By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
There have been some great rugby family legacies in Canada; father and son, sisters, spouses, cousins, uncles, parent and kids….
Yet there are very few where international caps can be boasted among four members of one family. More rare – two of the four are twins. Further still, both Mom and Dad are capped… And still involved in our sport.
This rarest of families is the Thiel-Ross crew. Father Jon has 44 caps to his score-sheet. He played international rugby from 1998-2008, appearing in three of Rugby Canada’s World Cup campaigns. Professionally, he played 52 games from 1999-2010 for Exeter and Sale Sharks in the Premiership, as well as RC Narbonne, Bridgend RFC, and the Scarlets in Wales.
Jen Ross, Mom of this crew, has 4 caps of her own for the Rugby Canada Women’s 15s from 1994-96… but then the twins arrived the following summer. She continued to play, but was no longer pursuing international ambitions; instead she went on to coaching, earning many accolades along the way, including Rugby Canada’s Coach of the Year Award in 2012.
These are among the most ‘knowledgeable’ rugby parents. I suppose it was bound to happen that one of their boys would go on to have international ambitions.
But to have twins Jacob and Josh both boasting international ambitions – and appearances – of their own, that is something to brag about around the clubhouse. Furthermore, youngest son James may just have a rugby future himself: that story has yet to be written.
Despite the collective scoresheet, the Thiel-Ross family is as grounded, realistic, and as mutually supportive as they come. And they’re each champions of both 7s and 15s growth in Canada.
Supporting both 7s and 15s is a given for the family as Jacob (Jake as he’s known to friends), has declared his specialty to be 7s Rugby. Of his choice, he says “…it’s free flowing, lots of space and more opportunities with the ball…and the team culture, it’s like a big family and that’s something you can appreciate, especially on the field. Also, playing for Damian [McGrath] swayed me – I’ve learned so much from him. Plus, a lot of people said I couldn’t because I am the son of two props and I wasn’t fast enough (and lots of other reasons), so I honestly wanted to prove everyone wrong.”
Meanwhile, Josh, younger than Jake by two minutes, has chosen the 15s version of the game as a stealthy back. This means that both boys have chosen paths in marked contrast to both parents’ legacy as standout props.
Of growing up playing the sport in their unique family situation – with both parents skilled in all facets of the game, from intense training and the pressures of the routine, travel, not to mention the natural desire to win – Jake and Josh had an education that most would-be athletes never get access to. Their parents could definitely relate to every emotion and physical sensation they would ever experience.
But that didn’t deter Jake and Josh in the least. They worked harder. Not just for their parents, but for each other – and themselves – as well.
When I say these are salt-of-the-earth people, take me at my word. They are all absolutely lovely folk. And Jen and Jon have raised two genuine young men who are fantastic ambassadors of our sport.
When you read how they all value the positions rugby has afforded them, as well as how they value each other, you will agree.
Q: The four of you are in a very exclusive club, all having represented Canada on the international stage. Do you consider yourselves to be a step ahead of other families that you have this shared experience?
Jon: I don’t believe so. I think it’s made it harder for [the boys]. They’ve spent most of their rugby careers dealing with people wanting to play them at prop just because their parents had. They’ve had to work harder to prove themselves, and for me, they have.
Jake: I don’t think we are a step ahead of any families but it’s definitely cool being surrounded by people who have gone through similar situations to reach their goals and can give good insight and advice. I definitely think it’s cool all four of us being capped, especially Josh getting his 15s and myself getting the sevens cap. It was always our dream to be capped like our parents.
Jen: I don’t think we are a step ahead, we just have a different perspective on rugby and the way it’s approached.
“Josh and Jake grew up around the National men’s team and around professional players in France, England and Wales. It was Daddy’s work, so at games they watched and learned and were comfortable in the environment. They grew up seeing the ups and downs of being a Canadian player overseas. I remember when we returned to Canada, Josh’s school teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and Josh answered “a professional rugby player”. They have always viewed the game as a profession and something to aspire to. Being a very good rugby player and playing at the highest level was their version of playing for fun. It still holds true today. If they are on the field they want to be their best.”
Josh: I wouldn’t exactly put us ahead of other families, as everyone has different paths and goals. However, it’s definitely a bonus to have two parents who have done this before, as well as to be able to go through this journey alongside my brother.
