Summer school for Gaels rugby

Seven young players learn to win the hard way

Gaels hooker Steve Orchard (left) runs in to support a teammate in a game against the Oakville Crusaders at Kingston Field on Saturday.
Gaels hooker Steve Orchard (left) runs in to support a teammate in a game against the Oakville Crusaders at Kingston Field on Saturday.

While most students are spending the summer relaxing on the dock, seven of Queen's best varsity rugby players are working hard out on the field.

They are part of a four-month program that has brought the best young prospects from across Canada to the new Centre for Rugby Excellence at Queen's, known as The Academy. The program is designed to prepare Canada's most promising players between the ages of 19-23 for national level competition.

The Academy practices two hours every weekday and plays twice a week. On weekends the squad plays in the Ontario Rugby Union’s Marshall Division, against players usually five to ten years older than the oldest eligible players at The Academy. For many players on the team, this is their first time playing competitively against such veterans. The young players are on equal playing ground with their elders in open field, but according to Ric Suggitt, The Academy's coach, "the boys struggle in physically close quarters" against the stronger and bigger competition. Ice packs and tensor bandages are typical fare after a rugby match but this level of play brings an excess of physical punishment. However unwelcome the punishment is, these young men are aware that this physically exhausting experience is necessary in order to improve.

This is just the type of experience needed for rugby up-and-comers to develop into competitive players, Suggitt said. "Kids in Canada should be thrust into a rugby environment. To raise the level of play in Ontario we have to open up our minds and be more progressive in thought," he said.

He's been successful in convincing his players of the importance of his methods and, impressed the Queen's contingent at the Academy.

"We haven't done the same drill twice in three months," said Erik Cuzzolino, a third year Developmental Studies student and captain of both The Academy team and Queen's varsity team. "This kind of experience exposes [the participants in the program] to a higher skill level and shows [the participants] what the life of a pro is like," said Cuzzolino.

Without The Academy, most players would be training alone or not playing at all. Pat Brooks, Arts '01, graduated last spring and wouldn't have been playing rugby this summer without this opportunity to advance to a higher level of competition.

The Academy hopes giving young players this type of intense experience will increase the pool of rugby talent in Canada. Suggitt hopes to reach more young players using the philosophy, "when you put out a bigger net, you'll catch more fish." The Academy hopes to meet the growing demand for rugby development in central Canada and mirrors the rugby development camp in British Columbia called Pacific Pride.

While some view the program as a farm team for the national squad, it is unclear how successful The Academy will be in propelling this year's crop of players to the international level. "Some of the younger guys here have more time to develop and have a better shot at moving up," said Suggitt. Despite being touted as a breeding ground for national team players, Suggitt admits that there are only a handful of players who are prime candidates to represent the nation.

This summer is the first year for The Academy and it didn't have the reputation necessary to attract all the best Ontario university rugby players. As late as this spring, it was unclear who would be coaching the team and there was no concerted effort to aggressively recruit the most promising young players. While Queen's has seven players on the squad, there is only one member from Western's OUA championship team. Because the team hasn’t drawn from the absolute best, the team has been physically dominated in the Ontario league and is on its way to finishing with a 4-7 record. Most participants believe the stability and experience coach Suggitt brings to the Academy will make it easier to attract the best players to Queens in the future.

The benefactor of the program's low profile are the Gaels. Most of the seven are returning to Queen's in the fall, ready to rush into the season at full stride. Steve Orchard, a third-year engineering student, knows the camp has made them "incredibly fit." "We've all lost weight because of all of the training," said Orchard.

The players also hope to return to Queen's with a more mature approach to the game, and a better understanding of what it will take to play rugby beyond the university level.

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