Skip to content

Guelph's presence felt on both Ontario teams at rugby nationals

Men's tournament features University of Guelph and Laurier Golden Hawks, which includes Guelph's Ben James

At the Canadian University Men’s Rugby Championship tournament this week in Vancouver, local rugby fans will have reason to cheer for both Ontario teams that qualified for the five-day tournament.

While it’s logical that most of the support will be behind the OUA champion Guelph Gryphons, the runner-up Laurier Golden Hawks should garner some attention from local fans, especially as Guelph native Ben James is a fixture on the squad.

“I'm quite excited for it. To be honest, this has been our goal,” the 22-year-old flanker said during a video call. “Even last year it's been our goal to do this. Last year we came a bit short in the last game of the season and we really did feel that we were a team that was contending for a shot to compete at Nationals so now to see that happen, it's two years of hard work that are paying off so it's really rewarding. I think most of all I'm more excited for the coaches, Phil Murphy and Jamie Mackenzie, specifically Phil.

"He's been with the program since before I got here and he's never taken a team to Nationals, so to be able to be under him for five years and now to go to Nationals for the first time is really exciting.”

The Gryphs are seeded second for the eight-team tournament that starts Wednesday while the Golden Hawks are seeded fourth and are to play the fifth-seeded McGill Redbirds in the opening round. Guelph is to play the seventh-seeded Memorial Sea- Hawks. In the tournament, losing teams are eliminated from the championship round.

The Golden Hawks have had a couple of weeks to prepare after dropping a tight match in the OUA final on the grass field at the Gryphon Soccer Complex on a cold, windy and snowy day.

“Coming off the Guelph game, we had to take a moment to reflect and build forward into Nationals,” James said. “We've had two weeks since the OUA final to rebuild which has given us plenty of practice time in order to change around some of our set piece plays and just develop this system a little bit more, fine tune it and be ready to go over so we're feeling ready.”

In the usual handshakes and congratulatory pats on the back with the Gryphons, James and Gryphon assistant coach Gary Robinson had a big hug on the field. James started playing rugby at high school when he was in Grade 10 at Guelph CVI, just before Robinson transferred there from Erin.

“Gary was my coach in Grade 12 and 12-plus.,” James recalled. “We were 5-1 the year before and that was a big development year for the program. Gary came in the next year and his words were, "We're going to win the championship this year," and we ended up beating Ross in the final and the year after that qualifying for CWOSSA two years in a row.”

Before taking up rugby in the spring of his Grade 10 year, James had been a member of the football team in the fall and the wrestling team in the winter.

“For me, it had a lot to do with the people who were playing rugby,” he said as his reason for giving the sport a try. “Rugby just has a great community and I wish more people could be exposed to that earlier because I really do think it's one of the best sporting communities out there.

“In Grade 10 I was playing football and I was introduced to wrestling that year and the friends I had who played both football and wrestled with me decided they were going to go out for rugby and they told me about the sport. Quite frankly at first I was a bit skeptical, mainly because of the contact without pads, but as soon as I came out I fell in love with the sport and it's been my favourite ever since. From the high school season I continued on to the summer and played Guelph Redcoats which is now my (club team).”

Rugby teams always display a lot of respect for both their opposition and the referees. Grudges aren’t brought off the field at the conclusion of games.

“We play our hearts out on the field. It's a big battle, there's plenty of aggression and lots happens on the field, but as soon as we step off you say a cheer for the other team, the other team cheers for you, both teams cheer for the ref and you go to a social,” James said.

“It's really an environment that fosters respect for your opposition. With that said, there's a ton of competitiveness that you feel toward your competitors building up to the game, but after, especially with the team socials and announcing men of the match and the celebrations that go on, there's a lot of friendships that go on between teams and a lot of respect for the competition.”

While James is in his fifth year with the team, the pandemic took away a year and means he still has a year of eligibility left should he choose to use it. However, that’s not something he’s spending any time thinking about.

A student in the bachelor of business administration with a specialization in accounting, James does plan “to pursue that after I'm done with rugby.”

While it was a cold, windy and sometimes snowy day during the OUA final, that wasn’t anything that took away from the game.

“The most exhilarating part of that was actually the wind and the snow coming down, not so much what was on the ground,” James said. “It felt like you were in some sort of a coliseum where you were focused on nothing but the field. Your field of vision was narrowed and you couldn't see as far so you were really zoned in, focused on the field and it felt very exciting to play.”

The thing about the outdoor university fall sports is that if you’re still playing when it’s cold outside, you’ve had a good season.

“That's definitely a telltale sign, regardless of if you're playing football, rugby, soccer,” James said. “The further you go in the season, the colder it gets the better.”

And the coaching staff has reminded them that they should be “thankful that we're playing with snow on the ground because this is truly an opportunity that not many people get.”

The Golden Hawks also know not to underestimate any opponent at the national tournament. The two OUA representatives were both underdogs in the league semifinals and those wins were the ones that gave them their berths in the Nationals.\

“We're going to pursue that with everything we can in order to come home victorious.”