Q: How would it benefit you [Jake and Josh] that the other three have “been there”? Can it at times be detrimental (akin to one’s own experience being personal)?
Jake: I don’t think it’s detrimental, I think it makes the experience even better. Not every situation you go through when trying to play for your country or professionally is rainbows and sunshine, and having people who have all been there makes the ups and downs easier take when you can share it.
“I think I’ve benefited from the advice/knowledge that my parents are able to give me. Sometimes I might be looking at a situation differently and it’s always beneficial to hear about it from someone else who knows what they are talking about and might see it from another angle.
“It can be funny though because growing up with them as my parents, I’ve always thought of them as just that… but now playing on the sevens team with a couple of guys who have played with my Dad, and him being a good teammate and all, he’s set me up in a tough spot because I have to live up to him in that sense; but I’ve also inadvertently benefited from that because those guys look out for me, so I guess I have to thank my Dad.”
Josh: I would say the only time it’s detrimental is if you start to compare yourself to others. My Mom and Dad’s careers are what they are. They accomplished some great things, and my brother is doing well in his goals with sevens, but I think it’s important to realize your path will be different and to not let comparisons or something that someone else has done get to your head.
Q: As parents, do you feel better equipped than those of us who do not have those unique experiences and memories? Are there times when you would ‘rather not know’?
Jen: Jon and I share opinions on rugby within Canada, coaching, and the path the boys have been on. However, I have always encouraged them to make their own decisions as to what comes next. Like all parents, we have been there to support them through the wins and the losses knowing that we had both been through this ourselves.
“We have seen the growth of RC – the positive and the less positive. The hardest thing is worrying about voicing an opinion or criticism and worrying that it could affect your sons. The boys have their own road to travel, and how we feel or think about the game in Canada today should never bring them any grief. I think that we as a family appreciate the experiences we have had and the connections we have made throughout the years.”
Jon: The boys put their body on the line when they play. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself saying to them “I know how you feel.” there is no doubt they’re committed, as I’ve seen a few harsh contacts, but they’ve spent countless years listening to me whine about hurting from less, so they’ve learned to deal with it thus far.
Q: How has the rugby experience strengthened the family?
Josh: It’s nice to have your parents be able to understand where you’re coming from and to realize your goals so they are able to help as much as they can along the way.
Jen: Some kids grow up playing street hockey with their parents. We have always had a rugby ball in hand or a game to watch. We all genuinely love the sport and even after Jon and I split up we could always be together as a family for rugby and the boys.
Jake: I think it’s a common thing we can all relate to. Both my Dad and my Mom are very active in the rugby community and my Mom especially has showed me through coaching what you are able to do for others through the sport. It’s made us a more tight-knit group seeing each other strive to reach our goals, ranging from playing for Canada after a heart surgery [referring to Dad Jon’s hard-fought journey to the 2007 World Cup shortly after undergoing surgery to repair an over-active valve in his heart], to helping set up one of the most successful youth women’s rugby programs in BC [Mom Jen’s own hard-won accomplishments]. I think seeing my family work hard toward their goals and letting me share in those goals has made us stronger together.
Q: What do you do to support one another?
Jon: Rugby is a harsh game, very little room for forgiveness, especially at the higher levels, which is tough.
“[The Boys] know they can phone me day or night. I try to go to games when I can, not for them, more for me. I’m almost too proud of them both – as is Jen – but for us I think we just try and provide them the outlet to talk about anything.”
Jake: I think just being there for one another, no matter what we choose to do with our lives. Part of being a family I think is being supportive of each other no matter what.
Jen: We talk a lot – share opinions and try very hard to not miss games. (which gets harder the further abroad Josh and Jake travel). The great thing is that the boys ask for our opinions and want to know how we would handle situations. We are a pretty tight group.
Josh: My parents have always been our biggest fans and helped us, from sacrificing things for us to go to tournaments, or even just talking rugby and going out to the backyard to work on our skills.
Q: How much competition is there between you, Jake and Josh? To this, both parents replied:
Jon: Too much, I still think I could whip them both, straight up, ball in hand, I’d love to have a crack at them. They know it too.
