SPORTS

Rugby Canada turns to former captain to help raise funds to help players

08/14/2013 10:54 EDT | Updated 10/14/2013 05:12 EDT
Al Charron put his body on the line 76 times for Canada, including four Rugby World Cups. And having played at home and professionally overseas, the former Canadian captain knows what it takes to succeed.

His job now is to convince others to dig into their wallets and help ease the path of today's player.

The addition of rugby sevens to the Olympics has changed the financial picture for Rugby Canada. So have the demands on players at the top level. Rugby is a full-time job, be it the seven- or 15-man version of the game.

Canada, which does not have a professional league, faces challenges many of its competitors don't. So Charron is looking for supporters of the sport to step up and help close the gap.

"If we're trying to compete with other countries in this world whose athletes are playing professionally and playing in a league structure, we've got to do as best as we can to keep on pace," Charron said.

"Canada, as much as we're improving in creating a bigger pool of players to pick from, we're still not in a position where we can afford to lose blue-chip players because they cannot afford it (rugby)."

The 47-year-old Charron started doing some volunteer alumni relations for Rugby Canada. That eventually turned into a full-time job with the emphasis on fundraising. Today he spearheads the National Players Support Program, with help from former Canadian internationals Tom Woods and Gareth Rees (Rugby Canada's manager of national men's programs).

Charron looks to individuals and, in some cases, companies to help raise funds that are used for everything from proper nutrition and coaching for players to their room and board and travel.

The initial goal was $300,000 by the end of 2013, to help fund 60 players.

Charron, Rugby Canada's manager of player advancement and alumni relations, is searching for so-called rugby ambassadors who can donate $5,000, or a smaller gift along with contacts to help make up the rest as part of a so-called pod.

The pod members can get updates from their player, not to mention a tax receipt.

"I'm quite excited by the reaction I'm getting," said Charron.

That's good since Rugby Canada has already spent some of the money on its players.

The donations all go to help the playing talent, other than a small charge to cover the costs of processing donations over the Internet and 10 per cent which goes to the Canadian Rugby Foundation endowment fund.

Charron, whose salary comes from another part of Rugby Canada's budget, is an ideal candidate to head the program.

At six foot five, he is hard to miss. He unfurls rather than gets out of a chair and shaking hands with him is like sticking your mitt in a giant ball of pizza dough. Charron's crooked grin is infectious.

He is also a rugby icon, who exited the sport on his shield after being targeted by a brutal hit from Tongan Pierre Hola at the 2003 World Cup in Australia. Charron, whose rugby memory is impeccable, still wonders where the penalty was on the play.

A bloody Charron was knocked out by Hola. But he returned later that night to a standing ovation at the Canadian team hotel.

Charron is still fighting for Canadian rugby, promising that all money raised will go to the players who need it.

"We're not looking to give money to our professional players. They're looked after," said Charron.

It will instead go to domestic players, many of whom train full-time at Rugby Canada's Centre for Excellence in Langford, B.C.

While some of those are carded sevens athletes receiving a monthly stipend from government coffers (there are 19 women and 18 men getting up to $1,500 a month if they qualify for an A card), the money does not go far.

Also the addition of sevens rugby to the Olympics has prompted Own The Podium to focus its funding on the sevens game. So props and second-row forwards have essentially been left out in the cold when it comes to such financial assistance.

Rugby Canada is not crying poor. The sport's governing body is probably in better shape than ever. But its resources pale in comparison with those of rival nations.

And it is having to deal with an imbalance in sport funding due to the emphasis on sevens and the Olympics. Rugby Canada CEO Graham Brown, while not complaining, notes that the Canadian women's sevens team is probably better looked after than the men's 15s.

For the players, financial concerns can bleed into training.

"This is particularly frustrating on the international stage when you know the support and money available to your opposite number is not an issue for them," prop Hubert Buydens writes in a pamphlet on the fundraising program. "As Canadians we are asked to do the same job but it is not always funded in the same way."

