL prospect or even a diehard CFL fan.

Football isn't even his game.

Lancaster is a rugby man with with a very real interest in the draft's outcome.

As Rugby Canada's Manager of High Performance he is interested in finding potential crossover athletes, football players who could excel at rugby if given proper training and the right opportunity. That crossover isn't a stretch, considering the physical attributes required to excel in football are often also required in rugby. The CFL was, after all, initially two distinct leagues - the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and the Western Interprovincial Rugby Football Union.

Lancaster will use the draft to see which players go to which team, speaking only to players who go undrafted, out of respect for the league.

"We're not going to try and poach players," he said, "but there will be some really, really good athletes that don't get drafted that may be good candidates for rugby and there will be some players who do get drafted that [might be available] a year or two down the track. [They would] still only be 23 or 24 years old and could have a 10 year career in rugby at that point so we'll keep an eye on them."

Lancaster's respect for the CFL has much to do with the hospitality extended to his organization by the CFL's Vice-President of Football Operations, Kevin McDonald. McDonald invited Rugby Canada officials to attend the 2013 CFL Combine in March.

"Kevin was very welcoming, very open, he opened the door to us and we had full access which is fantastic," Lancaster said. "We're very respectful of the hospitality that the CFL has offered us so we're not trying to convince players that might get a crack at the CFL that they should pass it up and come and play rugby but there are a number of athletes that we saw at the CFL Combine that could pretty readily transfer to rugby."

For his part, McDonald says he saw a natural tie-in with rugby and is happy to give young Canadian athletes a chance to extend their athletic careers if a stint in the CFL doesn't pan out.

"There are only so many jobs in the CFL for Canadian talent but if there's a window for guys to progress beyond football and they get evaluated through this than great," he said. "I'm happy to help a Canadian national sports organization grow their foundation."

Growing their foundation and further developing their player pool is exactly what Lancaster hopes to accomplish through the casual partnership.

He's looking to find more players like Jason Marshall, a former quarterback at Simon Fraser University who had a failed tryout with the Edmonton Eskimos before switching his focus to rugby.

Since making that decision, he's joined Canada's national rugby team, toured Europe, played in the World Cup and accepted a professional contract in France, where he currently lives.

Marshall admits he never seriously considered an athletic career in rugby.

"When I was at SFU I had no idea about what kind of things rugby offered. It's not mainstream at all in Canada," he said. "I think [Rugby Canada's interest in CFL prospects] is a really good idea because there are guys out there who have the potential to be really good rugby players they just don't know it yet."

He admits the untapped potential, both in Canada and south of the border, is staggering.

"You see all the athletes within the United States and if a fraction of the guys that played football turned to rugby, it's almost scary to imagine the potential America would end up having," he said.

Ironically enough the Eskimos called Marshall back in 2011, three years after his initial tryout, offering him another shot, but by then he was content pursuing his rugby career.

"It was a no," he laughed.

So Lancaster will sit and watch Monday, hoping to find future Jason Marshalls, athletes who may one day compete in the Olympics, play in some of the world's biggest stadiums and represent their country on the world stage.
They just don't know it yet.

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