By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
Photos: Judy Teasdale, Jose Lagman
Ander Monro, 36, former fly-half for Rugby Canada from 2006 to 2012, is unarguably regarded as one of Canada’s best number 10’s, and by all accounts there is still a great deal of respect out there for this proud Canadian ‘import’.
Though Monro was born in North York, Ontario to a British army officer Dad stationed at CFB Downsview, he is of strong Scottish lineage. He is the grandson of Hector Monro, Baron Monro of Langholm, who also happens to have been the former President of the Scottish Rugby Union.
Monro was educated at Glenalmond College in Scotland, where he was the captain of his rugby team. He then began his post-secondary studies at Edinburgh University, and got his teaching degree at Victoria, which he now puts to great use at the prestigious Shawnigan school, where he teaches English, and not surprisingly, coaches Rugby.
Though Monro was very young when he returned to Scotland from Canada with his family, when the opportunity arose to play for his birth country internationally, he jumped at it, and is fiercely proud of his 30 caps and 2007 and 2011 World Cup campaigns.
Luckily for us at Ædelhard, Monro was still on school break when he took the time to give us some great – and spiked with his ‘famous’ dry humour – insights on his Canada career and his special brand of advice for young players, as well as his thoughts on Canada facing the repechage and the “challenge” the players will be anticipating:
You called time on your playing career in 2012. What was your last game? Did you know it was your final?
My last match for Canada was on October 3, 2011 versus the All Blacks, in our final group game of the RWC 2011. During our pre-RWC preparation – and with a view to my study commitments upon my return from New Zealand – I had spoken with Kieran Crowley about gearing down on the playing front, yet staying involved to help develop the younger fly-halves coming through.
As it happened, the study combined with teaching practicums – not to mention the birth of our second son, Cosmo – were intense, and I realized I would not be able to prepare to perform properly at international level, so I called time at that point. At the end of 2013 I did briefly consider a comeback for the 2015 RWC; however, I discovered that ultimately I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices needed to play for your country. It was certainly difficult to justify kicking practice for an hour in what little free time I had when three young boys (Felix was added to the clan by then) wanted to play with their dad and my wife, Jemima, was hoping to see me from time-to-time!
What did you miss most about no longer playing?
What I miss most about not playing is the interaction with my teammates in any environment: the bus, the training ground, the team room, the Georgian baths, or the golf course – to name but a few. I relished the singleness of purpose that strong team cultures possess, and I really enjoyed the light-hearted banter of like-minded people. I miss the skit nights we used to have with the national side, as well as the socials with Castaway Wanderers at The Temple.
What is the highlight of your playing career?
My career playing highlight would be beating Tonga in Whangarei in our RWC 2011 opener. We came from behind, uphill and into a stiff breeze, to record a memorable win and a result that had consumed our thoughts since we met for the Pre-RWC camp.
A close second behind that was probably our win over France ‘A’ in the Churchill Cup in 2010. That was a turning point for our team because going into the game, our whole squad truly believed we could win in the last fifteen minutes against top-quality opposition, and then we did, scoring a try in the 70th minute to seal it.
In 2009 we had a good crack at Ireland ‘A’ although I do not think the belief was truly there.
What was the best part of touring with the team – and the worst?
There are too many ‘best parts’ of touring to list. Golf outings were a particular highlight, and the Fairhurst (9), Monro (10), Smith (12) trio were always battling it out, with cameo appearances from Mike Burack and Aaron Carpenter, who, incidentally, were much stronger in the lineouts than standing over a six-foot putt for quadruple bogie.
The worst part of touring was probably the fact that while the destination might have sounded exotic, you become most acquainted with the team room, the team bus, the training ground, the physio bed (weighing 185lbs and sporting shoulders like a brook trout has its shortfalls), and the urine-testing station. Increasingly, we were allowed to venture out and explore, but that was the exception to the rule.
Do you keep in touch with the team? At the time it seemed like a very tight-knit group of guys – and it goes down in folklore as being the last time Canada was on the precipice of being serious contenders. It must have been a special place to be, and equally so a special place to hang up the boots…?
I should keep in better touch with former teammates. I have seen Ed Fairhurst and Pat Riordan this summer, and I am in contact with Ryan Smith and Mike Pyke sporadically. David Spicer also does a few fly-bys of Vancouver Island in between his medical commitments, and I bump into the likes of Nanyak Dala and Adam Kleeberger from time to time.
