Canada is unbeaten so far at the 2013 Pacific Nations Cup thanks to wins over Fiji and Tonga, a feat made possible by the addition of several stars from Canadian universities. One of those, Queen’s fly half Liam Underwood, was in the spotlight during the team’s brief stopover in Kingston last weekend. He’s one of numerous collegiate superstars that have made an immediate impact on the international stage.
On Wednesday in Ottawa, Underwood earned his first career start for the Canadian senior men’s team, playing the full 80 minutes in Canada’s 20-18 victory over Fiji. Three days later, he saw the field as a late-game substitute against Tonga—an appearance made in front of 3,382 fans at Richardson Stadium, two kilometres down the road from the Gaels’ home field.
Underwood isn’t a run-of-the-mill prospect, picked solely to fill the end of the roster or brought on to placate the Queen’s faithful. He’s an integral cog in the Canadian rugby machine—one that ran roughshod over an esteemed Tongan side for much of last Saturday’s tilt, prevailing 36-27 after leading by as much as 23 points in the second half.
“I think I’ve competed pretty hard,” Underwood said. “It’s only my second year with [Team Canada], and I think training, everything’s been going pretty well.”
The tight PNC schedule has forced head coach Kieran Crowley to shuffle his starting lineup from game to game, regularly rotating his reserves into tight contests to preserve everyone’s health for the next one. This all-hands-on-deck approach has dulled the line between starter and substitute; the strategy’s worked because all players have been willing and ready contributors.
Underwood earned his international shot through standout play for the Ontario Blues of the Canadian Rugby Championship league and for Queen’s in the OUA. Both clubs won championships in 2012; while Underwood missed most of this year’s Gaels season to compete with the Blues, he played in a couple of regular-season games and put forth a virtuoso performance in the Ontario final, tallying 14 solo points in Queen’s 29-18 victory over Western.
That championship pedigree—he earned another OUA ring in 2009 with Queen’s as a rookie—has prepared him well for this year’s PNC tournament, where Canada’s one win away from a spotless showing.
“It definitely helps a lot. It’s the next level—it’s above high school, it’s above club,” Underwood said of his university career. “Playing good rugby helps all the time.”
While there’s no CIS men’s rugby competition to bind the individual conferences together, there are hotbeds of collegiate talent in Ontario and on either coast — particularly, in a Team Canada context, on the Western isle.
Three current members of the Victoria Vikes have suited up for Canada at the PNC: Nathan Hirayama, Phil Mack and Sean Duke, a former Gael who scored in the win over Tonga. Other Vikes, including veteran international Adam Kleeberger and former Canadian U20 player Beau Parker, have experience with junior and senior national sides.
The school’s ability to cultivate young talent has paid dividends on both ends. In 2010, Victoria won their third Rounsefell Cup, awarded to the British Columbia provincial club champion. That Vikes team also featured Ryan Hamilton and Andrew Tiedemann—each part of this Canadian PNC squad.
Canada’s roster is peppered with CIS alums from across the country. Captain Aaron Carpenter won three OUA titles with McMaster. Hulking forward Tyler Hotson played at UBC. Conor Trainor was a longtime rival of Underwood’s as a Western Mustang. Hubert Buydens was a Canada West All-Star—in football, as an offensive lineman for Saskatchewan.
“[University play] prepares the guys for competition,” said Crowley, a former New Zealand All Black who signed on as Canada’s head coach in 2008. “Any competition that we have is beneficial as long as the guys get good, quality rugby.”
Canada’s PNC fixtures are interspersed with a variety of other competitions—most notably, an international test match against Ireland this Friday at BMO Field. After that, Canada heads overseas to face Japan on June 19 in their final dose of PNC action.
From last week onwards, Canada is set to play four high-quality matches in two weeks—exemplifying the pressing need for depth outside the starting 15. Top CIS graduates are seemingly the perfect fit to bolster Canada’s roster: young, immensely talented and accustomed to compressed schedules after balancing university and club play.
The road’s only beginning for players like Underwood—but their contributions are already clear.