By Mark Janzen
From the other side of the phone, the whirring, steaming, and chatter of a bustling coffee shop allowed for a resolute backdrop.
With a lumberjack beard and surfer-like locks, Evan Olmstead’s appearance pays homage to both the mountainous nature of his birthplace – North Vancouver, British Columbia – and the sandy beaches of his childhood home – Sydney, Australia. Today, the 6-foot-6 lock is very much in the foreground.
Raised in the ways of Australia’s favourite caffeinated consumable, the Canadian rugby star prefers a flat white. However, on this day, he is having filter coffee at a run-of-the-mill establishment in West Vancouver.
And he’s just fine with that.
“I like different types of beans, but I’m not a bean snob,” says Olmstead, who has 30 Canada caps to his name and most recently played in all three Pacific Nations Cup contests, starting twice. “I’ll drink filter coffee anywhere. It doesn’t bother me.”
As it turns out, little does.
Indeed, no one has ever likened Olmstead to a snob. That just might be the furthest quality from everyone’s favourite bearded wrecking ball.
That is, as long as he’s on your side.
“I’m glad he’s my teammate,” says Canadian teammate DTH van der Merwe. “I think he’s super annoying to play against. If you don’t know him, you probably don’t like him because maybe you’ve crossed him on the field. He’s into everything. He doesn’t mind if two guys are holding him down punching him, because that means he’s one player holding two guys and it’s better off for the team.”
In a month’s time, when Canada opens its Rugby World Cup campaign, you can be sure the Italian contingent will be well aware of Olmstead. They won’t have van der Merwe’s fortune. Olmstead will be ready to dig in and ply his trade.
Yet, despite his ever-so desirable “super annoying” traits, it’s been a topsy-turvy calendar year for Olmstead, as he’s been forced to slosh through professional waters in both hemispheres.
A year ago at this time of year he was playing in New Zealand for Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup. Fast forward to the end of last October, and Olmstead put together a shift he’ll never forget, playing all 100 minutes of a thrilling come-from-behind overtime win over Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup final. Playing alongside the likes of Akira Ioane and against six capped All Blacks, Olmstead was named the man of the match.
“It was the best game ever,” he says. “As a rugby game, the way it spun on it’s head; We were getting beaten pretty handily actually, but we managed to turn it around. It was unreal. It was an amazing experience to be part of it and a really cool vibe.”
Olmstead’s Super Rugby aspirations with the Blues – the impetus for going to New Zealand in the first place – seemed on the horizon. For his hair, his beard, and his hard-nosed play, he had become a bit of a local favourite. No surprises. Yet, in the end, a Super Rugby contract never came to fruition.
“It was fun and exciting, but I wasn’t able to land somewhere long-term, which is disappointing,” says the ever-honest Olmstead.
While truncated by an eventual move back to Newcastle Falcons in February, where he had played from 2016 to 2018, Olmstead’s season in New Zealand expanded his game in unique ways, as he developed a bit of a Kiwi-flavoured creative flair.
“Instead of being drilled about being strict with the structure and the system,” Olmstead says. “We had a structure, but the whole point of the structure was to break the structure. If you see an opportunity, you go. It’s more challenging and it’s not for everyone, but I like the freedom to try to have a crack.”
While he played in preseason games with the Blues, he remained on the outside of the Blues formal roster and eventually decided to return to Newcastle with an eye on Japan. “I was thinking about what would put me in the best position to make an impact at the World Cup.”
There are parts of Vancouver where Olmstead’s look wouldn’t stand out. Rather pedestrian in some places.
West Vancouver, where he often stays with his Grandma when he’s in town, is not traditionally one of those locales. Combined with his height, he probably turned a head or two when he stepped into the caffeinated quarters. Once at the bar, his chatty Australian accent likely caught more than a few more ears. It’s anyone’s guess what he said.
“He is always wanting to spark up a conversation with anyone at any time,” says Canadian teammate Tyler Ardron, who represented the Super Rugby-playing Chiefs each of the last two seasons.
Van der Merwe continued the thought.
“There’s no filter with (Olmstead),” he says. “Whatever is on his mind, he’ll say it, whether it’s right or wrong. Sometimes it will attract the wrong comments back, but that’s what Evan’s all about. He doesn’t have a filter.”
And he doesn’t much care.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
There is no doubt that he cares about his teammates.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and in the professional game sometimes those characters are missing,” says Canada coach Kingsley Jones. “Evan is someone you can rely on for a laugh, but if you said jump off this bridge, he wouldn’t ask why, or where or what, he’d just do it. He just gets on with things.
Van der Merwe adds: “He definitely wears his heart on his sleeve and will do anything for his friends and teammates.”
And, of course, he cares about his hair.
Van der Merwe has threatened to cut Olmstead’s hair or his beard.
Olmstead deadpans in his reply.
“I will never, ever speak to you again.”
There’s only one Evan Olmstead.
In a World Cup that has Canada (21st) as the second lowest ranked team in the entire competition – only Pool B foe Namibia (23rd) is lower – and with New Zealand (2nd), South Africa (4th) and Italy (13th) on the docket, a regular smattering of Olmstead is exactly what the Canadians will need.
He’s a ruck disturber with a knack for leading the lineouts. He’ll mix it up and he’ll chat it up.
Away from the pitch, he’ll both lend his opinion in the team’s book club – during the Pacific Nations Cup, the boys read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – and in the team’s Fortnite exhibitions.
In his own unique way, he’s one of the guys who brings the team together.
“He leads in a different way,” Jones says. “He’s a great character and very popular. On the field, he’s able to play six and lock and I think he has the ability to play in both hemispheres. It’s often a different type of game (comparing the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere), but Evan is someone who leads by example. He brings a lot of steam to the team and he’s important for us.”
While Canada went winless in their PNC campaign, Olmstead remains optimistic. He’s happy to discuss.
“Some of our attacking play and our patterns are some of the best I’ve seen a Canadian team run,” he says. “That’s not to say we don’t make mistakes, but by the time we get to that first game (of the World Cup), we’ll be firing on all cylinders. That’s where we need to be if we want to have a chance of knocking off some of these teams.
“We do actually have probably the best group of players that I’ve been a part of in a Canadian team. We have ridiculously good players across the field. In the past, we’ve had some ridiculously good players, but in some positions we’ve been a bit light. That’s exciting. Obviously there are things to work on and there are some little glimpses of what we can do. If we play our best on any day of the week, we can beat anyone.”
If that’s to happen, they’ll need Olmstead to do his thing. And what exactly is that thing?
“He’s a good character and he has a heart of gold and he’ll give you everything he has.”