It was perfect timing.
Just a week after making history with Canada’s first-ever cup win on the World Rugby Sevens Series, national team head coach Damian McGrath was scheduled to hold a camp with the Maple Leafs national development team at the Cowichan Rugby Football Club for budding sevens stars. Thanks to his team’s win at the Singapore Sevens on April 16, McGrath was able to bring along the Singapore Cup for added motivation.
He was also joined by Pat Kay, a fixture with the national sevens squad whose own career started on the CRFC pitch.
For McGrath, camps like this one are not only a way to promote the national team brand, but also to scout new talent.
“The thing I’ve noticed about Canadian rugby is that there are lots of great players in lots of different places,” the coach said. “This is a little bit P.R., but mostly we’re looking for diamonds in the rough.”
Diamonds in the rough like Isaac Kaay, who was playing Second Division rugby in Kamloops a year ago and has now become a key member of the national team. Knowing that the Cowichan Valley has produced top-level talent like Kay and national XV players Matt Evans and George Barton, McGrath was taking a good, long look at the 13 players from across the Island who turned out for the camp on April 23.
“There are other Pat Kays in the Cowichan Valley who could be potential Canadian internationals,” McGrath stated. “Those are the players we want to find and give opportunities.”
Kay was Canada’s top scorer in the early going before he was hurt at the Vancouver stop, and was unable to take the field for the Hong Kong Sevens on April 7-9, but McGrath refused to leave him at home.
“Pat has been one of the key players for us this year,” the coach said. “I think it speaks volumes that I took him with us to Hong Kong and Singapore even though he was badly injured. I almost had to carry him off the plane. That tells you how good he is and how important he is to the team.”
A week after helping Canada hoist the Singapore Cup, Kay had the chance to show off the trophy at the field he grew up on. He admitted it had taken some time to fully realize what he and his teammates had accomplished.
“After the tournament, with a couple of guys in Thailand, we were talking about it sinking in,” he said. “After about two or three days, with all the people contacting us on our phones, on the Internet, on Twitter, we could see how much it meant to people. There was a bit of a delay.”
Among those players hoping to follow in Kay’s footsteps is William McDougall-Percillier, who was thrilled to show the national sevens coach what he can do.
“It gives you a taste of the next step,” McDougall-Percillier said after the camp. “When you don’t have things like this, you don’t know where the bar is.”
As part of McGrath’s clinic, the hopeful players scrimmaged against the Maple Leafs, then all the players were mixed together and divided into teams of both camp attendees and Maple Leafs.
“It was a little intimidating at first,” McDougall-Percillier admitted. “But at the end it’s all rugby when you get into it. These are the guys we want to play with eventually.”
A Brentwood College School student who helped the CRFC to a provincial U18 title last fall, McDougall-Percillier just got back from a tour of France with the national U18 XV side. Having the Singapore Cup at the club was poignant for McDougall-Percillier, who was born in Canada but lived in Singapore from the time he was three months old until he was 14, learning rugby there.
There was no denying McGrath liked what he saw at his Cowichan camp.
“These guys are the future of Canadian rugby,” he stated. “We want to give as many players a chance as possible. That will only strengthen the national team. The Maple Leaf guys are next in line for the senior team, and the guys today stood up with them fabulously.”
McGrath and Kay have two more stops on the World Series, in Paris on May 13-14 and London on May 20-21. After winning the Singapore stop, Canada sits seventh in the tour standings and McGrath wants to hold on to that spot.
“We’ve put a target on our backs,” he admitted. “We’re there to be shot at. Until now, we were under the radar; now, we’ve stuck our heads above the parapet. It will be interesting to see how our players cope with it. When I started this job at Christmas, the concern was keeping Canada in the World Series. We finished 13th last year [just avoiding relegation]. But it wasn’t long before I realized how good we are.”
Beyond the 2016-17 World Series, Canada is looking at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in California. Events like his visit to the Cowichan club will only push the current national team and Maple Leafs players harder and improve the Canadian program.
“We’re playing toward those tournaments,” McGrath said. “That makes things like this more important. We need strength and depth to bolster ourselves for tournaments.”