UBC men's rugby reclaims title as best in the nation

It’s snowing in Kingston.

The winter light fades, the floodlamps glow. Max Abercrombie lines the ball on the tee on one knee before standing up.

Three steps back. One and a half to the left.

Abercrombie faces the cold wind and exhales, before running forth and striking the ball with his right foot.

In that moment, UBC’s exhaustion, blood and sweat of the full 80 minutes melt away into sheer ecstasy. The mountain surmounted once more, national champions yet again.

As the team celebrates, head coach Curry Hitchborn allows himself a moment of introspection.

“My goal was always to be redundant,” said Hitchborn. “I need them to not need me and I need them to know they could go to anybody else, preferably one another.”

The sense of unity that Hitchborn wanted to communicate clearly made it to his players. “The boys really bought into the program this year and [it’s] great to see that pay off,” said fifth-year flank Owain Ruttan.

Connor Byron, a fourth-year centre, echoed that sentiment with his own little twist. “For me being a graduating guy, I kind of felt like Peyton Manning, get that finish up on top.”

“That team on the field, they were relentless,” Hitchborn praised his team. “I had very little to do on game day in those three days.”

But in the months, the year that led up until this point, Hitchborn and the UBC men’s rugby team had more than a lot to do.

“That team on the field, they were relentless," said Hitchborn.
“That team on the field, they were relentless," said Hitchborn. File Diana Hong

As the world came to a halt

The 2019 Canadian University Men’s Rugby Championships ended in heartbreak for the T-Birds. Against the University of Victoria, UBC had won the previous 14 matches in a row. None of that mattered at the moment. They lost at the national championships for the first time, by the slimmest of margins with a 21-20 scoreline.

All of a sudden, mere months later, they lost the rest of their season to the pandemic. There were so many unknowns, so many things changing on a day-to-day basis. What it meant for the team was, as the pandemic stretched from months to years, a 2020 with little to no game action and continued uncertainty.

It weighed on them and affected the way they trained. “We were out there working every week with nothing on the horizon,” Ruttan described. “We don't know when we're gonna have a game next. We were going around hitting each other with pool noodles because we can't be within a meter of each other.”

But when faced with adversity, this group chose to take it head-on. “COVID[-19] was good for us,” Hitchborn said. “We took advantage of the time off to get better where we needed be.”

“There are obvious hurdles ... There's all this paperwork, but that's just stuff you got to do,” added Hitchborn. “So don't complain about it, adapt, overcome.”

After all, in a sport that doesn’t allow forward passing, there is no other choice than to keep pressing onwards.

The return of champions

There was a lot that went into UBC’s return-to-play in 2021. Starting in the summer, players already began to get together.

Byron, who calls Abbotsford his hometown, recounted how the team got right back to work. “Guys from all over made sacrifices. Some guys from overseas came back to Vancouver to do what they needed to do,” Byron said. “I drove out from the valley a couple times a month just to keep in contact with the guys.”

In the summer, the Rugby League British Columbia season kicked off with UBC in the mix. “We play under the Point Grey Thunder banner that's coached by Sam Lyon, our union defence coach and Didier Banse, our offence coach,” Hitchborn said. “We went out. They won that championship.”

Spurred on, the T-Birds entered the inaugural Coastal Cup in the fall, finishing in a tie for second across the tournament. It was a time for experimentation, but also learning.

“I got way too excited with the return to rugby and we were going to show these brand new looks,” Hitchborn chuckled as he recounts it all. “Losing to the [Vancouver] Wave, who ended up winning, it was a great lesson ... We just dialed it back, made it as simple as possible, and got back to what we're really good at.”

And it worked. Connor Byron remembers standing on the rainy pitch in Kingston, playing Queen’s in the semifinals.

“With five minutes left in that in that game against Queen’s, there's 1,500 people that were yelling at us, being the villains on Queen’s home field,” Byron recounted. “When we came out from that Queen’s game, I knew there's no way that anyone could beat us.”

It was a time for experimentation, but also learning.
It was a time for experimentation, but also learning. File Isabella Falsetti

The national championship can’t be chalked up to one person. Connor Sampson, Jacob Bossi and Bryce Worden moved heaven and earth in scrums. The trio of Frank, David and Donald Carson in the second row flummoxed opposing offences.

Jack Carson tied the forwards and backs in unison. Abercrombie’s kicks soared true. Takoda McMullin and Landon Clironomos terrorized defences with their pace. Matt Percillier kept the team organized.

It doesn’t stop there. Brock Turner got everyone was rostered and ready to play. Maia Marshall and the rest of the trainers made sure the team stayed on the pitch. Lisa Ruggles got the players back on the field. Alex Bodnaruk prepared the team physically for the gruelling challenges that awaited them. The list goes on.

A brief pause, a refocus

The victory over the Vikes was only the end of the beginning. UBC’s season is far from over. “We've got some really good representative national team opportunities coming around the corner for a handful of our players,” said Hitchborn.

And there was definitely a lot coming. “Making sure those guys when they come out of this have that same level of clarity moving through into the next professional channel that they have with us is really something that we're looking forward to doing,” said Hitchborn.

Ruttan remembers growing along with the program, going from newcomer to veteran. “I barely made the team [for nationals] and I didn't play that many minutes. I was looking at these guys like ‘holy crap,’” Ruttan laughed. “Now just to be in their shoes and be able to try my best to set an example for some of the younger guys, represent the T-Birds, it's a real honor.”

Byron mirrors his teammate’s sentiments. “The way that I've been able to progress personally and take for that role when I was younger, being that guy that was able to rely on the older guys and sort of see what they were doing, it's been pretty rewarding,” Byron smiled.

Now with a small break, the spring is around the corner with many competitions awaiting. “We've got the World News Cup coming up. We've got the second leg of the [Wightman] Boot game, and then we've got our domestic senior men's premiership competition, hosted by the British Columbia Rugby Union,” Hitchborn rattled off.

Hitchborn is not worried about his men being up for the task.

“I don't have to motivate any of them. They're hungry. They're very goal-oriented. I would imagine that their goal was doing absolutely everything they possibly can, graduate at the tops of their classes, and get the best jobs,” said Hitchborn.

For now though, it's a celebration for a fall that was a long time coming. The T-Birds reclaimed their title as best in the nation. “Every single dude, all 26 of us that were in Kingston and for the guys that stayed back home, we all deserve to be champions,” Byron emphasized.

Because in rugby, you never walk alone.