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Independent review paints damning, dysfunctional picture of Rugby Canada

‘Culture of Rugby Canada and the high-performance program is described as ‘empty’ or ‘non-existent”
Canada’s Kyle Baillie (centre) celebrates with teammates after a try against Chile during the second half of a Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification match at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C., on Saturday, October 2, 2021. An independent review into Rugby Canada’s high-performance programs paints a damning picture of a dysfunctional organization at odds with its athletes, staff and supporters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

An independent review into Rugby Canada’s high-performance programs paints a damning picture of a dysfunctional organization at odds with its athletes, staff and supporters.

The review depicts a governing body too busy fighting fires to have any long-term strategy and athletes “shocked” at how poorly they are treated when joining the high-performance program and feeling undervalued and ignored.

“The culture of Rugby Canada and the high-performance program is described as ‘empty’ or ‘non-existent,’” the report states. “In this vacuum of culture and leadership, bad behaviours take hold across all areas of the program. The high-performance program is described as unhealthy or unsafe by many.

“Current players and high-performance program alumni confess that they are not proud to wear the Rugby Canada jersey.”

The review was commissioned by Rugby Canada in the wake of complaints raised by past and present members of the women’s sevens team and the men’s 15s team’s first-ever failure to qualify for the World Cup.

The 17-page report is full of gut-punches.

“Without a strategy to guide it, Rugby Canada appears to be in a constant state of crisis and overall performance suffers as a result,” it says.

Rugby Canada is no stranger to reviews, with a history of commissioning them following failure to achieve on-field goals — with coaches usually shunted to the side as a consequence.

And for many in a Canadian rugby community reeling on and off the field due to the pandemic, poor international results, inadequate funding, infighting and irritation at Rugby Canada’s progress or lack thereof, the negative view of the landscape will come as no surprise.

But this report pulls few punches.

“The dysfunction of the system is ultimately a failure of leadership,” it says. “Either through acts of ‘omission or commission’ the leadership of the organization — board, executive, operations and coaches — have not effectively managed the short-term and long-term needs of the high-performance program. Leadership has also failed to cultivate and nurture an environment that truly supports and enables high-performance athletes.

“As it currently stands, Rugby Canada’s high-performance athletes, support staff and even coaches are effectively revolting against the program’s system, leading to growing organizational dysfunction and a continued worsening of high-performance results.”

It’s never a good sign in a high-performance review when one of its first “key insights” is “Rugby Canada does not have a high-performance strategy.”

Among the other conclusions:

— Development pathways are inconsistently effective;

— Rugby Canada’s “unclear national governance role” limits high-performance program effectiveness;

— Rugby Canada’s current organizational structure and resourcing are unable to support four high-performance teams;

— Ineffectiveness of corporate and organizational governance exposes Rugby Canada to significant risk;

— Rugby Canada has failed to create a healthy and effective high-performance culture;

— Athletes do not view the high-performance program as a safe and inclusive environment;

— Rugby Canada’s poor relationship with the Canadian rugby community is a constraint on the high-performance program.

Of the report’s 12 key insights, only one is positive. “Change is possible and many hope to be a part of it.”

The report cites the push-and-pull tension within Rugby Canada between the sevens and 15s programs, which comes with different funding masters (World Rugby for the 15s and Own The Podium for the sevens) as well as debate over the need for distinct pathways for the two distinct forms of the game.

The women’s 15s team, Canada’s most competitive high-performance unit currently ranked fourth in the world, receives the smallest share of funding.

“Rugby Canada appears to be avoiding decisions on what its high-performance priorities are,” the review says.

The review states Rugby Canada’s high-performance program “is at a critical crossroads,” with rival Tier 2 and 3 nations continuing “to evolve and improve.”

“The organization has arrived at this moment because of both on-field and off-field challenges: failure of the men’s 15s team to qualify for the 2023 World Cup, disappointing results at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and multiple recent public-facing internal team issues.”

Review recommendations include hiring a high-performance director distinct from coaching roles and establishing a high-performance strategy and clear national governance role. It also cites problems with Rugby Canada basing its operations and athletes in Langford on Vancouver Island.

“Langford is not viewed as a positive place to live with it being framed as ‘expensive’ and ‘isolated,’” it says.

In a five-paragraph news release on the report, Rugby Canada chair Sally Dennis said: “The findings have confirmed the validity of a number of the concerns about our high-performance environment and culture that triggered the review.”

“Some have already been addressed but the picture painted by the report confirms that significant changes must be made. We have listened and will now use this report as a springboard toward a stronger, better organization.”

Rugby Canada will “set in motion an inclusive and collaborative process to address the report’s findings with representation from staff, athletes and key external stakeholders,” she added. “I’m looking forward to coming together as a rugby community to implement transformational change. The report’s findings are just the first stage in that process.”

There is plenty of work to be done for the yet-to-be hired new CEO. But the review concludes Rugby Canada can change for the better.

“The review has uncovered some difficult truths about the current state of the program, but the fact remains that there is broad interest across the Canadian rugby community in contributing to setting the program on the right path.

“With the right leadership and committed action, this community can be rallied to support the writing of a new positive chapter in Rugby Canada’s proud history.

The review urges Rugby Canada “to communicate this report fully and transparently in both response and respect for the time given by its stakeholders across Canada.”

“This first step is intended to demonstrate Rugby Canada’s willingness to take accountability, its willingness to change and its commitment to moving forward with inclusive intentions. The journey ahead will be difficult and will likely ‘get worse before it gets better’ but with consistent effort Rugby Canada can chart a brighter future for the high-performance program.”

The study was conducted by a review panel consisting of representatives of Straad Consulting, a Calgary-based management consulting firm, as well as Own The Podium high performance adviser Mel Davidson (former Hockey Canada women’s coach and administrator) and high-performance consultant Mike McGovern.

The panel conducted more than 50 interviews/focus groups, with some 80 individuals participating, and received 108 survey responses.

A review committee — consisting of Dennis, Rugby Canada board members David Fortier and Bill Webb, former CEO Allen Vansen, University of Ottawa director of varsity athletics Sue Hylland and Penn State professor Robert Boland — was formed “to assist with the flow of information to the review panel and ensure it has access to relevant stakeholders and participants while ensuring the entire process remained inclusive and independent.”

Interim Rugby Canada CEO Jamie Levchuk said the report was written by Straad “with input from the subject matter experts on the review panel.

“The independent members of the review committee had the opportunity to provide comments to the review panel on a previous draft, but all decisions on its final content were made by Straad,” he added.

—Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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