Dream alive for ex-Gaels standout

Liam Underwood selected for Team Canada at Rugby World Cup

Liam Underwood spent four years at Queen’s, capping off his career with Jenkins Trophy for outstanding male student-athlete at the university.

When Liam Underwood stepped onto the Queen’s pitch six years ago as an 18-year-old rookie, he took the OUA by storm. This Saturday, he’ll step onto a pitch in Wales, suiting up for Canada at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

A standout star during his time at Queen’s, Underwood is one of 31 Canadian men selected to take part in the tournament, which runs every four years. 

The fly half has already played 11 games for the national team, starting in 2013, but is still very excited for the event, which runs from Sept. 18 through Oct. 31 and has games in both Wales and England.

“We’ve been in camp and preparing for a long time and it will be nice to finally play in the real thing,” Underwood said via email. “[I’m] just trying to take the whole experience in and not be overwhelmed by it.”

In the group stage of the tournament, Canada takes on Ireland, Italy, France and Romania, with the top two teams from that pool advancing to the quarter-finals.

Underwood also participates on the national rugby sevens team, who are currently in the process of trying to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

A Toronto native, Underwood won two OUA championships as a player at Queen’s. While he had limited playing time due to club and national team commitments, he was also heavily involved in the championship 2013 team. 

Underwood was awarded with many individual trophies during his time at Queen’s, including the OUA Rookie of the Year, the Jenkins Trophy for top Male Varsity Athlete at Queen’s in 2014, and a two-time OUA All-Star, while leading the province in scoring in 2011.

“My time at Queen’s was massive in furthering my rugby career,” he said. “I had 5 great years of coaching and made some lifelong friendships.” 

Underwood describes winning the OUA championship in 2009 over Western as the highlight of his Queen’s career. 

“It was great to get one for all the older guys,” he said, noting that the Gaels hadn’t previously won the title since 2001.

Including the 2009 win, the Gaels have picked up four of the last six OUA titles, due in no small part to Underwood’s work on the field.

Former men’s rugby head coach Peter Huigenbos knew Underwood was a special talent from his first year. 

“[He was] one of the top players in the OUA in his first season,” Huigenbos, the current performance analyst for the Gaels said.

Huigenbos remembers that 2009 final and how Underwood made a major impact despite being one of the youngest players on the field. 

“He was an 18-year-old kid out there with guys who have played a lot of rugby,” he said. “He performed that season beyond expectations of a first-year player in the OUA.” 

“His ability to manage the game is clearly evident in his selection for Canada, but off the field, he’s a quiet leader,” Huigenbos said. “That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have the ability to make an impact on any team he’s on.”

Huigenbos pointed to the 2010 season, where Underwood was sidelined for the entire year with an ankle injury, and in 2013, where Underwood played just one game for the team, as the best examples of his leadership. 

“He was always at practice, working with the guys. He’d come to games, and be on the sideline, and work with the coaching staff or the players,” Huigenbos said. “He always wanted the club to get better, and the players in our club to get better.”

Underwood graduated in 2014 with an economics degree, while frequently travelling around Canada and across the world to play with the national team. 

“My hat’s off to Liam and to Rugby Canada to find a way to do that,” Huigenbos said. “It was very important to him to stay at Queen’s and get his education.”

 “It’s not something that’s very typical for Rugby Canada to have a player of that caliber to stay in school, while being given all the opportunities that being a Rugby Canada athlete has.”

While there was no shortage ofmemorable moments with Underwood at Queen’s, there’s one story Huigenbos likes to share when talking about his superstar player: Underwood’s late try in the 2012 OUA final at Nixon field, which put the Gaels up 29-11 with just over five minutes left in the game.

“There were probably 1,500 people here, his teammates were mobbing him, the place was going crazy,” Huigenbos said. “The kid never cracked a smile, I don’t understand it. He’s all business. That’s what I’ll always remember. He’s the best player I’ve ever seen for Queen’s.”

 

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