By: Mark Janzen
Sitting with his teammates with a thick air of disappointment enrapturing the room, Theo Sauder was as crushed as anyone. Sure, individually he’d played pretty well, but in that moment his own contribution was meaningless. For the first time in Sauder’s four years at the University of British Columbia, he and his Thunderbirds teammates would not be taking home the Rounsefell Cup.
A 10-6 loss in the final to the UBC Old Boys Ravens snapped UBC’s three-year run as trophy-holders atop the BC Rugby Men’s Premier League.
Yet, it was in that very moment that the door to Sauder’s rugby international trajectory flung open. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but, you never know.
Standing just outside the Thunderbirds locker room was Canadian senior men’s 15s head coach Kingsley Jones. He requested a brief chat with Sauder.
“There are players who wonder what’s happening, and there are players who make things happen,” Jones told Sauder.
“You’re someone who makes things happen.”
They didn’t talk long, but Jones had seen enough to suggest to Sauder that he join Canada’s centralized group in Langford, B.C.
Sauder, 22, stepped back into the Thunderbirds room at Rotary Stadium in Abbotsford, B.C.
It was moment that defined bittersweet, with the inescapable reality of a tough loss, coupled with a glimmer into a bright future. Yet, even Sauder couldn’t have predicted what the next six months would bring – a rugby ride that has taken the 5-foot-11, 185-pound fullback – who might even be better at fly-half – from university rugby in B.C. to knocking on the door of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
There were times during his four years at UBC when Sauder thought his international dream might never come to fruition.
“I just felt like I kind of flat-lined for a bit,” Sauder says. “I felt like I kind of fell out of the loop. I definitely felt like maybe this wouldn’t happen…and maybe it wasn’t a realistic option.”
During the latter stages of his high school career at the rugby factory that is Vancouver’s St. George’s School, Sauder was a prodigy. After leading St. George’s to a provincial title in sevens as a Grade 11 student, the diminutive star was one of Canada’s “next big things.” In the fall of his Grade 12 year, he earned a chance to represent Canada with the Maple Leafs at the NACRA (North American Caribbean Rugby Association) Sevens Championship in the Cayman Islands. Playing alongside the likes of current sevens stars Justin Douglas, Adam Zaruba and Lucas Hammond, Sauder seemed well on his way to rugby success.
Returning home to Vancouver, Sauder went on to win the B.C. high school provincial championships in both sevens and 15s in his final year, 2014, at St. George’s. His path to success appeared even more apparent. A local newspaper article suggested he “may just be Canada’s next sevens superstar. Pace to burn and skills to match.” At the time, even Sauder admitted “the Olympics (for sevens) are shaping up as a real goal.”
It’s funny how things change … and yet, at the same time, don’t really change at all.
Sitting in the back corner of a Vancouver coffee shop sipping on an Americano – indeed, the nomenclature seems slightly inappropriate, but the conversation carries on – Sauder is less than two weeks removed from helping Canada win the repechage tournament in Marseille, France to earn qualification for the Rugby World Cup 2019. He’s just over two months beyond the announcement of his signing a professional contract with the Toronto Arrows of Major League Rugby. And it was only six months ago that he made his senior 15s international debut.
Further, it’s a mere seven months since that conversation with Jones.
“I always felt that I had the talent to play at this level,” Sauder says. “I don’t think it was unrealistic. But I was definitely surprised that’s it’s come at me all so quick. It’s kind of taken off out of nowhere.”
For Jones, he saw something and gave Sauder a chance.
For UBC head coach Curry Hitchborn, who has watched Sauder develop since he was a U16 player within B.C.’s provincial union, it was only a matter of time before the hard-nosed back stepped onto the international stage.
“Theo has always known exactly what he’s wanted to do in terms of athletics,” says Hitchborn, whose UBC team recently captured its second straight Canadian university championship. “I think he took the time to mature and focus on his academics while getting bigger and stronger.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Theo was going to encounter success on an international stage. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ It was a natural progression for an athlete of his calibre.”
Early in his UBC career, Sauder found himself under the tutelage of James Thompson, Nate Rees, and Sean Duke and – like his Maple Leafs experience – soaked in every piece of information he could.
“There were so many good players and I tried to learn a little bit from all of them,” Sauder says.
Striking a balance between his academics and his athletics, Sauder’s focus while at UBC was with the Thunderbirds. With that, his sevens ventures soon became an unrealistic time commitment.
“I was really happy playing at UBC,” he says. “Everyone was having a great time and I really enjoyed it.”
At the same time, his dream to play for Canada remained.
Prior to playing Hong Kong in the final game of the repechage, there was a moment during Canada’s jersey presentation when the players had a chance to reflect. Sauder was starting in his fourth straight test match and was on the precipice of playing fullback in one of the most important rugby games in Canadian history.
Sauder thought back to seven years earlier, when he sat in a gym at St. George’s watching Canada play New Zealand in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Now, sitting in the same room as him, preparing to don the same jersey were the very same players he watched that day at St. George’s. There Sauder was – now a teammate alongside the likes of DTH van der Merwe, Hubert Buydens and Conor Trainor.
“To be able to play with them, you can’t even dream that up,” Sauder says. “It was surreal being in that moment. To be there with guys like that was just crazy.”
A day later, Sauder was part of the group that ensured Canada would return to the Rugby World Cup, with Canada beating Hong Kong 27-10 to complete a perfect 3-0 record in the repechage.
Sauder’s former high school coach, Bill Chamberlain, who is an assistant with St. George’s rugby program, watched from a distance. Unaware of Jones’ comments seven month earlier, Chamberlain describes Sauder almost as if it was a recording.
“The thing with Theo is he’s a difference-maker on either side of the ball,” Chamberlain says. “Whatever team he plays with, he is always an ‘x-factor’ type of guy. Every time he touches the ball, he makes something happen.”
For Sauder, that winning moment in Marseille was a culmination of “the next big thing” moments.
It was his treat for the work he’d put in at St. George’s, then at UBC and, most recently, with the Rugby Canada’s centralized group.
It was the bow on an international season that saw him earn his first international cap against Scotland in the summer and carry on throughout the fall.
It was a confirmation of a long-surmised potential.
And it was a small window into what Canadian rugby fans can expect from Sauder’s future – something Hitchborn knew was bound to happen.
“He’s surgical, he’s dexterous, and he’s ferocious,” Hitchborn says. “He’s got nothing but intent. He’s incredibly intelligent. He’s an exciting player and people just want to play (with) Theo.”
That pretty much sums it up. And if the repechage is any indication, Sauder, who is very much still a youngster within the Canadian ranks, might just be one of his club and country’s next superstars.