Rugby has offered Jon Phelan the chance to travel and play across the world. Now, as the former Canadian national team member settles into his newest home in Prince Rupert, he’s been pleasantly surprised to find a bustling rugby community tucked away on the country’s north coast.
Phelan grew up in Montreal, first trying out rugby in high school. While his resume would indicate him being a natural at the sport, in reality Phelan needed a push to help get him out on the field.
“My parents forced me kicking and screaming to play sports,” Phelan explained. “I was very much a robotics and video games oriented kid.”
“It was the challenge,” Phelan said on why he selected rugby as his sport of choice. “It’s not an easy sport, but once you get your feet wet and you realize you’re not made of glass, it becomes addictive. You want more and more, and you thrive off of that team environment.”
Phelan was hooked, and after high school played for local club teams, including Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue, the Quebec provincial team and the McGill Redmen varsity team, where he attended university. Phelan was playing for the Rock, a St. John’s based rugby team that draws players from the five easternmost provinces, when he got the call that propelled him to the international stage.
“It was an email that came through saying, Jon you’ve been selected to go to Argentina for a month,” Phelan recalled of his initial invite from the Canadian national team. He was soon on a plane heading on tour, then on another tour, and before long found himself living in Wales taking part in a rugby development program.
Despite all the success and the opportunity to represent his hometown and Canada around the world, Phelan never wanted the sport to define who he was. He returned to Montreal to complete his master’s degree in engineering from McGill. Phelan explained that having a strong academic background to turn to was always important to him.
|Phelan has been pleasantly surprised at the level of rugby involvement in Prince Rupert, and has quickly become involved with both playing and coaching the sport. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)|
“Some people are talented and physically able and they get picked up early to play elite level sports. I’m happy that didn’t happen to me, because it allowed me to get to a certain point with my engineering career that when I did get picked up at 24 years old to play full-time rugby, it was never all or nothing,” Phelan said.
“I knew a lot of people throughout the years that needed to get on the next team, or they needed to get a new contract because if they didn’t have that, they didn’t really have any source of income,” Phelan said. “With any professional sport, it’s a limited shelf life.”
Why engineering? That was due to, or one might say the fault of, the city Phelan grew up in.
“Montreal is just like this spaghetti of infrastructure. Loads of construction that never stops,” he said of his hometown’s infamous city planning woes. “I was always attracted to physics and science, and I was like wow, how do they do that.”
|Phelan has helped organize rugby fundraisers for the Charles Hays Rainmakers rugby squad during the Rugby World Cup. (Jenna Cocullo / The Northern View)|
The decision has been a good one, as Phelan now enjoys a good job in his field of choice. It’s the reason why he’s in Prince Rupert in fact, working on an infrastructure restoration project in the area.
Following his master’s degree, Phelan landed contracts in France and England, playing his final two years with the Doncaster Knights of England’s RFU Championship league. It was here where Phelan took some time to reassess what he wanted out of the sport, and life.
“I did two years in England, and amazing as they were they were almost carbon copies of each other. You know the teams you’re playing, you know the routine at practice. It became a job after just two years, of the same routine,” Phelan explained of the daily grind.
“I always knew my life would be here in Canada with my wife Talia, so we had to start looking forward.”
|Phelan sports his UBC Old Boys Ravens jersey, a team he helped lead to the B.C. Premier League Rugby title the past two years in a row while living in Vancouver. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)|
The pair landed in Vancouver in 2016, where Phelan worked while also playing rugby for the UBC Old Boys Ravens rugby squad, winning two B.C. Premier League Rugby titles in a row. The same engineering work would call Phelan to the North, where he is now working on a project that he had been involved with even prior to the move. The chance to see it completed, and a change of pace, were appealing prospects for him.
“I wanted to experience life in a smaller town, see if it’s something that appeals to me, and so far it’s been fantastic,” Phelan said of his first few months in Prince Rupert.
Despite being retired, rugby is never far from Phelan’s thoughts. It was in fact one of the first pieces of information he decided to seek about his new town.
“As soon as I heard about the possibility of coming to Prince Rupert for work, I immediately searched for Prince Rupert rugby,” Phelan said. “I found that the Seamen are here and they’re an active club.”
“I got hooked up with them pretty early, and as with wherever you go in practice you show up and people are happy to see you. That’s the thing about rugby, there’s a place for absolutely everybody,” Phelan said.
|Jon Phelan took part in summer scrimmages with Rupert rugby players to stay active in the community, including fellow former national team player Sean Duke. (Alex Kurial / The Northern View)|
As the Seamen headed into the offseason, Phelan joined many of the players in shifting to help out with coaching the Rainmakers high school rugby squad. Under the direction of head coach Andy Enns, Phelan and other players show up as often as they can to help pass on their knowledge to future stars of the sport.
Phelan has also been active in helping out the team off the field, working with others to help organize a fundraising event during the Rugby World Cup. Players on the team gather at the Wheelhouse every Sunday morning and Thursday night for viewing parties, selling breakfast and burgers to fans who come out to watch the games. All the money goes toward financing team trips and other costs, including an upcoming Thanksgiving tournament in Kamloops.
“It’s been fantastic,” Phelan said of the turnout. He also managed to solicit the help of his former teammates on the Canadian team to deliver a good luck message to the Rainmakers on their upcoming season, a moment the team will not soon forget.
Phelan has certainly been bit by the coaching bug, and plans to keep it as a part of his life going forward. “Rugby’s one of those things that you can never really get out of,” he says.
“It gives so much, I feel so grateful to have been a rugby player and fallen into this position, that I feel it’s natural that you want to give back.”
Alex Kurial | Sports Reporter
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