Local rugby club in scrum over fee to prop up national men's team

Ottawa's oldest rugby club is refusing to make its members pay a $20 fee increase Rugby Canada said would be used solely to help the men's national team.
The Ottawa Banshees RFC play the Sherbrooke Abénakis at Twin Elm Rugby Park in Ottawa. The local club is refusing to ask members to pay an additional $20 fee to Rugby Canada. (Courtesy Ottawa Beavers & Banshees RFC)

Ottawa's oldest rugby club is refusing to make its members pay a surprise $20 fee increase Rugby Canada says it needs to help the national men's team.

The sport's national governing body announced the registration fee increase on Saturday, saying the $450,000 in funds it aimed to collect would be used to help the men's national rugby team attempt to qualify for the upcoming 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

"Qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup is vital to the future of the sport in Canada and the health and well-being of all Rugby Canada programs," the sport's federation said in a news release.

'Blindsided' by decision

That isn't sitting well with local rugby organizations across the country. Some are questioning why all the money is going to the men and others say they were simply unprepared for the increase, according to Anali Stewart, the vice-president of the women's program at the Ottawa Beavers-Banshees club.

"It really blindsided us, especially with the timing of it because we set our fees in early winter after our [annual general meeting]," Stewart told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

The club on Sunday condemned the fee increase in a letter to members, saying it would be "unfair, dishonest and against our club constitution and general principles to raise dues a week before the senior teams head outside to begin training for the summer season."

The club said it would pay Rugby Canada the $3,000 on behalf of its members and look for ways to raise money to make up the funding.

Canada missed its second chance to qualify for the 2019 Rugby World Cup when it fell to Uruguay after a two-game, aggregate-goals series earlier this year. (Raul Martinez/EPA/EFE)

Money won't guarantee success

Rugby Canada's decision was based in part on the peculiarities of the World Rugby model, which doles out funds to members each year largely based on the performance of the sport's biggest draws — the national men's teams.

When Canada's men's team failed to qualify for the world cup on their first two attempts, it cost the team $450,000 of that funding. If they manage to advance to the event in a last-chance qualifying tournament in November, Rugby Canada would again receive $450,000 in 2018 and 2019 from World Rugby.

But Stewart says even with the additional funds from members, there is no guarantee the team will qualify.

"The reality is they haven't been performing very well this year, as unfortunate as it is to say," Stewart said. "But the women's squad they have been performing very well over the last couple of years on the international stage and they aren't getting any money out of this."

The decision to raise the fees came after Rugby Canada met with its provincial member organizations last week to try to figure out a solution to their shortfall, said Tim Powers, chair of Rugby Canada's board of directors.

Fee increase 'irritated a lot of people'

It's a solution, Powers told All In A Day, "that has irritated a lot of people."

"We wouldn't be doing this if we weren't in a place of extreme difficulty and we are, there is no polishing that up," Powers said.

The money would help pay to bring players together this summer to train and schedule a dozen games in advance of the last-chance qualifier, Powers said.

Powers says relying on the men's team to help fund national rugby is the international model, but one worth revisiting her in Canada.

"Is that the right model? No. Is that something we want to fix? Yes. But that's the system in which we unfortunately operate," Powers said.

Rugby Canada is holding two webinars to further explain their decision to members and will also be meeting with members of the Ottawa Beavers-Banshees club on Sunday.