By: Karen Gasbarino
Matt Klimchuk is only 16 years old. But he’s already being pegged for greatness on the rugby pitch.
Yet, the 6’3” star player has only been playing the game since 2017.
For coach Robin MacDowell, of the MacDowell Rugby Academy, it was a brilliant discovery; for Matt to discover the oval ball, and for Robin to discover that Matt is a rugby prodigy.
The rest is a dizzying rise upward for Matt and the Klimchuk family. And the ride does not appear to be slowing – Matt is freshly home from Dubai where he was invited to attend with the North American Barbarian Selects team to play in the Dubai 7s Under 19 competition. In the event, Matt and the other members of the Barbarians competed against other development squads from around the world and got a taste of what life is like on tour and on the 7s circuit.
It doesn’t stop there for Matt Klimchuk – his next stop will be traveling with the Rugby Canada U18 15s squad to San Diego. It’s an honour he doesn’t take lightly. He wants to be the best and he wants to play international rugby.
Robin MacDowell said of the Barbarians U19 team in Dubai that Matt was the youngest member of the team. MacDowell explained why he’s so impressed with Klimchuk. “Football was his first love. He exploded into rugby just over a year ago. He attended his first MacDowell rugby academy session in 2017 and is now mentoring guys older than he is.”
MacDowell is clearly impressed with the youth. “He was the first to sign for the academy when it was formally launched in 2017. He had never touched a rugby ball [before high school] despite his football proficiency. He works every day. To be named to the national team only a year in of playing is an immense honour, but it also shows the level of skill he plays with.”
Of joining the academy, Klimchuk says he chose to enroll the “the second the opportunity was available” as he’d fallen in love with the sport during his grade 9 year at high school (he is currently in grade 11). “I wanted to get better any way I could. I saw the academy as a way to get better and improve my skills.”
Matt and his parents Michelle and Dean knew next to nothing about Rugby prior to their involvement, and all are impressed with the level of chivalry that is such a big part of the values instilled within rugby. “At first I saw it as a brutal sport. I had no idea of the culture behind the game and the genuine class that most players have. I never thought it would be a sport that I would focus on until I first played it. I was almost immediately hooked,” Klimchuk enthuses. “My impression of the game has completely changed since I started. I love the culture behind rugby. Everything from the mutual respect between players to the international aspect of the sport trumps any other game in my mind.”
Michelle Klimchuk says the game was pretty foreign to the family and wasn’t accessible to she or her husband Dean when they were younger. Now however, they love watching Matt play. She says, “it’s an exciting, fast paced sport. Matt has fallen in love with the game and we are enjoying learning about it through him. Our perception of the game initially was that it was a rough and aggressive sport and we didn’t understand the rules. The more we are learning about it we are appreciating the skill and finesse required and are enjoying it even more.”
As is noted by all rugby outsiders once they become familiar with our sport, what stands out in rugby for the Klimchuks is the “sportsmanship and camaraderie among the athletes. Matt has had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people through rugby – both teammates and coaches. He has also had the opportunity to travel to places that he may never have visited otherwise. He is developing an international network at a very young age!” Already developing an impressive CV, and he isn’t even 17.
It isn’t just Matt who has felt the great sense of belonging within the sport. Michelle is impressed with the level of inclusivity within the tight-knit community, where everyone helps each other both off and on the pitch. “It’s different than either of us have experienced with other sports we have played ourselves or our children have been involved in.”
Like any young player who shows promise and gets the honour of representing his country before he’s finished high school, rugby has become Matt Klimchuk’s focus. Rugby, he says, is an integral part of his life and his life is centered around the sport, from watching games to working out at the gym, it’s all about getting better for Klimchuk. As he says, it’s more than a “recreational sport” to him.
For now, he hasn’t declared himself either a 7s or 15s player. He says “I love the fast pace and dynamics of 7’s, but I also love the technique and impact of 15’s. I was recently named to the Canadian U18 15’s team. I do anticipate playing on the national side and would love to represent my country any way that I can!”
At the same time, this is a young man with his head screwed on straight regarding a life beyond rugby. When I asked if he’s thinking ahead to perhaps playing professionally, his reply is a sober reality check for such a young and talented player. “As much as I love the sport” he says, “I must think of life after rugby when considering playing professionally. I would absolutely love to play professional rugby, I would just like to keep my doors open to a future after rugby.” That said, no door remains closed for Klimchuk: “I am not sure if that means getting a university education or doing specific things to set myself up… I would love to play professionally!”
Klimchuk’s focus is on representing his country and province, as well as himself, to the best of his abilities. “I want to make everyone who has supported me proud. Everybody, from my parents to coaches like Robin have supported me throughout my journey, and I want to make them proud! I see myself doing my best and going as far as I can in rugby.”
We see it too, as does the Saskatchewan Rugby Union, who recently named Klimchuk Saskatchewan Rugby’s Junior Male Athlete of the year. As MacDowell explains, this honour is “normally reserved for 18 or 19-year-old players. Matt is definitely playing above his age/grade level.” He’s also a person that MacDowell admires greatly. MacDowell says “I have never seen anyone appreciate an opportunity or take in an experience and love being on tour more than Matt. Having one of my homegrown academy players in Dubai made it a worthwhile trip for me.” Watching Klimchuk soak it in reminded MacDowell what it’s all about.
“As a coach it is quite rare you come across an athlete that has it all,” says MacDowell.
“Size, skill, focus, commitment, work ethic, true passion for the game, coachable, ambitious, and most importantly a mature, genuinely positive attitude. In over 25 years of coaching I have only met three players that have it all: Thomas Kay, Patrick Kay, and now Matt Klimchuk. For me, it is truly an honour to work with an athlete like Matt. It is my responsibility to give him the best support and guidance to set him up for success in his young rugby career.
“The most important thing I have learned in the past few years as a coach is how we measure success. Results come and go, but the opportunities we create for athletes through sport offer life-lessons. Their experiences build self-belief, which will be with them for life. This is what matters the most.
“Matt is 16 years old, and within one month he will have travelled to Dubai and competed against the top U-19 men from across the globe, then on to San Diego to represent Canada in 15s. He has ridden a camel across the desert, but most importantly he has made friends with teammates across Canada, North America, and from around the world. These are some of the incredible opportunities our sport creates. Matt, being the youngest player selected to represent The North American Barbarians was something he earned by going after his dream. I am thankful his journey has begun.”
The Klmchuk’s are as impressed with MacDowell as he is with their son.
Michelle says “Robin is a fantastic coach and a great person. Matt is very lucky to be influenced by someone with so much rugby knowledge and experience with coaching. We have seen Matt progress in the sport in a very short time, and Robin has played a very significant role with his development. Robin is passionate about the sport and selfless in his dedication to rugby and his athletes. He has given countless hours toward developing and growing rugby in Saskatchewan.” And beyond, as we already know.
Of rugby in Canada, and its potential for growth, there is no one better to ask than a young player, surrounded by other young players. Klimchuk paints a rosy picture of the growth of rugby and offers hope for the sport in Canada.
“I see rugby in Canada as the future of Canadian sport. I think the sport will continue to grow and will become a large part of culture in Canada. Once people get a taste of this amazing sport they will be hooked! Kids need to get out and try rugby and start young. They will grow into great players! Thanks to coaches like Robin, the sport is growing in unlikely places and hopefully will continue to do so.”
Now that we know Matt Kilmchuk’s beginnings within our game, it will be amazing to see what the next decade – and beyond – brings for this young talent.