Underwood to suit up for Canada

Former Gaels rugby coach leads charge in bid to bring international test match to Kingston

Liam Underwood fights off a tackle to score a try against McMaster on Nov. 5, 2011.
Liam Underwood fights off a tackle to score a try against McMaster on Nov. 5, 2011.
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Journal file photo

Queen’s is set to host a major international rugby competition next month. Team Canada and Team U.S.A. will face off in a men’s rugby test match at Richardson Stadium on June 9.

Gaels veteran Liam Underwood will dress for Team Canada. It’s an honour he’s earned after a steady progression up Canada’s rugby ladder.

“The Coach has seen me play from past tournaments, so we’re familiar,” Underwood said.

Part of Canada’s under-20 team in 2010 and 2011, Underwood’s jump to the senior roster partly came out of the blue. The opportunity arose after Team Canada’s Connor Braid sustained an injury while playing for his club in B.C. Underwood plays the same two positions as Braid — fly half and fullback.

“I didn’t really see it coming,” Underwood said, adding that he’s never played in front of thousands of fans before, despite previous international rugby experience.

Head coach of the Gaels men’s rugby team Peter Huigenbos is also video analyst for the Canadian men’s team.

“It’s a pleasure to work with Liam,” Huigenbos said. “I’ll actually be spending much more time with Liam; it’s a 24/7 commitment, and he’s ready for it.”

Huigenbos has coached Underwood since 2010, the year the Gaels won the OUA championship.

“He was 18 years old, setting up three of our four tries to win the OUA,” Huigenbos said. “He’s a quiet leader ... who understands the game on another level.”

The game at Richardson Stadium is a ten-minute walk from where Underwood plays each fall in a Queen’s uniform. Huigenbos said the local organizational committee deserves much credit.

“The community’s support for this game has been phenomenal.” he said.

On June 9, there will be more than just national pride at stake. Canada is ranked 13th in the world, while the U.S.A. is ranked 17th. Only the top 12 teams from the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand are automatic qualifiers for 2015. Huigenbos said these test matches affect those international rankings.

“For [World Cup] 2015, unfortunately we still need to qualify. Despite beating Tonga [in New Zealand], they still finished ahead of us in our pool, claiming automatic qualification for the next world cup.”

One of Kingston’s most decorated rugby figures helped make the game happen.

John Phelan, an associate professor at Queen’s School of Business, is a former captain of Canada’s national rugby team. He’s also chair of the 15-person Local Organizing Committee that capitalized on a bid to bring the test match to Kingston. Consisting mainly of local business people, it was the same committee that brought the Barclay’s Churchill Cup pool games to Kingston in 2008.

“Teams have always liked playing here,” Phelan said. “We did a good job in 2008 hosting Canada, Ireland, Scotland, England, U.S.A. and Argentina, and if we do it well this time, they’ll come back again.”

While Rugby Canada continues to use Richardson as a venue for international rugby competitions, the sport is also thriving in Kingston. Phelan said rugby is evolving more into the forefront of Kingston sports culture.

“KEDCO and Kingston tourism are some of the businesses behind us,” he said. “And Kingston truly is a rugby community.”

Phelan works with the Kingston Panthers rugby organization at the youth levels creating introductory programs for children as young as six years old.

“One of my older mentors once told me ‘you owe the game,’ and I agree because it’s given me that much in my life.”

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