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Bringing home the cup: Dinos men’s rugby make the Championship League for the first time in U of C history

By Rachneet Randhawa, November 23 2021—

Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic, the Dino’s men’s rugby team returned, hosting the Western Championships in late October against the University of British Columbia Okanagan Heat, University of Saskatchewan Huskies and University of Lethbridge Pronghorns. With this victory, the Dinos will travel to Victoria as they qualify for the national championships league playing against the University of Victoria. The Gauntlet sat down with Head Coach of the Dino’s men rugby team, Rayner Hart to learn more.

Hart has been with Dino’s program since 2006 and joined as a rugby player while doing his undergraduate degree at the Haskayne School of Business. Originally from South Africa, he played rugby growing up and moved to Calgary with his family in 2001. After graduating from university in 2011, he transitioned into helping as an assistant coach and later became head coach for five years up until last year. Hart has overall accountability of the program, the players and how they perform, as he now holds the position of director of the rugby program. 

Hart would define rugby, from his perspective, as almost a hybrid of football and soccer. 

“It’s a little bit of a hybrid between the closest sport, which is probably football, and has a little bit of elements of soccer combined into it,” he said. “But basically, 15 players on each team play against each other. It is a very physical and contact sport. All players play both offensively and defensively and it’s a continuous game, similar to soccer.” 

He says it’s a very physical sport with the overall goal to score “tries” which are similar to touchdowns in football. The format is an 80-minute game with 40-minute halves. Each team typically holds a roster of 23 players.

This past couple of years have been the longest off-season in history for the Dinos and making the transition back to the regular season didn’t come without its difficulties. 

“It did take some adjustment. A lot of our players weren’t able to participate and play in rugby over the course of the last 18 months.” 

Lack of proper training and strength building made things very challenging, and making personal connections with newbie first-year recruits was also tough. 

“We were able to train last fall but weren’t able to do any contact or participate in competition,” said Hart. “And at some point, we were no longer able to train and things shut down for the rest of the year. We tried to do a lot of online coaching. Our strength and conditioning moved online and they worked with our S and C coach just working out of their home through zoom meetings.” 

Some techniques athletes utilized during the shutdown were getting creative and using heavy book bags to train or finding local objects they could buy from Home Depot and coming up with strength and condition elements that they could use. 

“Again, with it being quite a physical sport, it is an adjustment,” said Hart. “It is something that you have to get your body ready for again and work up to, so the guys managed it really well. And we were able to have a successful season.” 

As for how they made the transition back to sports in light of COVID guidelines they had to adhere to for training, Hart mentions they have been thankful to not have any direct exposure to the virus. The biggest safety concern was, of course, playing a contact sport again. They had proper protocols in a place like taking attendance, physical distancing as necessary and best as possible when appropriate and sanitizing. 

For recruitment, COVID did have a big impact this school year. For example, a lot of students live either outside of Calgary or the province, and debate whether travelling back to the city for classes would be a realistic option. Some recruits even opted to forgo and made the decision not to pursue university studies this year. However, they relied on the returning players, most of which are upper-year or senior students to become the strong core of the team and who have contributed well to the program thus far. 

As for the national championships they are set to take on after winning in their league against the University of British Columbia Okanagan, Mount Royal University, University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina. For the first time in the University of Calgary and Dino’s history, the men’s rugby team will compete for the winning title

“We’re in a very fortunate position where we get to represent the prairie provinces at nationals that are going to be held at Queen’s University later this month in November,” said Hart. 

The overall gameplay strategy they aim to try out this season includes an extensive, wide attacking approach. 

“We are a little bit of a small team but we’re very skilled with some fast players,” said Hart. “So we tend to play to our strengths and move the ball around a bit more, move some of the other teams around and try to tire them out. So we definitely aim to play a little bit more of an expensive game.” 

As for all-star players to keep an eye out for, Hart recommends Keegan Neary as he was voted as MVP by the league. Currently, Neary is in his third year and, according to Hart, is one of the hardest-working players on the team and is very much deserving of the award. Next, we have Josh Windley who is the team captain. Hart claims Windley  has worked extremely hard over the last four years and has played a massive role in the program and is excited to have him lead the team to nationals. 

As for Hart’s hopes and fears for the remainder of the season, there are of course the nationals which he hopes will have a good finish. 

“This is the first time the U of C will be going and being able to represent the university,” said Hart. “We’re there to definitely go in and do as best as we can and hopefully come back with some silverware.” 

After nationals, they will shift their attention to a different version of rugby called rugby 7s. 

“It’s a seven aside game that we typically participate in,” said Hart. “And we’ve been the league champions in that format as well, and would hope that we can defend our title.”

A key challenge they are hoping to overcome is maintaining their strong team persona as they’ve had a significant amount of graduating players in 2019. 

“So it was a bit of an unknown of what 2020 looked like with COVID and then coming into the season and 2021,” said Hart, “And the competition in our league is just getting stronger and stronger from teams like Mount Royal University and UBC Okanagan and University of Alberta and in some of the prairie schools.” 

Their incoming group of regular players who are now senior students really stepped up and rose to the occasion, allowing the team to successfully defend their title as champions of the league. 

Hart encourages everybody to try the sport of rugby, like playing at a local club in the city. Hart recommends taking a look at the Calgary Rugby Union website as they have a list of all the clubs in the city in which you can find one that’s nearest to you that best suits your needs. 

Another option to try out rugby is during intramurals on campus. 

“We do carry a roster of about 60 or 70 players and we get the odd player in there that has never tried it before,” said Hart. “And again, we’d welcome anybody to come and join us and give it a shot.”

The Dinos men’s rugby team is set to play the University of Victoria Vikings during the Canadian University National Championships in Kingston, Ontario from Nov. 24–28. Be sure to keep an eye out for updates and wish them luck as they aim to bring home the winning title.

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