Jen added: When the boys were young I worried about balance…what if one made a team and the other didn’t? Any mother of twins can relate to that. It was fortunate they played different positions and there was never competition between them. In fact, they have always been – and still are – so supportive of each other that it makes my heart melt.
Josh: Growing up, we always played different positions. We both want each other to succeed, and I guess we are competitive in the way of pushing each other to get better; I want Jake to accomplish his goals as much as I want myself to. As far as competition, I wouldn’t say there is any heated rivalry.
Jake: When we were younger there was a little more, but now we are super supportive. Josh was always the All-Star so it was more jealousy on my part. Once I found my stride, there was never too much competition. I think we work better together than apart, and being different positions and having complimentary styles really helped defuse any unwanted tension between us.
Q: As parents, are there times you feel you have to step in? What is your advice if you do?
Jon: They can’t shut me up. It’s to the point where they’ve heard it all before, but one piece of advice I always give is to back themselves. Also, effort is free, so they can afford to give 100%.
Q: How proud of each other are you? Please each name something each other has done that you hold up.
Jake: Heck I’m proud of a lot of things they’ve all done so this is a hard one:
- Josh: watching him get his first cap was awesome, and probably one of my prouder moments recently. I think seeing him achieve a goal he’s been going for since he was little and knowing how hard he’s worked is amazing. But if I had to choose my proudest moment of him was getting to play with him for the U20s. A little selfish because it includes me but we’ve always played together and to get to do it at an event like that was incredible.
- Mom: I didn’t get to see my Mom play too much rugby but my proudest moment doesn’t include playing. It was when she won the Canadian coach of the year in “2012”. My Mom’s dedicated a countless amount of time to hundreds of young girls across Canada and grown the game she loves so much. She won something like seven provincial titles and churned out 5-6 Canada players, but what makes me proudest is she never stops looking to get more girls involved. So, seeing her win that award and knowing the work she’s done and the girls she’s helped was one of my happiest moments.
- Dad: my proudest memory of my Dad is the 2007 World Cup. I don’t remember too much of it but I do remember the feeling of watching him run out after having open-heart surgery months before. Now, knowing the odds he had to overcome just to achieve his goals makes me proud. I definitely look up to him for his resiliency and will.
Josh: I think playing for Canada and everything that represents is something to be proud of. Growing up we always heard about and were compared to our Dad, and obviously he’s played at the highest levels that you can play at, and that’s where most players want to be at some point in their career, so I’m proud of that.
Q: Do you ever work out/train together? I know Jon has coached the boys, but I mean more than just with a whistle…
Josh: Most of our training together used to be playing in the backyard or kicking a ball to each other, little things like that.
Jen: After grade 9, my coaching time with them was done. They have however stepped up and helped me with the many teams I coached. They have both developed into some of the best age-grade coaches I know. When we do go to the gym together we are on separate sides of the facility!
Jon: The twins’ little brother James and I played two hand versus Jake and Josh. We had a pitch at our house, complete with posts. I think I still hold the record for most tries scored on that field. We have had a few full-contact games too; I was at 9, Josh at 10, and Jake 13. The boys each had a try in the match – too much fun.
Jake: I’m pretty garbage in the gym as most people can attest too, so the two or three times we worked out together with my Dad it was mostly me off to the side while Josh and my Dad worked out. Most of our one-on-one training was two hour long touch sessions. He set up a field at our house that was probably as big as an actual half and we would play 2 on 2 (Josh and I vs Dad and James) until he called it). Proud to say I don’t think we ever lost a game. My Mom never put us through that, thankfully, but she has been coaching youth teams for ages and when we were younger she’d let us play against whoever she was coaching. Any rugby is good rugby.
Q: What does the Thiel-Ross family do to “play” together apart from rugby?
Jen: We genuinely like each other, so when we can all get together we laugh a lot, eat, play table games or watch our favourite movies. We love going to their brother James’ rugby or basketball games. He has some pretty supportive big brothers for fans!
The future of Canada is bright with players like Josh and Jake representing, and with parents who continue to care about the sport and how it grows in Canada, these are indeed the best kind of ambassadors. The great news is that there are a great many families who all share the Thiel-Ross level of passion for the game. Maybe not with as much insight and experience.
Looking forward to many years of their continued individual and collective impact on our game.