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Vancouver Highlanders announced first rugby fixtures, with an international flavour

Canada's Jake Thiel, centre, is tackled by Japan's Kazuma Nakagawa, left, as Ryota Kano watches during HSBC Canada Sevens rugby action, in Vancouver, on Sunday, April 17, 2022. Thiel has joined the newly formed Vancouver Highlanders.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The newly formed Vancouver Highlanders have revealed some of their first fixtures, which come with an international flavour.

The invitational rugby club will host 10 matches at select venues in the Vancouver area from May through August.

The first matches announced are a June 28 doubleheader with the Highlanders first team and reserves playing the Canada Selects and Barbados. The Highlanders will then face Germany on July 20, a Brazil XV on Aug. 3 and a Canada XV on Aug. 17.

The Highlanders say they will host the Rugby Players Challenge Summer Series annually in Metro Vancouver.

"We have had no shortage of interest from national teams eager to visit Vancouver and test themselves against us," Highlanders co-founder Curry Hitchborn said in a statement. "The RPC Summer Series is reminiscent of a bygone era when the British Lions and All Blacks travelled to British Columbia to play our representatives at Brockton Oval."

The not-for-profit Highlanders are the brainchild of Hitchborn, former coach of the UBC men's rugby team, and local entrepreneur Ralph McRae.

"We started the Vancouver Highlanders with the sole premise of helping people develop through the sport," Hitchborn said in an interview. 

And, by providing players an opportunity to showcase their skills and play "some exciting rugby," with fans able to watch at a reasonable price in a festival-style atmosphere.

The Highlanders roster, still being fleshed out, already features Canadian talent like twins Josh and Jake Thiel, and former Toronto Arrow Paul Ciulini.

Hitchborn said they founded the team because rugby players in Canada have such few options — and to help them "pursue their professional aspirations."

"You want to be a chartered accountant? We want to make sure that you have time to do that. If you want to be a lead hand on a construction site with the ultimate goal of becoming a site supervisor, we want to help facilitate that."

To that end, the team will train in the evening, four days a week, at various locations around the Lower Mainland. 

"We're not looking … to go to B.C. Place (Stadium) or Swangard (Stadium in suburban Burnaby)," said Hitchborn.

"We're looking to create exciting, entertaining events around these men's desire to play rugby at its best while also being their professional best," he added.

Hitchborn says his experience has shown that many rugby players, after graduating from university or college, have to decide between continuing to play at the expense of their work career or focusing on their career and playing rugby socially.

The Highlanders, he says, will allow players "to engage in their sport, at a higher level, for a longer term."

McRae, who started his career in the '80s as a consultant on business restructuring, brings a real-world background to rugby.

"I got a very early education on how things can go wrong in business. and then try to figure out how to turn those business around and get them back on a right path," he said in an interview. 

He subsequently started an environmental company with his brother that he later sold and also ran food and beverage businesses. He says his main focus now is the Highlanders — and its players.

"I believe the player needs to become more the focus," McRae said of pro sports.

"The core of what we've undertaken here is let the player succeed. And if the player succeeds, I think the enterprise succeeds," he added.

The Highlander players will be paid, they say. 

Hitchborn says the Highlanders are not working against Rugby Canada or Major League Rugby, North America's pro league. They are just doing thing differently in looking to develop players and increase rugby's reach. 

The Toronto Arrows, Canada's lone MLR entry, folded in November.


Vancouver Highlanders

James Biss, Jacob Bossi, D'Shawn Bowen, Paul Ciulini, Thomas Davidson, Matthew Klimchuk, Sam Mace, Takoda McMullin, Talon McMullin, Melani Nanai, Ollie Nott, Conor O'Flaherty, Jake Thiel, Josh Thiel, Alastair Marshall, Payton Teneycke, Caden Wilson, Caden Wilson.


Ben Beauchamp, Taine Clague, Simeon John, Keegan Neary.

Head Coach: Tom Larisch.

Defence Coach: Bill Chamberlain.


Follow @NeilMDavidson on X platform, formerly known as Twitter 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2024.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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