For the first time in nearly a quarter-century, Sea-Hawks rugby jerseys have been worn by Memorial University athletes — and not only is men's rugby back as a varsity sport after 24 years but the team won the Atlantic University Sport championship in its first competition.
"That's some vindication for the program that we got a strong start like that," said co-coach Peter Densmore.
Densmore and co-coach Brendan Parfrey have been trying to get the university program off the ground for some time.
While coaching the Newfoundland Rock U-19 team they realized they were putting a lot of effort into developing players but once players aged out there wasn't a lot of rugby for them to play afterward.
"We thought as a player pathway for Canada and Newfoundland, that university sport made a lot of sense," said Parfrey.
About 45 players came out for tryouts, and the resulting team comprises rugby players from different club teams, including four players from Zimbabwe.
University team filling age gap
"We had players that stopped playing rugby that have come back, that are trying to get back into the fold, so it's kind of helping grow local rugby," said Parfrey.
Co-captain Sam Newhook played for the University of Waterloo and Toronto, and now, while he attends MUN as a medical student, he gets to play in his home province.
"I played university sport for the last six years or so, so to be able to do it here at home is pretty special," he said.
"I saw a lot of friends drop off coming out of high school age and then the only option is club rugby or the provincial team. I think this MUN team will be a huge boom for the sport," said Newhook.
Co-captain Keiran Lacey said he was ecstatic when he heard there was going to be a MUN men's rugby team. He said it was something he and his rugby-playing relatives always wanted a shot at.
"I think there's a bag of old MUN jerseys somewhere around and you see those and wish it was still a thing, so I was super-excited to get out and brush off the dust," he said.
Coaching staff said it hasn't been easy starting a university team from scratch.
Although the Sea-Hawks won the championship last weekend, the team couldn't advance to the national championship as they were invited only as an exhibition team while the program gets established. The club will also have to convince other Atlantic universities to allow them to join the league for regular play despite the resulting increase in their travel costs.
And because Memorial University itself isn't assisting the team financially yet, extensive fundraising efforts need to be made to afford the program.
Still, the renewal of the team is exciting news for Tim Powers, who played on MUN's first rugby team back in 1989, the same year the team won the Goodyear Cup.
In 1997, the last time MUN fielded a rugby team, Powers was the coach of Mount Allison University's team, which lost to Memorial in the Atlantic university championship.
"Let's just say we got trashed," said Powers. "It's pretty cool to see the team back and winning again some 30 years later."
Power, who also went on to be a chairperson for Rugby Canada, said he knows how expensive competing off the island can get but he said university sports can bring in money, and in Newfoundland the fan base is already there.
"In a time when it's tough to get consistency with professional sports in Newfoundland and Labrador, the greater the leadership role Memorial University can play on the athletic front in creating sporting opportunities, not just for their students but for their community, is a win-win," Powers said.
"There is lots of money out there as we have seen with collegiate athletics in Canada and the United States."
Women's team talk
The coaches said once they secure more funding, the next step will be to establish a women's team.
With the quality of female players in the province and the increased popularity of the women's sport across the country, the coaches feel like it's possible.
"I think this is a great start. More people want to be involved in a winning group," said Parfrey.