The men’s rugby team’s top scorer might be getting paid to play in 2012.
Gaels star Liam Underwood was one of 16 Ontario athletes nominated last week for a grant on a provincial athlete assistance program. The flyhalf is in contention to qualify for Full Carding through the Ontario Athlete’s Assistance Program’s Quest for Gold funding pool.
If Underwood is selected, this season will be the third straight year he’s received funding from the program, which is run through the Ministry of Health Promotion and Sport (MHPS). He said he received $6,000 in each of the past two years.
Underwood qualified for the shortlist based on criteria established by Rugby Ontario. He said the selection process was revised to be less biased and more accurate this year.
“They used to just ask for a rugby resumé,” he said. “Now they actually test you physically.”
The Quest for Gold program — established in 2006 — provides a bursary to reimburse selected Ontario players for training-related expenses like living costs, sport-specific equipment and travelling fees. They will also have access to state-of-the-art facilities in Toronto.
Rugby Ontario’s Executive Director Andrew Backer said all the players in contention for the funding participated in a combine — a series of physical tests — in December.
“It was only after we selected players based on the combine results that we considered previous rugby experience,” he said, adding that this year’s funding will likely be $6,000 to $8,000 per player.
Centre Matt Kelly made the list in 2010 and 2011, but an ankle injury helped to rule him out this year. Forward Myles Dingwall and women’s rugby prop Claragh Pegg qualified as alternates, meaning they could receive funding if a player with Full Carding is forced to withdraw.
Underwood missed most of 2010 — including the entire OUA season — with a broken ankle. But he said he made a faster recovery thanks to increased access to physiotherapy through Quest for Gold.
According to Underwood, Quest for Gold funding is considered the best way for Ontario rugby players to develop. He said the program helped both him and Kelly to get the chance to represent Canada at the Under-20 World Rugby Championship.
While representing Canada, Underwood and Kelly moved to Victoria, B.C. — the national program’s development base — where senior national players train and compete in the B.C. Premier Rugby Union.
Gaels men’s rugby coach Peter Huigenbos was Team Canada’s video coach at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand last fall. He said being carded and selected for national teams is equivalent to professional experience.
“To have the opportunity to train like pro athletes and work with professional coaches is overall a great experience,” he said.
Although the Quest for Gold recipients haven’t been finalized, it’s almost certain Underwood will be chosen — there were eight names nominated for eight male Full Carding spots. According to Rugby Ontario’s website, funding will be released prior to Mar. 31.
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