As Canada’s senior men’s rugby team prepares to host Brazil at Westhills Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the inclusion of two players in particular serve as a reminder of Saanich’s not-so-distant rugby past.
Clay Panga and Nick Blevins, who once patrolled the sandy backfield as Velox Valhallians (Westshore RFC) during the club’s Gordon Head era, earn their third straight start in the 2016 Americas Rugby Championship.
The two were prominent in Canada’s 33-17 win over Uruguay on Feb. 6, and are keen to move Canada foreword after a 30-22 loss to the U.S. in Austin, Texas on Saturday.
(Saturday’s match starts at 4 p.m. at Westhills Stadium.)
The 30-year-old Panga, wearing No. 8, smashed through multiple Uruguayans on several carries in his long awaited Canadian debut.
Blevins, who broke onto the national team in 2015, was also up to the task. The 27-year-old centre scored a world-class try 19 minutes into the game and laid a series of fierce tackles.
It was all smiles for the Canadians after the match but it was an especially big moment for Panga, who also returned to his former Westshore (Velox) rugby club after four years away.
“Being lucky enough to get the call for a full cap in front of friends and family, and teammates, it’s a surreal feeling,” Panga said. “It was such a lot of work to get here, I’m overwhelmed with how fortunate I am.”
Panga’s inclusion as a rookie in the forward pack was deceiving. The debutant was part of Canada’s heavily-experienced ARC forward pack that included most of Canada’s 2015 RWC starters. They dominated physically and, except for a penalty try blip late in the game, were otherwise clinical in the scrums.
It’s been an unorthodox journey to the national team for Panga. New Zealand born, Panga grew up in Victoria and signed on with Velox.
Told by Rugby Canada management he was too small to play in the back row internationally, Velox agreed to play him in the backs. The story goes that it would add to his versatility, and perhaps Canada would consider him at scrum half.
It worked for a while, as In 2009 he was included on Rugby Canada’s long list and played for the Canada ‘A’ Maple Leafs sevens team.
But a nasty arm break derailed his career until he resurfaced in Calgary in 2011.
He had followed Blevins and James Buchanan as they returned to their native city, where Panga found a home with the Hornets and Wolf Pack.
“They helped me out, Calgary was very good to me,” Panga said.
When he retuned to Victoria for the 2013-14 season, Panga was once again on RC’s radar. Unfortunately, Velox was without a team in the premiership, as it was still suffering from the exodus of national talent that included Blevins and Panga, as well as Dean Van Camp and Bryn Keys, among others.
Instead, Panga suited up for Castaway Wanderers the past two seasons.
“I wanted that final crack at playing on the national team,” he said, adding the return was partly for rugby but mainly to be with his fiancee.
This year, Panga is once again on the pitch for Westshore, this time in the forward role.
Westshore’s premier men started slow in the Island’s fall schedule but gave both the UVic Vikes and CW a scare before defeating James Bay in the final game prior to the Christmas break. It meant Westshore didn’t make it into the winter premiership but, with Panga back in the starting 15 (when he’s not suiting up for Canada), there’s hope he’ll draw other national level players as well, and restore Westshore to the premiership on a regular basis.
“The reason you want national players isn’t just to be competitive in the premiership, it’s and also good for the club environment to have young players rub shoulders with elite level athletes, said Westshore president Mark Wyatt.
Wyatt, the once great Canadian international, also returned to Westshore after a hiatus that dates back to his Velox playing days of 1995.
‘It’s been a real delight that Clay’s chosen to return to his roots,” Wyatt added. “He’s a benefit to the club as a whole, he’s super knowledgable on the rugby front, and brings current and forward thinking to the game.”
“And if Blevins wants to come back, I will personally roll out the red carpet,” Wyatt said.
The positive effect of having national team players has been happening for years, of course, with Westshore’s powerhouse women’s program, which is is now three teams deep.
With the move to the new home at Juan de Fuca Recreation, the hope for Westshore RFC was to grow a closer relationship with Rugby Canada. And it’s well on its way, as Westshore members are serving as game day volunteers for the ARC events at Westhills.
Their cheers were heard, and seen, when Blevins touched down for the game’s third try against Uruguay. it was Example A of Blevins’ potential, in which he parlayed a world-class, behind the back offload from Phil Mackenzie into a perfect line that cut through the Uruguayans.
Blevins, (inset photo) who left Velox when he was left out of the RWC 2011 campaign, is still based out of Calgary but said a full time return to Victoria could be in the works.
“It was tough back then,” Blevins said. “Funding was cut from 15s, so I returned home where I’ve had great support from Calgary. It’s a great situation in Calgary but hopefully I can relocate here, with Westshore potentially on the radar.”
Blevins plays club rugby with the Calgary Hornets and on the Prairie Wolf Pack in the Canadian Rugby Championship. He also credits the Athlete Factory for helping him ultimately make it onto the 2015 RWC squad.
“Right now with the ARC I’m just taking it one day at time.”