It’s been a difficult year and a half for athletes within the international sporting community since COVID-19 brought competition to a screeching halt.
But an Alexis Creek rugby player and member of the Canadian men’s national team has chosen to view the pandemic in a different light: by rekindling his competitive drive and passion for the sport.
During the fall of 2019, 29-year-old prop Jake Ilnicki laced up his boots for the Canadian men’s national team at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. He’d also played at the previous World Cup for Canada in 2015.
The Canadians, despite the accomplishment of qualifying for the event, itself, finished winless. Shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, shutting down sporting events and international competition.
“After the World Cup I was in kind of a difficult situation where I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with rugby, and everything shut down in sports, so there wasn’t a clear path for me,” Ilnicki told the Tribune.
“But I found a lot more benefit in the situation I never expected. The coaching staff at Rugby Canada reached out and offered opportunities to continue to train, we held a camp last fall (in Langford at the national training centre) and it lit a fire under me. It sparked everything back up.”
This month, Ilnicki learned he had been selected as a member of Canada’s 32-man squad it will be taking to compete in the U.K. for a pair of test matches against Wales and England in preparation for the 2023 World Cup.
Ilnicki and Canada will first play Wales on July 3 at Principality Stadium in Cariff, before facing England July 10 at Twickenham Stadium in London.
Ilnicki is currently playing professional rugby in the U.S. and is in his third year of a contract with the Seattle Seawolves of Major League Rugby (MLR).
“With Seattle and MLR getting the green light to go ahead this season it put me in a better position with rugby,” Ilnicki said. “I could still play and say: “I’m still here, I’m still hungry and ready to play.”
Prior to returning to Seattle in late January of 2021, Ilnicki had been training with the Canadian men’s team at the Rugby Canada National Training Centre in Langf0rd, B.C. on Vancouver Island.
Getting accustomed to bubble life — isolation, twice-weekly COVID-19 testing — at first was a change. But once players in the league had the opportunity to be vaccinated things started opening up, he said.
“I’ve been playing pretty consistently every week, splitting time with the rest of the players,” Ilnicki said. “It’s been a long season and they’ve managed our play time accordingly.”
The Seawolves began the season with a new coaching staff and personnel on the pitch and have a two-win and 12-loss record as the season winds down next month.
“Everybody’s still showing up with smiles and we’re still grateful we’re getting to play. We’re all learning, and hopefully the club can be in a better position to get the right foot forward to start next season.
Ilnicki’s play in the MLR was good enough to raise his hand for contention once again for a spot on the men’s national team for the 2023 World Cup. He’s currently sitting at 42 caps (appearances) with Team Canada in international competition.
“It’s an important year,” he said. “After we play these games against Wales and England we get a couple weeks off, then go right back into another strict bubble for the rest of the year and back to Langford.”
Ilnicki said he’s looking forward to returning to B.C. to be able to see his fiancé, Lindsay, and family back home in the Cariboo, before once again shifting his focus to international competition against the U.S. and South American opponents for Rugby World Cup qualification matches this fall.
At 29, Ilnicki will likely be looked to as one of the veterans on the Canadian side.
“It’s been a long year (with COVID),” he said. “No Rugby Canada test matches, so it’s exciting times. It’s a fresh squad and I’m really looking forward to being a leader for the young guys and to help clear a path for Rugby Canada moving forward, to start winning some matches and climbing up the ranks again, which is very exciting for everyone involved.”
Always gracious, Ilnicki said he wouldn’t be where he’s at without all the support he’s received from back home.
“It’s just been amazing through all this stuff with COVID,” he said. “I’m constantly getting messages from all the people from the rugby club (the Williams Lake Rustlers), and the community in Williams Lake has been incredible. It’s been a driving factor keeping me engaged in rugby through everything.”