When we think of rising young rugby stars in Canada, we usually think of players from British Columbia or Ontario, perhaps even from Alberta or Atlantic Canada. However Canada has a rising star form one of the unlikeliest of places in Canada, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Matt Harrison is a young hooker who has captained the U19 Wolf Pack squad and was a member of the Canada U20 squad which travelled to Hong Kong last year to compete in the Junior World Rugby Trophy. In 2014, he solidified his position by finishing the season as the starting hooker for the Prairie Wolf Pack in the Canadian Rugby Championship.
The first time I saw Matt play, he was coming off the bench for the Prairie Wolf Pack in a lopsided loss to the Ontario Blues. My first impressions of him were that his basic skills for a hooker were solid. His line out throwing was consistent and he seemed to scrum well. What impressed me the most about his play was his work in the loose, link play and how he hit the rucks hard and protected around the fringes well. Moreover, he was a player who did his talking on the pitch and was soft spoken.
Matt started out his playing career when he was 15 years old with Glenlawn Collegiate High School in Winnipeg. He was actually playing football at the time when one of his friends introduced him to his rugby coach. Matt picked up a ball and was hooked, literally. His high school coaches at the time, Pat Hanson and Brendan Kowal both encouraged him to keep playing and helped develop him as a player. Soon he joined the only club team he has played for in Manitoba, the Assassins Rugby Football Club based in Winnipeg. Last season they won the Manitoba Division One championship.
It was through social media that he got noticed by the Wolf Pack. On a junior rugby facebook group, Wolf Pack U19 Head Coach, Brian Yon posted his contact details to aspiring rugby players out in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Matt responded to the email and after some back and forth discussions he came to Edmonton for a try out. Matt would playing for the U19s in their 2012 and 2013 seasons.
In 2013, Matt moved to Vancouver to play for the University of British Columbia Old Boys. At that time he came to the attention of Mike Shelly and the Rugby Canada U20s selectors. He was offered a tryout with the squad where he travelled to Langford once a week for strength and conditioning training.
He was among those selected to represent Canada at the Junior Rugby World Trophy tournament. On the pre tournament tour to England, he faced the Leicester Tigers Academy, Sale Sharks Academy and the Yorkshire U20s. In Hong Kong, he would go up against Uruguay, Namibia, Japan and Hong Kong. “It was a cool experience and it was neat to see all the different cultures. The intensity of the rugby was at another level than I was used to,” Matt said about the Hong Kong Tournament.
In 2014, Matt became a fixture in the senior Wolf Pack squad. In training camp he faced off with 6 other hookers to make the squad. After a gruelling camp, he made the squad as the backup hooker. As the season wore on, he slowly got more game time off the bench and by the midway mark, was starting. His first start would come at home against the Rock, a game which they dominated play.
When asked about Matt, Graeme Moffat, the Wolf Pack Head Coach, had this to say, “Matt is only the second player from Manitoba to turn out for the Wolf Pack and we hope he can inspire others in his province to play at his level. Matt is a former U19 Wolf Pack Captain and U20 Canada hooker. He pushed himself in to the starting spot at the tail end of the (Canadian Rugby Championship) season and with some hard work and dedication to strength and conditioning he has a bright future ahead of him.”
Matt views last season with the Wolf Pack as his favourite time playing rugby, “last season was my favourite rugby experience so far, enjoyed every moment of it. The collision was at a new level, tones of big hits. It was awesome to get out and play. Jeremy Kyne and Kyle Gilmour were great mentors we could always go to them for advice. The coaching staff and administrators here were second to none, we never had to worry about anything off the field.”
He rates England international and Leicester Tigers hooker, Tom Youngs, as the player he models his game after. “He stays around the rucks and does the hard yards. He battles in the contact area and is a good ball carrier,” Matt said. It would be great for Canadian Rugby if Matt can reach that level of excellence.
While his rugby future appears to be on the rise, Matt is still keeping himself grounded with realistic goals for 2015. Currently he is at the University of Manitoba in his second year studying civil engineering. He hopes to be invited back to camps for the Wolf Pack and hopes to pay for them again. After that, he wants to keep his focus on this schooling and earn his Bachelor’s degree before thinking about going overseas or entertaining offers from clubs in Europe.
While at the University of Manitoba, he is also focusing on staying sharp and in shape to hit the ground running in 2015. His short term goal in rugby is to win the MacTier Cup with the Wolf Pack this year. “My university has a gym and I have some spares in the morning, currently I am hitting the weights and the treadmill. My club plays snow rugby every Sunday at 1 o’clock, so I always try to get there and have a run.” Matt said.
Long term, he does hope to represent Canada ‘A,’ again showing his humility, before trying out for the National Senior Men’s side. He doesn’t rule out making rugby his career, but currently school comes first to him.
– Jeff Robinson