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Newly appointed high performance director looks forward to Rugby Canada challenge

Stephen Aboud arrives as Rugby Canada's new high performance director with a glowing endorsement, albeit from his wife. "He makes others look good," says Olive. Aboud also gets rave reviews from outside his immediate family.
Evan Olmstead catches a lineout during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Qualifier against the USA at Tim Horton's Field in Hamilton, Ont. on Saturday, June 24, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Michael P. Hall

Stephen Aboud arrives as Rugby Canada's new high performance director with a glowing endorsement, albeit from his wife.

"He makes others look good," says Olive.

Aboud also gets rave reviews from outside his immediate family.

"We took our time to try to get the right person," said Rugby Canada CEO Nathan Bombrys. "I'm feeling really good about Steve and what he's about. And what his values are as a man and his philosophies in rugby … I think he's going to really really help us improve and help us get better every day."

"He's fantastic at what he does," added Canada men's 15s coach Kingsley Jones. "He's a great signing by Rugby Canada. A great addition."

Aboud has the resume to back that up.

The Irish native most recently spent six years with the Italy Rugby Federation, serving as head of technical direction for the development of players and coaches. Before that he spent 26 years with the Irish Rugby Football Union in a variety of roles.

Ireland's men are ranked No. 1 in the world while Italy is No. 13. Canada is ranked 23rd.

Aboud officially took up his new role in Langford, B.C., this month. But he started getting the lay of the land weeks before that, making connections — and listening. He said he didn't want his arrival to be like "a blind date."

"Every organization is like the Vatican. It looks different from the outside," said Aboud.

He already knows Jones, women's sevens coach and fellow Irishman Jack Hanratty and Pat Parfrey, a former Canada coach, Rugby Canada president and Irish international. And Aboud says he has kept an eye on the Canadian landscape from afar after two rugby-related visits here in the past.

He is joining an organization that is undergoing change under Bombrys, whose appointment as CEO was announced in April 2022. 

An independent review last year into Rugby Canada's high-performance programs painted a damning picture of a dysfunctional organization at odds with its athletes, staff and supporters. 

Aboud went over the report multiple times before taking the job, acknowledging the comments contained within are "serious." But he is looking forward not back.

Aboud had success in Italy implementing a revamped talent pathway. 

"They already knew what they wanted," he said. "They just needed someone who could facilitate that with their staff on a technical level … It was their idea and I just happened to fit the suit."

Aboud was open to the Italian challenge because he felt he needed a new challenge with the Irish union was moving in the right direction.

The Italian plan began to pay dividends with young talent making its way to the senior side, which is led by former Canada coach Kieran Crowley. Italy famously upset Wales 22-21 in March 2022 in Cardiff to end a 36-match, seven-year losing streak in Six Nations play, and edged Australia 28-27 later that year in Florence for its first-ever win over the Wallabies.

Asked if he will bring the Italian model to Canada, Aboud's answer was emphatic.

"I have no intention of reproducing anything I've done because the context is different," he said.

While the "principles" are the same, they have to be interpreted in a Canadian perspective."

He calls them control, contact and quality.

"We need to have control, to influence a direction," he added. "Because without control of an element of the direction, then you're just going to go all over the compass.

"The second thing is we need to increase contact with the people who are going to be developed to do the work and who are going to play and train and coach … If we don't have contact, then the learning is going to be reduced." 

Quality speaks for itself.

"If you only have two of those, then something's going to suffer," said Aboud.

Aboud, who will oversee all aspects of Rugby Canada's pathway, uses the example of a school. A good curriculum won't help much if the quality of teachers isn't there.

The Italian pathway has changed since Aboud's departure, with the Italy Rugby Federation under new management with a different vision.

Rugby Canada has itself started a new path, with more  movement between the sevens and 15s game.

"More opportunities for players to get better," said Bombrys.

The Canadian women's 15s team, ranked fourth in the world, has a pair of high-profile test matches next month in Ottawa, against No. 2 New Zealand and No. 5 Australia in the Pacific Four series. The men's 15s team, which failed to qualify for this year's World Cup, is awaiting word from World Rugby on its upcoming matches, likely in August.

Both men's and women's sevens squads will be looking to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics at the Rugby Americas North Sevens in August in Langford. The sevens men survived a recent relegation battle to retain their status as a core team next season on the World Rugby Sevens Series.

Aboud wasn't looking for a full-time job after his time in Italy. Instead he was working as a consultant on projects that interested him and whose timing suited him.

He told his wife his next full-time project had to be "the right challenge but with the right people."

"I'm convinced it's the right people (at Rugby Canada), without a doubt. Otherwise I wouldn't touch it," he said. "Because what we do it just too difficult and you're never around to celebrate it, when it really comes through. That's just what we sign up (for)."

Aboud played rugby at Blackrock College in Dublin and got involved with the Irish Rugby Football Union while studying to be teacher. He went on to teach mathematics and physical education and coach rugby at Belvedere College in Dublin.

Eventually the IRFU offered him a position as a development officer, prompting him to take a leave from teaching.

"My mother thought I was crazy, leaving a pensionable teaching job to work in a sport that wasn't even professional," Aboud recalled. "I never looked back from then. There was only four of us covering all of Ireland, therefore the scope of learning was huge."

He had to give up playing rugby because of the demands of the job, however.

"You had a decision. Do you want to develop the future or do you want to compete against it? I went towards developing it full-time."

Aboud's wife continues to work as medical secretary in an Irish hospital, but will visit Canada when she can. The hope is she will spend more time here in the future.

Their son is working on a career as a psychotherapist/counsellor while their daughter just finished her studies in animation.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2023.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press