LANGLEY — Ask Andrew Evans how he got his chance to draw the blueprint and pour the foundation for a start-up Canadian university rugby program which embraces the sport’s true global spirit, and he’ll tell you that it’s because at every stop along his journey, he has seized his opportunity to glean a new perspective.
In that regard, perhaps it is no wonder that Trinity Western University’s newly-hired and first-ever Director of Rugby has brought both a seasoned and worldly view of the game to the athletic department at Sparta’s ever-expanding Langley offices which in the fall welcomes the sport back, bigger and better than ever, after a near 15-year absence.
“When I moved to Vancouver at the age of 18, it was the 10th city I had lived in,” reports Evans, 36, knowing that just such a proclamation always invites further friendly scrutiny. “My mom and dad were Salvation Army officers and pastors, so at one point we ended up moving from St. John’s (Nfld.) to Victoria.”
Cue up Hank Snow’s vintage ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ then, as Evans, born in Melfort, Sask., lists his subsequent stops chronologically from Vernon to Thunder Bay to Brandon to Kitchener to Smith Falls (Ont.) to St. John’s to Victoria and then Saskatoon, before finally moving to East Vancouver.
“I have connected with people right around the country and around the world,” continues Evans, who had previously arrived at TWU to serve as the Spartans’ strength and conditioning coach while also beginning to lay the groundwork for the men’s and women’s teams which will make their debuts this coming 2019-20 U Sports season. “I’ve found that it’s been good for recruiting.”
And, as we will later learn, just as good for a series of chance yet critical encounters with people who have wound up fueling his life’s calling.
TOUR NO. 1: SERVING AT WORLD CUP 2019
Since his official Jan. 1 start date, Evans has hit the ground running, communicating with, as close as he can estimate, some 200 coaches and players.
In February, TWU named Earl Marriott rugby guru Adam Roberts, heavily involved in Rugby Canada’s age-group coaching ranks, as a coaching consultant.
Earlier this month, Julia Sugawara, a TWU alum who played for Canada in three World Cups, was named Spartans’ head women’s rugby coach and will lead the school’s Canada West Sevens program this coming season.
Additionally, Evans has signed his first crop of incoming recruits, one which spans the gamut from South African Currie Cup standout Keegan Marengo, a 20-year-old fly-half from Johannesburg, to 18-year-old outside centre Ethan Bernardin from Langley’s own R.E. Mountain Secondary.
(Full list of men’s recruits below)
“Keegan played for Golden Lions in the U19 Currie Cup, the top flight for that age group in South Africa and he’s a dynamite player,” says Evans, who is also a coach locally with United Rugby Club. “He is incredibly intelligent and skillful and he makes everyone on his teams better. A lot of players are seeking opportunities in North American universities and he got in touch with us, found out about us though a scholarship agency in the U.S. He is an explosive athlete with a tremendous X factor.
“I’ve watched him play sevens and he has so much potential,” Evans adds. “The combination of that and being a Langley product is just going to be really special for our fans to watch.”
Of course, what might be most special of all is the way Trinity Western rugby opens its new era in September: With a mission trip to Japan during the rugby World Cup.
“Our mission trips are optional for our athletes but the plan is that we are going to serve during the Rugby World Cup in the south island (Kyushu), around where Canada is playing their games,” Evans explained.
“It’s an open-ended invitation to all our Spartan rugby players and already there is a lot of interest in it,” he continued as Canada prepares for its Sept. 26 opener against Italy at Fukuoka’s Hakatanomori Stadium. “I’m still working out the fine details but we’re looking to go for the beginning of Canada’s pool games.”
Canada follows with an Oct. 2 meeting against New Zealand.
The symbolism of a service-based trip to the epicentre of the rugby world just as its own new rugby program is being launched is not lost for a second on Evans.
“It really has answered a prayer that we have this opportunity because it’s something that can set the foundation for our program,” he explains. “We’re coming together as a team, we’re serving others, but then to be able to do it through our rugby ties?
“To a young player coming in, to right away have a chance to see a different culture, and to have rugby involved in it is something that does nothing but develop leadership skills. This trip is an opportunity for us to tie it all together right as we are starting our program.”
From the outset, Trinity Western rugby will look to establish its own unique identity, not unlike the one which the pioneering Simon Fraser Clan embarked on when they began as the only Canadian school in the then-U.S. based NAIA in the mid 1960s.
That’s because the Spartans will compete as an independent school, attempting to build as complete a U.S. schedule as it can.
“We want to compete against other universities, we want to play varsity rugby,” says Evans who also wants to include Canada’s best rugby playing schools into the mix as well. “We don’t want to play club rugby. Over the last five years, the USA rugby system has really gained momentum and it has been fuelled by their collegiate system.”
At last count, there were over 900 college rugby programs registered with USA Rugby, and when you combine the men’s and women’s teams, that adds up to some 32,000 players.
“We’ll be playing an independent schedule,” says Evans. “(U.S.) teams have been seeking us out already so it will mean travel down to California.”
The Spartans may also be able to pick up exhibition contests against schools from the Northwest Collegiate Rugby Conference, a four-tiered collection of 21 universities whose more traditional sport affiliations run the gamut of all three divisions of the NCAA as well as various junior colleges. All hail from either Washington, Oregon or Idaho.
