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American Nathan Bombrys named Rugby Canada's new chief executive officer

Nathan Bombrys found rugby by chance while attending Syracuse University. Or rather, rugby found him.
American Nathan Bombrys, who has spent the last two decades working in English and Scottish rugby, has been named CEO of Rugby Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO- Rugby Canada **MANDATORY CREDIT**

Nathan Bombrys found rugby by chance while attending Syracuse University. Or rather, rugby found him.

Bombrys, who had played high school football in Michigan, was about to sign up to try out for the Orangemen football team when he was intercepted by someone wearing a Syracuse rugby jacket who offered a different kind of tryout. Bombrys accepted and fell in love with rugby.

More than 25 years later, after two decades working in English and Scottish rugby, Bombrys is returning to North America to become Rugby Canada's chief executive officer.

Sally Dennis, chair of Rugby Canada's board of directors, said Bombrys has "the character and experience that Rugby Canada needs in its leader at this time."

“Nathan has a vision and a plan for restoring pride in Canadian rugby and leading us into a new era of growth, community engagement, financial stability and increased international performance success," Dennis said in a statement. "We are excited and keen for him to get started.”

The 47-year-old Bombrys, who will officially join Rugby Canada this summer, succeeds Allen Vansen, who stepped down at the end of January, part of a "general reset" in the sport's governing body.

With Major League Rugby in its fifth season and the U.S. looking to host the 2031 men’s Rugby World Cup and 2033 women’s World Cup, with Vancouver as a possible host city, Bombrys sees plenty of room for growth.

"I think it's a great opportunity. A really exciting time for rugby as a sport globally and exciting time for North America," he said Tuesday.

"I think rugby's at a point where it now starts to realize it has to expand, it has to grow. And that's a good thing," he added. "I think it could be a really good time for rugby in Canada. 

"Canada has a great rugby history. I'm really excited to do my bit and contribute to the next chapter." 

Bombrys joins a governing body struggling to find success on the field and harmony off of it.

An independent review released last month into Rugby Canada's high-performance program depicted a governing body too busy fighting fires to have any long-term strategy and athletes "shocked" at how poorly they are treated.

"Current players and high-performance program alumni confess that they are not proud to wear the Rugby Canada jersey," the review concluded.

The review was commissioned by Rugby Canada in the wake of complaints raised by past and present members of the women's sevens team and the men's 15s team's failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Bombrys see his new job as "an opportunity to try to bring the (Canadian) rugby community together and try to get everyone pointing in the same direction as much as possible."

"I know there are challenges. That's just the nature (of it). If it was easy, it would be done already so they wouldn't need me" he added.

The Edinburgh-based Bombrys spent the last year as head of international commercial projects for the Scottish Rugby Union. Prior to that, he served almost 10 years as managing director of the Glasgow Warriors, a club owned by the Scottish Union.

"Before the (Toronto) Arrows, I probably signed more Canadian players to professional contracts than anyone in the world,' he said with a chuckle.

The list includes Canadian record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe, Connor Braid, Taylor Paris and Djustice Sears-Duru.

The native of Mendon, Mich., also spent nine years as commercial and marketing director of England's Sale Sharks. His tenure there coincided with current Canada men's coach Kingsley Jones time in a variety of coaching roles. 

Bombrys studied film at Syracuse where he captained the rugby team. After finishing his degree in 1997, he moved to the U.K. to play rugby.

Through Syracuse rugby coach Bob Wilson's contacts, he had the phone number of someone at the British Basketball League. That eventually led to a 1997 to 2000 stint as head of marketing for the now-defunct London Towers basketball team.  

He joined Sale in 2002, starting his career in rugby's front office.

A lock and back-row forward, he continued to play rugby for Beckenham and Macclesfield, among other clubs.

"I haven't officially retired but it's been a while since I put the boots on," he said.

As an American, he said he had to prove himself in British rugby. But he stayed the course and won people over.

In Glasgow, Bombrys says he was "responsible for the whole club … raising the money and spending it." 

"So I have an appreciation for how difficult it is to raise (funds) which makes you think carefully about spending it. But also appreciating that if you don't improve the product, which is the rugby, then it gets even harder to raise the money."

Vansen's background was in sports administration rather than rugby. He joined the governing body in 2016 after serving as executive vice-president for operations, sport and venue management for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.

Bombrys, who is married with two children, says he has yet to settle on where he will be based in Canada.

"It seems to be a question a lot of people ask but it seems to be it's always the wrong answer no matter what it is," he said, clearly aware of the past tug-of-war between Toronto and Vancouver Island when it comes to Rugby Canada's HQ.

Canada's teams are somewhat in a state of flux these days.

Jones is looking to rebuild the 21st-ranked men's 15s squad, focusing largely on young MLR talent. The fourth-ranked women's squad is now under new management with Sandro Fiorino recently dropped in favour of former assistant coach Kevin Rouet ahead of this fall's World Cup in New Zealand.

The men's and women's sevens teams have undergone considerable turnover since the Tokyo Olympics and currently rank 12th and eight, respectively, in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings.

Jamie Levchuk, who has served as interim Rugby Canada CEO since Feb. 1, will move to the position of managing director of revenue and fan engagement.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press