Photos and Story: Mark Janzen
It’s kind of a funny thing sitting in the quiet with Justin Douglas.
We’re chatting around a well-used outdoor fire pit, surrounded by fields, dairy farms – the Douglas family farm being one of them – and an inviting mountainous backdrop, with the late-afternoon sun warming a crisp January day.
Nestled an hour’s drive east of Vancouver – where one of the best parties on the World Rugby Sevens Series resides each March – the Fraser River is to the north and Douglas’s biographical hometown of Abbotsford, B.C. is to the south.
Here, in the rurality of the locale, Douglas, as his mother Jeannette suggests, “…is just Justin.”
Yet, in this moment, Douglas, 24, is less than a month removed from becoming Canada’s all-time try-scoring leader on the series, with 126 tries putting him 21st all-time in World Series history. He’s the reigning DHL Impact Player Award winner – having earned the honour in 2017-18 recognizing the top performer on the Sevens Series within a statistical analysis of carries, tackles, line breaks and offloads. And he’s doing it all as a relative youngster. Amongst the top 30 all-time try-scorers in World Series history, Douglas, who also was named Rugby Canada’s men’s sevens player of the year in 2017, is the youngest on the list.
To the ardent rugby supporter this isn’t breaking news. To the casual Canadian sports fan, Douglas is barely a name of any repute, which, in itself, is further proof Douglas is one of the most under-celebrated elite-level athletes in Canada.
“If he was playing for one of the tier one nations, he would be lauded everywhere,” says Canada’s men’s sevens coach Damian McGrath. “When I first started here (in 2016), I went on record of saying he’s the best centre in world sevens. And there’s nothing that has happened since that would make me change my mind.”
However, when he puts on his boots and gives a brief walking tour of the family farm – stopping to tussle the hair on the forehead of their 2,000-pound bull along the way – Douglas seems worlds away from rugby superstardom.
And that might just be exactly how he likes it.
At almost 7 a.m. (PT) on Dec. 8, 2018 in Cape Town, Douglas caught a long looping toss – on the broadcast, they call it a “Sydney Harbour Bridge Pass” – from Canadian sevens legend Nathan Hirayama. With ball in hand, Douglas took one step to cut inside a flat-footed Welsh defender and, from five metres out, walked in and touched down. That try, two minutes into a pool play contest with Wales, saw him pass Sean Duke for the all-time try-scoring lead in Canadian sevens history.
After accepting a quick congratulatory hug from Mike Fuailefau, Douglas allowed himself to concede a little bit of a smile. But that was about it. He went right back to work, scored another try later in the contest while helping Canada to a 28-7 win.
“It was definitely special,” admits Douglas, who is in his seventh season with the sevens program.
But he immediately deflects the attention.
“I’ve been very lucky to play with and learn from guys like Duke, Nate, Phil (Mack), Mooner (John Moonlight), and Harry Jones…and see how they approach the game.”
Back in Canada, the historic moment was little more than a blip on the national sporting radar.
A few days later, after Canada finished the Cape Town tournament 11th, Douglas – unabashedly one of the best sevens players in the world – returned to the farm, where this whole journey started for Justin.
“It’s always an eye-opener when I come back to the farm just to see how my dad (Glen) goes about his day,” Douglas says. “He never stops working. He’s always doing something. It’s pretty special to see the work ethic that he puts into everything he does and it makes me think, ‘Yeah, I can work harder in rugby.’”
There’s a five kilometre farm road loop that Douglas runs when he’s home. Jogging down the final stretch of farm road, he’ll pass the rugby posts that stand in the front yard of his family’s farm. At the end of a grassy patch sandwiched between the road and the Douglas home, Glen put up the posts years ago as a Christmas present to Justin and his two older brothers – Jared, 26, who has been part of Canada’s sevens program in the past and featured in two world series tournaments last year, and Travis, 29, who was the family’s rugby-playing forerunner, spending time with Canada’s U17 program.
