Former star player Jamie Cudmore back coaching, thanks to unique rugby partnership

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  • Jamie Cudmore
    Canadian rugby union player

Jamie Cudmore is coaching again, thanks to a unique partnership in the rugby fraternity.

The 43-year-old former Canadian international from Squamish, B.C., was fired as head of Rugby Canada's national development academy and assistant coach with the Canadian men's 15s team in late July after several social media posts critical of the women's sevens team's disappointing performance at the Tokyo Olympics.

Cudmore, one of Canada's most storied rugby exports as a player, quickly apologized but was relieved of his duties soon after. Rugby Canada called the posts "unacceptable and in breach of organization policy.''

Cudmore has resurfaced as Newfoundland provincial coach thanks to a groundbreaking arrangement between the Newfoundland and Labrador Rugby Union and a group called Canadian GRIT (Grassroots Resources and Ideas Team).

The Newfoundland body is paying 20 per cent of Cudmore's salary and expenses for one year while GRIT makes up the rest. As part of the deal, Cudmore will be available to help other provincial unions.

Cudmore, whose wife Jennifer is from Newfoundland, started his new job last week.

Former Rugby Canada board member Karl Fix, a member of GRIT, calls the group a "quasi-think tank" with expertise in all levels of the sport, from playing to administration. The hope is that Rugby Canada, the sport's official governing body, will use the group as a resource.

"We might need some self-tweaking as we go along but I feel we have the right people who are on the right track to play an integral role in getting our game back on the right track," said Fix.

GRIT is made up of some 30 leading lights from the Canadian rugby community, ranging from former Rugby CEO Graham Brown and World Rugby Hall of Famer Al Charron to former Canadian men's coach Pat Parfrey and former Rugby Canada board members David Robertson and Chris Le Fevre.

In addition to Charron, the group includes former internationals Marius Felix, Mitch Gudgeon, Mike Holmes, Harry Jones, John Lecky, David Lougheed, Barbara Mervin, Ander Monro, Kyle Nichols, DTH van der Merwe, Stephanie White and Mark Wyatt. Cudmore himself is a member.

Toronto Arrows GM Mark Winokur and owner Bill Webb, who is also a Rugby Canada board member, are also involved — as are UBC coach Curry Hitchborn, University of Guelph manager of athlete services Meaghan Howat, Rugby B.C. CEO Annabel Kehoe, Manitoba Rugby executive director Patrick Ryan and former Canada sevens and UVic coach Doug Tate.

Fix says the group wants to work with — not challenge — Rugby Canada.

"It has to be all hands on deck. We can't fight with each other. We've got to work together," he said.

A Rugby Canada spokeswoman said board chair Sally Dennis "has expressed appreciation for the group’s willingness to provide support and has encouraged or begun some constructive communication with them."

"We look forward to hearing about specific initiatives on which we might collaborate in the New Year," she added.

There are plenty of moving parts at Rugby Canada, which is looking for a new CEO in the wake of Allen Vansen's decision to step down at the end of January.

The governing body is currently undergoing a review of its high-performance operations — expected to be completed early to mid-February — in the wake of a complaint by past and present members of the women's sevens team under the organization's harassment and bullying policy and the Canadian men's failure to qualify for the Rugby World Cup for the first time, among other matters.

A separate independent review subsequently concluded that while the conduct described in the women's sevens players' complaint reflected the experiences of the athletes, it did not fall within Rugby Canada's policy's definition of harassment or bullying.

Unhappy at that conclusion, the players said their complaint "explained the psychological abuse, harassment and/or bullying these athletes feel they were subjected to in the centralized training environment.''

Head coach John Tait, while maintaining he had done nothing wrong, subsequently stepped down. A former Canadian international, Tait is now B.C. Rugby's technical director.

Cudmore and Tait are close, which may explain Cudmore's intemperate social media comments at the women's sevens team finishing a disappointing ninth in Tokyo.

As for Cudmore, he says he is working to become a "better person, leader and coach."

In a recent social media post, he called his comments during the Olympics "inappropriate, offensive and hurtful."

"I lost my job because of them," he said.

"I moved back to Canada to help the grassroots and Rugby Canada family grow, and give back to a game that has given me so much," he added. "I will not give up on this commitment. Healing starts with forgiveness and grows through understanding."

To that end, Cudmore has been working with Sport Law, a private group "committed to serving sport organizations in their desire to fulfil their mission and live their values."

"It's been incredibly eye-opening … a great learning experience," he said.

Dina Bell-Laroche, a partner in Sport Law whose resume includes time with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, the Canadian Olympic Committee, True Sport Foundation, and Equestrian Canada, says Sport Law's mission is to "elevate sport."

Organizational leaders have to have a sense of legal, moral and financial requirements, among other concerns, while dealing with diverse groups at the provincial and grassroots levels, she explained.

"We have to support these sport leaders in these 34,000 sport organizations across Canada in helping them do better so that the field-of-play experience for athletes and coaches is not accidentally extraordinary or positive or healthy and safe and creates a sense of belonging," she said.

"We want this to be done by design, not by accident. And that's why we do what we do."

Cudmore is set to start a "high-performance coaching and leadership boot camp" next month with Sport Law.

Cudmore played 43 tests for Canada between 2002 and 2016 and would have played more had it not been for club duties in France, where he won a Top 14 title with ASM Clermont Auvergne. The hard-nosed lock forward also played for FC Grenoble, and Oyonnax in France and Llanelli, Llandovery and the Scarlets in Wales.

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Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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