New coach for rugby champs

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Sam Townsend is fourth head coach in four years for the winners of the Labatt's Cup provincial premier men's championship the last three years

The fourth head coach in four years at the St. Albert Rugby Football Club is striving for success on and off the pitch.

Today’s preseason camp for the senior men will establish the template Sam Townsend will install in his first season with the fantastic firsts, the Labatt’s Cup provincial champions the last three years in premier, and the terrific thirds, the 2015 third division winners.

“I want to talk a lot about on-field structure and the process. I also want to hear what the boys have to say about what their off-field ideals are in terms of behaviour, like how should you behave around the clubhouse, how should you behave in St. Albert on a night out, especially after a game, because that’s just as important as what you do on the pitch for me,” said Townsend, captain and coach for the Verulamians, the 2016/17 Herts/Middlesex1 champions in the London & South East Division Rugby Football Union.

“People are probably going to hate me for saying this but success isn’t winning the (Labatt’s Cup) because we’ve proved the club can do that. For me, success would be off the field in building the club base in terms of people coming to watch, in terms of the playing base in getting guys to come in and play the sport and in terms of people attending training and engaging more with the on-field side of things,” Townsend added. “But ultimately success for me would be to have a real strong ethic around the club.”

Townsend, 32, is the sixth head coach since SARFC rejoined the Alberta Cup premier ranks after winning the 2007 Lor-Ann Cup second division provincial crown, which triggered an explosive run of eight trips to the premier final in nine years for the first 15 side.

The 2016 championship was also the fourth since the first Labatt’s Cup in SARFC history in 2010.

“It would be great to win another (Labatt’s Cup) but that is an outcome and really what we’re interested in is the process and understanding why these guys are coming down and playing rugby and sacrificing their precious summers to run around the pitch and beat each other up,” said Townsend, who’s overall goal is “to encourage people to have fun and encourage people to play rugby.”

The firsts finished 12-2 overall last year under Si Culley, an Englishman from Newcastle, and the thirds were 2-9 for 11th place out of 12 teams in the Edmonton Rugby Union table.

“I’m not just the prems coach, I’m here to develop the guys,” said Townsend, who hails from Saint Albans, a city in Hertfordshire, England. “Last year, obviously huge, huge success on the field for the prems’ team but I think the guys that are below that felt they were isolated.

“There is no such thing as an exclusive club. There shouldn’t be anything exclusive in the way that we do things because player development comes from training with better players and it comes from working hard around the areas you need to develop. Whether you’re Jake Robinson (2016 senior men’s MVP in the ERU) or whether you’re one of the guys that are playing in the third div side you should want to improve yourself with the guys around you.”

To be the best that you can be is Townsend’s objective.

“I would like to create a thought process or a culture within the playing side of the club that you’re only as good as the last game and you really should seek to be as good as a player as you can and actually that’s on and off the pitch,” said the rugby product of the Old Albanian RFC. “It’s not a case of saying OK, we’ve won three (Labatt’s Cups) now so we have nothing left to prove. That’s a dangerous thing because if you get told how good you are all the time you start to believe it and then you have no reason to push yourself.”

Townsend started rucking and mauling as a prop before shedding weight at age 18 during a stint in New Zealand with the Waimea Old Boys and settled in at flanker.

At age 27, Townsend entered the coaching fraternity after a lacerated left kidney briefly halted his playing career, which included time in Holland with Amsterdam AAC.

Last year marked the first season without an injury for Townsend as the Verulamians earned a promotion into London NW 3. It was also his 10th season as a head coach and the fifth with the Verulamians.

“My five-year plan was to get the club to a stage where they were solid, they got promoted and that the club was in a better place than when I started and it really is. It’s a fantastic club now. Everybody there bought in with everything we tried to do,” said Townsend.

His journey to St. Albert started when Simon Gregory, an import of note with the 2010 firsts, tipped off his former Colts’ coach about the SARFC vacancy through contact with Graham Noren, the club’s senior rugby director.

“Everything fell into place. It was the right opportunity at the right time,” said Townsend, who has an extensive background in the health and well-being industry with individuals with long-term health conditions through forms of physical activity and the last two years worked with people with cancer.

Townsend described his coaching style of rugby as “esthetically good-looking rugby but not at the expense of the processes,” while noting the Verulamians racked up a division-high 770 points for a plus-517 margin while going 18-2.

Townsend makes his coaching debut May 6, when the firsts kick-off the Alberta Cup fixtures against the Strathcona Druids at 2:15 p.m. at Ellerslie Rugby Park.

The thirds also host the Grande Prairie Centaurs at 2 p.m. at SARFC.

The complete SARFC fixtures are listed in Scoreboard on page 55.

Thursday’s outdoor training session at SARFC was only the third with Townsend at the controls.

“We’re not at a disadvantage because everyone is feeling the same sort of thing with the frustration with the weather,” he said of the slow arrival of spring. “It’s how you adapt and react. The players we have here, obviously they’ve been successful, so we’ll work it out.”

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Jeff Hansen

Jeff Hansen joined the St. Albert Gazette in 1991. He writes about sports, athletes and teams from St. Albert and area.