CEO Allen Vansen is leaving Rugby Canada at the end of January, part of a “general reset” in the sport’s governing body.
“This was a mutual agreement, that now is the time to transition leadership. It’s all very amicable,” said Rugby Canada chair Sally Dennis.
“We really are stepping back and reviewing everything,” she added. “The timing just seems right for that.”
Vansen said it’s a “natural and smart time” to look at making a change.
“As a leader, you also have to recognize when you’ve kind of moved the needle as far as you can, if you will,” he said. “Sometimes you might need a different voice, a bit of a different vision, to help the organization make that next leap.”
Rugby Canada is currently undergoing a high-performance review, sparked in large part by complaints from the women’s sevens squad. Those findings should be available in January.
The men’s and women’s sevens teams have undergone considerable turnover since the Tokyo Olympics and the men’s 15s side, after failing to qualify for the 2023 World Cup, has time before the next qualifying cycle.
“There’s a lot of changes afoot. A lot of turnovers already has happened on the field with the young teams,” said Dennis. “There’s a general reset happening in many areas. We’ve got a long runway now to the qualification for the next (2027 men’s) World Cup. We’re just at the start now of the runway to the next Olympics.”
The ongoing review “is a signal that Rugby Canada is not tone-deaf, that there may be issues and we are willing to look under the surface and find out more and find a way to resolve (issues),” said Dennis.
“It’s a very genuine effort to listen and learn,” she added.
Vansen’s background was in sports administration rather than rugby. He joined the governing body in 2016 after serving as executive vice-president for operations, sport and venue management for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
“It has to be remembered Rugby Canada is a business. It’s more than just what happens on the field. That’s not to say that a rugby person can’t also be a business person,” Dennis said. “But I think we need a number of skills and how we weigh those skills and requirements is something that the board will be discussing in the very near future.”
Vansen’s tenure has seen ups and downs.
He helped make the Al Charron National Training Centre a reality in Langford, saw Canada develop into a successful sevens tournament host, established equality in athlete financial support and helped steer the governing body through the pandemic.
Both sevens sides qualified for the Olympics and the women’s 15s team, ranked fourth in the world, is no longer a pay-to-play outfit.
His biggest regret is how the pandemic has restricted what Rugby Canada was able to do at the community and club level.
“We had some really robust plans. We see that obviously as being an absolutely critical part of rugby’s success moving forward,” he said.
The organization says Vansen “helped evolve Rugby Canada into a modern sports and entertainment organization,”
“It’s been an absolute honour and pleasure to work with him,” said Dennis, who joined the Rugby Canada board in 2017 and took over as chair in May.
But there was also failure on the field and unrest off it on Vansen’s watch.
Last month, the men’s team failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup for the first time ever. And the women’s sevens squad, bronze medallists in 2016 in Rio, finished a disappointing ninth in Tokyo in a year that featured a COVID outbreak among the team and a formal complaint under Rugby Canada’s bullying and harassment policy.
The complaint eventually promoted sevens coach John Tait to step down.
Rugby Canada said while an independent review concluded “the conduct described in the complaint reflected the experiences of the 37 NSW7s (national senior women’s sevens) athletes,” it was not behaviour that fell within the existing policy’s definition of harassment or bullying.
The exact nature of the allegations against Tait has not been made public. Tait, now technical director of B.C. Rugby called them “unfounded.”
The scandal also cost former Canadian star player Jamie Cudmore his job as men’s assistant coach and head of the Pacific Pride national developmental academy, thanks to some inflammatory social media posts.
There was a bitter labour dispute with the men’s sevens team in 2018 with players upset at Rugby Canada’s plan to have one centralized player pool rather than separate sevens and 15s squads. Changes in player contracts were also a stumbling block.
The national senior teams are now represented by a players’ association.
On the plus side, the new CEO will inherit a lot of young playing potential.
New-look men’s and women’s sevens squads kick off the 2022 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series season this week in Dubai.
Coach Kingsley Jones is rebuilding the 21st-ranked men’s 15s squad, focusing largely on young talent from Major League Rugby. Sandro Fiorino is preparing the fourth-ranked women’s 15s side for the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand, which has been pushed back to October 2022 due to the pandemic.
There is also more movement between the sevens and 15s squads.
Restored in late 2019, the Pacific Pride academy is a pipeline for young talent. The original program, which ran from 1996 to 2005, helped develop the likes of Cudmore, Tait, Danny Baugh and Ryan Smith.
“The future is incredibly bright,” said Vansen.
Rugby Canada’s head office is in Langford, having closed its other office in the Toronto area. Vansen remained in Toronto, however.
Dennis said opinions are split on whether the CEO should be out west, noting many of Rugby Canada’s funding and corporate partners are based in Ontario.
“I don’t think there’s a right answer to that. In Rugby Canada’s world, being in both would be ideal but you can’t be in two places at once.”
Vansen, 49, says he had no immediate plans beyond January.
“I certainly know my body is telling me I need a break. I need to focus on a little bit of my own health and fitness.”
After that, he looks forward to his next “real meaty challenge.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2021