We were a really close group and [former captain] Paddy Riordan ensured we had a positive team culture, ensuring that training was top-notch to get us ready for the “show and shine.”
Briefly sitting at 11th in the world was a good way to go out, and I was definitely playing my best rugby in 2010/2011, so I feel I left on a high. We also played some pretty attractive rugby I thought, provided I was not kicking the leather off the ball and Jebb Sinclair was not practicing his catch-not-pass skills!
Please tell me about your role as English teacher and Rugby Coach at Shawnigan.
Currently I am teaching English, coaching rugby, and running a boarding house at Shawnigan Lake School. As someone who loves being part of a team, building relationships, and working through challenges, it has been an excellent place to live after my playing days. It is a stunning campus and, along with the facilities, families, and grounds, provides a superb environment to raise my own family.
Moving from professional rugby to teaching was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was tears away from quitting a couple of times, and I am glad I persevered. Whatever my worth as a rugby player, it was built around using my skill-set (vision and passing for example) to get the best out of the players around me, so in that sense teaching has been a logical progression.
Beyond school and coaching there, is there any other way you stay involved with Rugby?
I still get my rugby fix by coaching three times a week and going on some incredible tours: last spring I led a coffee and ice cream-fuelled tour to Italy for the SLS Colts (junior team). This summer I helped as a skills coach at the Centre of Excellence in Langford, assisting Kingsley Jones and the carded athletes. If I have the opportunity to give back, I will.
What advice would you give players today?
I would advise today’s players to relax and enjoy the game. I was overly stressed and anxious in my early twenties, and it held me back by narrowing my vision and promoting a fear of failure.
Furthermore, training effectively is essential. Self-awareness and understanding what type of player you are likely to be helps with this. And finally, ensure you have an outside interest or activity, such as a hobby or higher education. It is amazing how much more enjoyable rugby fitness is after five hours of studying!
Do you think the young players’ world is different from when you were getting your start?
Today’s rugby world is certainly different from when I was getting my start. I believe there is more pressure to turn professional at an early age, lest someone miss their window because of all the other talent coming through. The number of nations that have professional leagues has increased considerably, and as such, many of the second-tier nations are much tougher nuts to crack. Now, many of the coaches directing rugby at the school-boy level were former professional players who, even if they were not the most intelligent players when they played, have a very deep knowledge of the game, know how to train a squad effectively, and will ensure they instill strong defensive and attacking systems.
Would you please say a little something about the current situation we (the Canadian Rugby community) find ourselves in ahead of the repechage in November?
Clearly, we would like to have avoided this November repechage tournament in France; however, now that we’re in it, I’m am excited for the players. It is high stakes and high pressure, which is an excellent challenge, and just what you want as an international athlete.
I know they will be confident heading into the tournament and I am looking forward to those matches. My best wishes to the players and staff.
Having to play in the repechage tournament is deeply concerning for the future of Canadian rugby (fifteen’s for sure), and surely there are long-term strategies to address this concern. I also acknowledge the immensity of this task.
In the near future, we must be improving at a faster rate than our competitors; otherwise, we are treading water, and as Todd Blackadder used to say after training at Edinburgh Rugby, “treading water is just a slow way of drowning.”
Upon reflection, Ander notes that a player is only as good as the help they receive along the way, be it from family, team, and coaches. He wanted to recognize this, saying “this is a good opportunity for me to thank all those coaches who helped me develop at Cargilfield School, Glenalmond College, Heriots FP, Edinburgh Rugby, Waterloo RFC, Rugby Colorno, Ontario Blues, and Canada.” Is it the player or coach in him that realizes the enjoyment of sport is not just down to the player’s own drive? He notes that he would “not have enjoyed the game as much without their support.”
My final thoughts about talking to Ander: those are indeed some lucky students at Shawnigan. Not only would I love to be coached by Ander Monro, but I imagine those are some great Eng Lit classes to attend. As more professionals turn to coaching in schools, the kids they teach the game to get a unique perspective. Very fortunate for the kids who get this kind of education. In Canada, it’s very rare. Hopefully, it will continue to grow and develop, for the sake of our game here at home. In the meantime, Shawnigan is as lucky to have Monro as he feels to have the school.
Clearly, this great import is not done with rugby in Canada, and rugby in Canada is not finished with him either. And that is beneficial for us all.
All best Mr. Monro, sir!