The women's sevens program is due to get $1.7 million and the men $750,000 from Own the Podium in the 2013-14 funding year.

One of Charron's program goals is to provide nutritious meals for players "which is normal practice for professional clubs overseas."

Rugby Canada is already providing meals — breakfast and lunch two days a week — at its Langford facility. The goal is to do it five days a week.

"It's ridiculous sometimes what we were asking our Canadian athletes to do in the past," Charron said. "We were asking them to train like an Olympic athlete, an elite athlete, yet we were asking them to make do with a McDonald's breakfast or no breakfast."

Another way the money may be used is to help fly a player like Ciaran Hearn home to Newfoundland and Labrador every once in a while.

Rugby Canada hopes people will make an annual commitment, although participants can back out at any time. If anything, the program will get bigger than smaller.

"At the same time we also realize that $5,000 per player over the course of a year isn't going very far so we're probably going to need to expand that at some point and increase it from more than 60 athletes," Charron said.

While Canada looks to support its domestic athletes, it also hopes to get more overseas where they can benefit from elite competition. That in turn opens up a spot for a young athlete to develop at home.

"We can match athletes I think. We can't match game experience and that shows itself sometimes," said Charron, "because we can battle with them for 40-50 minutes and then the floodgates open up."

Charron believes Canada is on the move, but notes so are other counties. Money is needed to keep pace.

And time is of the essence.

Canada's 15-man team opens its 2015 World Cup qualifying campaign Saturday in South Carolina with the opening leg of a two-match total points series that concludes Aug. 24 at Toronto's BMO Field.

The Canadian women are aiming for the 2014 World Cup,

The sevens game, for both men and women, will debut at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In the 15-player version of the game, the Canadian men are currently ranked 15th in the world while the women are coming off two wins over powerful England in claiming their first Nations Cup.

The Canadian men turned heads with wins over Fiji and Tonga this summer.

On the sevens side, the Canadian men and women went a combined 9-3 at this summer's Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow, losing only to eventual winners New Zealand.

The women were runners-up to the Black Ferns, whom they lost to twice. They also placed third in the inaugural IRB Women's Sevens World Series.

The Canadian men won the consolation Plate in Moscow, going 5-1 after a loss to the All Blocks. Having earned core status on the annual HSBC World Series, the Canadians finished 12th in the overall standings with standout performances on several stops of the tour.

Brown says beating New Zealand on a regular basis in sevens may be insurmountable. But he reckons a 30 per cent increase in funding will go a long way to beating the other teams.

"The bar keeps getting raised every time we do it. And we have to keep finding ways to do it," he said.

Brown points to plenty of positives, however. The summer friendly against Ireland at BMO Field produced turnover of almost $1 million thanks to a record home crowd of 20,396.

And Charron notes the sport is far more visible these days, thanks to television and other avenues.

Charron also argues that more people are playing rugby — "women's rugby has exploded" — so old myths like the game has a beer culture or high injury rate are being disavowed.

"Once you learn about the sport, it's a fantastic sport," said Charron, who played professionally for Moseley and Bristol in England and Dax and Pau in France.

Nowadays both parents may have played rugby in the past, with Charron pointing to a memorable example.

Stephanie White, captain of Canada's first women's World Cup team, is married to former men's captain Hans de Goede. Their son Thyssen has played for the national sevens team, while their daughter played for an under-18 B.C. rep side at the Las Vegas sevens.

Other countries are also reaping the same rewards.

Charron points to the U.S., which he says is getting its rugby act together. He calls it "a double-edged sword for us" because while it will attract more attention to the sport, it will also entice better athletes to wear the American colours.

But Charron also predicts the jump in interest north of the border to continue.

"Rugby is going to explode, based on the Olympics."

---

Contact Al Charron at acharron@rugbycanada.ca

Follow Neil Davidson on Twitter at @neilmdavidson

MORE:cpSports