From Balmy Beach to the World Cup

In his wildest dreams, nine-year-old Liam Underwood couldn’t see where rugby would land him: a sold-out stadium in Cardiff, Wales roaring with 74,000 fans. A field where Ireland, the back-to-back Six Nations rugby champions, gather on the other side.

Liam Underwood, who grew up playing with Balmy Beach Rugby Club and Malvern Collegiate, is playing fly half for Canada at the Rugby World Cup. After a tough 50-7 opener against Ireland in Cardiff’s 74,000-seat Millennium Stadium, Canada will face Italy on Sept. 26, France on Oct. 1 and Romania on Oct. 6. PHOTO: Rugby Canada
Liam Underwood, who grew up playing with Balmy Beach Rugby Club and Malvern Collegiate, is playing fly half for Canada at the Rugby World Cup. After a tough 50-7 opener against Ireland in Cardiff’s 74,000-seat Millennium Stadium, Canada will face Italy on Sept. 26, France on Oct. 1 and Romania on Oct. 6.
PHOTO: Rugby Canada

That was the scene Liam stepped into Sept. 19, when the 24-year-old Beach native took the field for Canada at the Rugby World Cup.

“It’s a big honour,” he said, speaking from Wales a week before. “It’s something I’ve been working towards my whole life.”

Even in Ontario, a province that boasts about a third of this year’s Cup team, many players only discover rugby in high school.

But Liam got an early start.

His father, Doug Underwood, played 13 years of 1st Division rugby with the Balmy Beach Rugby Club, winning five Ontario championships in his day.

When Doug began coaching an under-12 flag rugby team, his try-anything son joined him, running alongside the older, bigger kids.

“My wife will tell you it was probably when he was sitting on the sideline once and got hit in the head with a ball that was kicked in touch, that’s what sold him on it,” he said, laughing.

But Doug doesn’t buy the Newtonian ball-to-the head theory.

“He was the type of kid that loved every single sport,” he said.

Brian Spanton agrees. A sportscaster and former member of Canada’s men’s rugby team, Spanton is also a long-time coach with the Balmy Beach and Malvern Collegiate, where he saw Liam excel at hockey and football as well as rugby.

A gifted quarterback, Liam might have made football his sport when he graduated from Malvern to Queen’s University.

Spanton said the role Liam chose – fly half – calls for similar skills. Like a quarterback, the fly half directs offensive play, and is usually among the best runners, passers and kickers on the team.

But most important, a fly half needs a calm, tactical mind.

That’s Liam, Spanton said, using words that may seem at odds with rugby’s brutal image – “quiet,” “cerebral,” and “intelligent.” A player with great “rugby acumen.”

“He reminds me of Mats Sundin,” said Spanton. “You don’t have to beat your chest to be a leader, and Liam is a leader.”

Even his father, who Liam called his number-one rugby influence, concedes that his son has long since surpassed his knowledge of the game.

Today, when they talk strategy, said Doug, “It usually centres around, ‘Dad you don’t know anything about rugby.’”

Liam played for Canada twice at the world juniors, and won more awards at Queen’s than most of the school’s top athletes, including winning three championships over his five years with the university.

Rugby has a rising profile in North America, and the Cup is already the world’s third-largest sports event after FIFA soccer and the Olympics. But in Canada, where there is no pro league, top players stay close to the grassroots.

It’s been years since Liam played for the Beach, but there’s no end to the support.

“Once you’re part of a club like that, people definitely support their own,” said Liam. “It means a lot.”

By May of 2013, when he was also wrapping an economics degree at Queen’s, Liam got “capped,” called to play his first game for Canada’s senior men’s team.

“All the players are faster, but you also have to make decisions a lot quicker,” he said, when asked about the jump.

“You’ve got to go with your first instinct.”

Doug said his son is perhaps more careful now, more likely to pass and less likely to run the ball.

“I try to be,” said Liam, laughing.

“If you end up running with your head cut off out there, you can get into some trouble.”

Some trouble found Liam during his first fall with Canada’s senior team, but not for any gamble on his part.

A late hit by a Georgian player left Liam badly concussed, and the lingering symptoms kept him off the field a year and a half.

It took time and physical therapy, but Liam returned this year, playing three games with Canada’s 15-man team before the Cup, and a series of games with Canada’s 7-man team that took him to matches from Scotland to Wellington, Las Vegas to Hong Kong.

British bookies put the odds of Canada winning this year’s World Cup at 2000 to 1. The only time Canada has made it to the quarterfinals was back in 1991.

Canada did win two of three warm-up matches before the Cup, but in regular international play its record has been one win for 10 losses since 2014. Besides Ireland, ranked sixth in the world, Spanton said Canada faces tough competitors in the French and Italian sides.

“That said, I’m convinced Canada has the wherewithal to jump and do a decent job.”

Rugby is gaining momentum in Canada, said Liam. The Prairie Wolf Pack, long overshadowed by the Ontario Blues and B.C.  Bears, won the national championship this year, showing a growing range of talent.

And while a pro 15’s league may still be a long way off, Liam said the addition of rugby 7’s to the Olympics is already boosting the profile of the sport.

“It’s been great for the game,” he said. When he played with the 7’s in Las Vegas, the stands were red and white as well as red, white and blue.

“There were thousands of Canadian fans down there,” he said. “It was awesome.”

For now, most of Canada’s top rugby players have second lives off the field.  After competing in the World Cup, Liam will be working to land his Chartered Financial Analyst credential at the same time he and the 7’s team try to secure a ticket to Rio.

“He’s got his head in the right place,” said Doug, who admires the way Liam has balanced two careers, both of them tough.

And for all the opportunities that may flow as more Canadians get drawn into rugby, there is something special about seeing the Beach’s own club send another player to the pinnacle of the sport.

“The nice thing about rugby is that traditions get passed on,” said Doug, noting how former international players like Kyle Nichols have helped Liam get where he is today.

“It’s nice to see a local boy get up there again.”

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