Glen had once seen a video about legendary All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter, who had grown up with rugby posts in his yard. With Travis leading the way into elite rugby and Jared and Justin following along, Glen figured uprights were only appropriate. While Justin never became a kicker and neither did his brothers, the mini field became a rugby haven. Perhaps the postage stamp, where Justin would compete against his older brothers and cousins, was the original breeding ground for his quick-step and all-world escapability.
It was also on the farm where Douglas coupled his innate speed with a strong work ethic. That’s just what happens when you grow up on a dairy farm.
“I think he’s understood from a young age that you get the fruits of your labour,” McGrath says. “He’s well-grounded, which is important.”
Working on the farm was a fact of life. Milking the cows on the weekend was just part of the family equation. On occasion there were Sunday game-days beginning with a pre-dawn wake-up call to milk the 150 or so cows on the farm.
“It’s just how it is,” Jeannette says.
Following both Travis and Jared into rugby before eventually going to Robert Bateman Secondary, where rugby has a strong tradition, the sport became ingrained in Justin. Sure, the rugby field just beyond the veranda helped, but Justin, who was also a standout football player in high school, was destined for success early on.
“Rugby has opened up so many doors for me and over the years, I just grew to love rugby so much,” he says.
Getting opportunities with the U17 and U20 programs helped forged his future. Then, after playing in the Youth Commonwealth Games in 2011, where Canada finished fifth overall, his path was set.
“From there, I was like, ‘This is it.’ I want to play rugby from now on.”
It wasn’t long after graduating from Robert Batemen in 2012 that he got the call to move to Victoria and join the national sevens team. That fall, while still only 18 years old, he made his debut on the circuit in Australia.
In the seven years since, he’s become one of Canada’s most unassuming sports stars.
He won’t like to read this part – and that would imply that he would even be reading this at all, which is rather unlikely as well – but it’s just kinda crazy how good this farm boy has become.
“He just has enormous talent and he’s a natural,” McGrath says. “He scores tries for us that no one else could score.”
This past December, in a game against Australia in Cape Town, Douglas put together yet another piece of evidence to add proof to McGrath’s words. Looking to take a pass from Pat Kay inside Canada’s own 22, Douglas cut inside to receive the ball, slipped back outside, increased his speed to 31 kilometres per hour, dropped his speed back down to 19 kilometres per hour, momentarily stepped back inside – making Australian speedster Lachlan Anderson look like a ballerina on a sheet of ice – before finally slicing back to the outside and finding his way to the try line.
“He has fantastic footwork that gets him in and out of situations that would cause other players trouble,” McGrath says. “He’s one of the best around.”
It would seem so.
Taking in the afternoon sun on a crisp January day, Douglas relaxes by the fire pit. He tells farm stories of chasing loose cattle, duck hunting in the summer and, his favourite, fishing for sturgeon. The biggest one he’s ever caught was just under nine feet. He still wants something bigger. When pressed, he gives a classically vague fisherman-like answer to his favourite fishing spots: “Somewhere between Mission and Chilliwack.” Other than the excitable four-month old black lab Kobe, recent addition to the Douglas family, this is Justin’s quiet place.
“Coming back to Abbotsford kind of grounds me and I can forget about rugby when I’m here.”
But that’s only kind of true. “Obviously I still do think about rugby every day, but it’s nice to get away.”
Since rugby sevens was added as an Olympic sport, his ultimate goal has never really been far from his mind.
“Getting to the Olympics has always been kind of the carrot I’ve been chasing.”
Making Canadian history individually was just part of the process.
“The main goal is the Olympics and whatever comes in between, that’s just a bonus.”
As he talks, Kobe jumps into the water in the ditch. It takes some coaxing, but Douglas finally gets him back out of the water. Of course, he laughs. Kobe, with all his energy, is already part of the family. And, to Kobe, like most others, Douglas is just Justin.
Later that day, Douglas will make his way back to Victoria.
He’ll go back to training and soon enough, he’ll return to travelling the world with teammates, starting with tour stops in New Zealand and Australia.
He’ll go back to scoring tries and being a fleet-footed superstar.
Yet, at the same time, he’ll happily continue to quietly chase incredible success, as the Abbotsford farmer turned sevens great pursues his two goals for the summer of 2019 – qualifying for the Olympics and finally catching a 10-footer.