If I were a rugby agent or a professional rugby scout, I'd be casting my eye at the men hailing from north of the 49th-parallel during the International Rugby Board's November international window.
Eight top Canadian players are missing from Canada's 26-man roster named to face the New Zealand Maori All Blacks in Toronto on November 3rd. While this is an obvious hindrance to Rugby Canada on the day, it's also a backhanded compliment. Those top players are good enough that their overseas professional clubs don't want to release them, even for a game against a top representative side that has beaten England, Ireland and the Lions within the past eight years.
All Canadian athletes have an international reputation for coming from good stock - strong, fit, hardworking and eager to learn team players who are full of character. Over half of the players in the NHL come from Canada because that's our game – but I'd bet the farm our athletes would thrive at with whatever sport saturated this country.
Professional rugby is starting to tap into our country's natural athlete resource – hence the 14 or so Canadians currently playing professionally overseas – but Rugby Canada wants to establish itself as a favourite hunting ground for agents, scouts and for its XVs players especially.
Rugby Canada has identified a long-term strategic plan of signing their XVs athletes with professional clubs overseas for a number of reasons.
A disclaimer: Canada isn't shopping its athletes around recklessly. A parent wouldn't trust their kid in just anyone's care and Rugby Canada is taking the same approach.
If the quality of an interested pro club is there, from staff to teammates, competition to environment, then that club becomes a genuine contender to be almost a foster parent for Rugby Canada's athlete. Likewise, just as every club may not be the right fit, life overseas isn't for every athlete either. It should always come down to the individual athlete and what's best for their personal development, both athletically and mentally.
Having made the disclaimer, there are still several reasons the Canadian rugby program can look to overseas clubs for help in its long-term development:
1. There isn't enough IRB funding for a Tier 2 team in a country as vast as Canada to get players playing at a consistently high level day in and day out like they can in nations where rugby is a priority sport. Without a consistent high performance atmosphere, progress would be stilted.
2. Rugby Sevens, with its induction into the Olympics, has become the financial and commercial priority through programs like Own the Podium, for the women especially. XVs in North America doesn't need to go the way of the dinosaur, but it just needs to be managed differently.
3. For the players who do sign overseas professionally, what they bring back to the Canadian training environment from a professional one is priceless, and raises everyone's expectations starting with the players. It's not that there is a conscious complacency in the Canadian environment, but if an athlete has never been exposed to what it takes to get to the international level, they'll never know what they need to change to get there.
Now time to play devil's advocate.
Critics of this methodology will suggest that it's an insult to Canadian rugby to just up and leave for greener (or richer) pastures or point to games like the upcoming NZ Maori one as a blown chance for Canada to make a statement internationally.
If an Australian hockey player (or a South African or a New Zealander or a Welsh one, etc.) wanted to improve, what country would they move to give themselves the best possible chance at making the highest level? Exactly.
Those same critics who want to keep the homegrown talent at home will probably also point out the number of foreigners within Rugby Canada's administration, at the coaching level especially, taking jobs away from Canadian rugby coaches. When your car breaks down, you bring in a mechanic. When you need to do taxes, you hire an accountant. When you need help, you bring in an expert (eventually – but probably not until after you've stubbornly tried to do it yourself, of course.)
This is when the bigger picture needs to find its way into the conversation.
Sport creates stewards and rugby does so especially. When players leave to go overseas, there is an expectation it was done with this bigger picture in mind. Every person is different and life happens, but there comes a time in an athlete's – in everyone's - careers where the question of "What now?" needs to be answered.
Gareth Rees, Hans de Goede, Mike James, Al Charron and Morgan Williams – all former Canadian international greats who have returned with a world of experience and to give their time back to Canada from the grassroots level and up.
Rugby Canada have a number of foreigners on their staff and they, too, are in the midst of this stewardship, giving back to the sport that raised and shaped them. This means they are away from their own homes and probably uprooted their families to do it.
It is a cycle, even if it takes a while to develop or see. The current Canadian squad is bolstered by a number players who are proof of the gains made individually and have returned to the group.
Okotoks' 22-year-old Jeff Hassler was scooped up by the Ospreys for a two-year contract after just four caps and a year on the IRB Sevens circuit. The hare-footed Hassler is missing a Heineken Cup match against Munster for this New Zealand Maori match.
Niagara, Ontario's 33-year-old journeyman Ray Barkwill took a less conventional route and didn't wait for the scouts to find him. He eventually played his way onto Super Rugby's Western Force, proving heart and grit are bigger than age and height.
And an even more erratic trail was blazed by the baby-faced, Jake Ilnicki (don't let the beard fool you.) 21-year-old Ilnicki took the same initiative and risk as Barkwill, moving from Williams Lake, British Columbia all the way to the Auckland Colts, back to Canada for the Americas Rugby Championship and will now most likely face the Maori on Sunday.
Rugby Canada could help its athletes and, therefore, its program by building a two-way pipeline to strengthen relationships with professional clubs, agents and scouts and start to establish Canada as a go-to nation for professional rugby to recruit from.
If you build it, they will come - and the players will go and come back.