“We are focusing on league competition in the U.S., then in the second year, to compete in the Canadian University Rugby Championships,” added Evans of the Spence McTavish Cup, won the past two years by the powerhouse UBC Thunderbirds, who along with schools like Victoria and Queen’s represent the top rung of men’s university rugby competition in Canada.
Evans is delighted that Spartans’ home games will be played at the Langley Events Centre on a newly-installed outdoor pitch.
“We hope to make it a rugby hotbed,” he said. “Through all of my experiences, I see the challenges facing young people who sacrifice a lot just to play rugby. I want this to be a solution to the problems I have seen with rugby in Canada. We just want to focus on being a strong piece of the solution and an example to other rugby institutions of how to do things and work together.”
All of that is great news for Mountain Secondary’s senior outside centre Bernardin.
“I just feel blessed that this program started up,” the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Bernardin begins. “After high school, before I found out that rugby was starting at Trinity Western, I thought I was going to be playing football.”
That would also have been a nice option for the incredibly shifty Bernardin, who doubled as a midget running back for the North Langley Kodiaks community football team.
“Now, I am looking to go into psychology and eventually to become a police officer,” Bernardin said.
WHAT MENTORS MEAN
Andrew Evans was already on city No. 7 back in the mid-1990s when as a sixth-and-seventh grader in St. John’s, he would look forward to a specific scene each Sunday morning from the back seat of the family car.
“In St. John’s, on the way to church, we’d drive by the Swilers rugby field,” recalls Evans, who would later learn of the deep-seated tradition the club held throughout Atlantic Canada. “I thought to myself ‘That is the sport I want to play.’”
Not too soon afterwards, he got his wish.
City No. 8 was as far from St. John’s as you could get, clear across the country in Victoria.
And when Evans arrived, he started high school at Esquimalt Secondary, where he had the great fortune of receiving excellent mentorship over his first years playing the sport.
“I started playing rugby there for coaches Tom Woods and Peter Rushton,” begins Evans. “But then to start my Grade 10 year we moved to Saskatoon. It was a blow to me. At the time, I didn’t want to leave Esquimalt.”
In hindsight, every step of his journey has led so meaningfully led to the next, and at his new city’s Walter Murray Collegiate he not only grew as a player alongside teammate and current national team lock Hubert Buydens, he embraced the notion of someday becoming a phys ed teacher.
Move No. 10, at age 18, was back west to Vancouver, and from there, Evans spent two seasons at Simon Fraser before eventually graduating from UBC.
His combined experiences eventually led to a breakthrough posting as Rugby Canada’s head strength and conditioning coach from 2013-16.
In fact it was there that he got to know former Canadian head men’s coach Kieran Crowley, a former New Zealand All-Blacks player who was a part of New Zealand’s 1978 World Cup win, and whom Evans says helped him distill the belief systems he has brought to Spartans’ rugby.
“Kieran is a guy who took a chance on me… he elevated me from nothing to a high position within Rugby Canada,” says Evans. “I was just a sponge learning from him and all the great coaches he brought in and sought collaboration with. He is a dairy farmer by trade and I saw how all of that work ethic and detail went into his notebook.”
It is that kind of a collective environment that Evans hopes to create with the likes of Roberts, Sugawara and the rest of the TWU rugby family.
Evans even went down under himself, spending time in New Zealand in both 2014 and 2016, gaining valuable insights during professional development stints with elite rugby clubs like Crusaders, Blues and Chiefs, all three part of the New Zealand conference of Super Rugby.
So is it a stretch to say there is a going to be a real Kiwi-based culture flowing through the ranks of Trinity Western Spartans rugby?
“I think there will be a massive influence in that way,” Evans says. “Through my masters program at UBC, so much of my coaching practice and methodology, it all points back to how All-Blacks have been doing things for years. It’s treating people like family, but having a high expectation for a job well done and making sure you are always pursuing excellence.
“That will all be a part of our tradition, but as well, those are also the same kinds of things that are already a part of the culture right here at Trinity Western.”
When you’ve been in as many places as Andrew Evans has, you know a perfect fit when you find one.
TRINITY WESTERN SPARTANS
2019-20 MEN’S RUGBY RECRUITS
Scott Bowers (PoCo-Riverside), Caleb van Til (South Delta), David Wegert (Langley-R.E. Mountain), Caleb Gerth (Langley-Brookswood), Siaki Seumanutafa (Surrey-Pacific Academy), Sam Wegert (Langley-R.E. Mountain), Markus Rauch (Abbotsford-Robert Bateman), Ethan Bernardin (Langley-R.E. Mountain), John Van Der Merwe (Shawnigan Lake), Ethan Kelt (PoCo-Riverside), Brian Carlson (Langley-D.W. Poppy), Kelton Dawe (Castaway Wanderers), Daniel Clement (Clan RFC), Keegan Marengo (Xerox Golden Lions), Ben Hus (Calgary-Ernest Manning), Patrick Garcia (Dallas (Tx.)-Allen RFC, Ben Adkins (Kenya-Rift Valley Academy), Collin Lagat (Gorilla RFC), Francis Akolo (Brentwood College, TWU), Logan Magnan (Trinity Western), Nate Lieuwen (Trinity Western), Jonny Yu (Trinity Western), Josh Halladay (Trinity Western), Nick Halladay (Trinity Western), Ethan Klassen (Chilliwack-G.W. Graham)
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