The McMaster Marauders men’s rugby team was among the six Canadian universities invited to the inaugural Canadian University Men’s Rugby Championship this past weekend in Guelph.
Just a week before, the Marauders defended their Ontario University Athletics bronze title in a close match-up against the up-and-coming Laurier Golden Hawks. Their 26-19 win secured their spot in the national championship this past weekend.
“We knew it was going to be a tight game,” said Marauders head coach Dan Pletch. “We lost to Laurier by one point earlier in the season and they play a similar style to us, so we really tried to focus on our defence.”
Although proud of every Mac victory, winning every match is not coach Pletch’s main goal, who is a former Marauder and three-time OUA champion himself.
“My goals are not around wins, losses and championships,” said Pletch. “My goals are always process driven. If you focus on all the processes and things that make for successful teams and successful individuals, the wins and losses take care of themselves.”
Running a player-centric system, the Marauders coaching staff sits down with the players throughout the season and they construct a training plan for the week. Players share what they think their strengths are and what they need to work on.
“Winning or losing the game isn’t always within your control,” Pletch said. “But you can control your preparation, your review and your recovery.”
This includes making sure that their first years are taken care of academically and a mentorship program where upper-year players take care of the younger players. As well as a networking program through their alumni to help upper-year players with their career planning and post-university lives. All of this is done in an effort to develop well-rounded student-athletes.
Five of these well-rounded student-athletes, Connor Byrne, Will Kelly, Jack McRogers, Mitch Richardson and Mike Smith, were recently named OUA 2017 Men’s Rugby All-Stars. The group of All-Stars are made up of both dominant players and success stories.
“We have our top guys, like Kelly and McRogers that want to play for Canada at the highest level,” explained Pletch. “And then we have other guys who come to us and are not very athletic, with a limited skill set. But if they work hard and take advantage of everything that we and the athletic department have to offer, they too can be successful.”
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One of the All-Star Marauders, Richardson, has been a standout player over the last few years and even had the opportunity to play for a national development team of a few weeks this season. He has continued to be a strong player for the Marauders all season long.
While Smith, who started his career as a Marauder with limited rugby experience, continued to work hard and was able to become the best tight prop in the league, and one of the best young props in the country.
Then there is Byrne, who played on the Marauders’ development team, the junior varsity team, for the past four years and now has become a starter in his fifth year.
“He really worked hard over the last four years and remained extremely positive,” Pletch said. “Now he is one of the very best players in the league.”
With five All-Stars and the OUA bronze title, the Marauders were more than excited heading into the first university national championships. For Pletch, getting to compete against the top Canadian teams is a great opportunity that forces everyone to get better and raise the standard of their game.
He also believes that the universities is where Rugby Ontario and Rugby Canada should be focusing their development of young rugby players.
“You’re dealing with players in the 18-22 age group which is a real vital time for their development,” said Pletch. “I think the national championship will really highlight that and allow players from across the country to be seen to be selected for national teams.”
The Marauders were able to start off the national championship weekend with a crushing 38-11 win against the Concordia Stingers, but unfortunately fell short 6-31 to the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbirds.
This set the Marauders up for another meeting with the Guelph Gryphons in a bronze medal match, who they had lost to twice in the regular season. This time, the Marauders came out strong and had a dominant and remarkable performance, winning 28-3.
Since the Marauders play club rugby in the offseason, they have been playing for seven months straight. So the team will now take the opportunity to go into a much needed recovery mode. They will shut down completely for two weeks and use the remainder of the year to relax and finish off their academic year as strong as their rugby season.
After the much needed winter break, they will officially start back up in Jan. The coaching staff will sit down with each player in an exit interview to review and set goals for the offseason, and elect what offseason program they want to do. Then come next April, when they are starting their club season, the Marauders will be as prepared as they can be to continue their dominance on the pitch.