Jake Ilnicki, former professional rugby player, has recently taken a step back and is shifting into a post-player chapter of life.
The Alexis Creek athlete was recently home and gave a workshop at the Ottoman Drive Rugby Fields in Williams Lake to players participating in a tournament Saturday, May 27.
“Part of this new chapter is giving back as much as I can. I am really passionate about coaching now.”
One of the catalysts for deciding to stop playing professionally was the death of his grandfather, Bob Blatchford, in the fall of 2022 who he described as a “talismanic” guy in their family.
“I played rugby for 10 years and in that was 10 years I did not really get to know my grandfather. I felt that was enough time for me to play and needed enough time now to spend with family, if that makes sense.”
Injuries were also compiling from playing and he felt it was a good time to bow out and focus on the next generation.
Recently he has teamed up with Curry Hitchborn, the head coach for the University of British Columbia men’s rugby program since 2018 and the BC Bears Senior Men’s XVs.
The pair were actually scouting while at the tournament Saturday which saw teams from Prince Rupert, Prince George and Terrace compete against the Williams Lake Rustlers.
“Curry got wind that I was done playing and tracked me down and said ‘heh, I know it’s not easy giving up playing rugby all in one go. Would you like to give it a go with coaching?’ He nudged me in the right pathway and said ‘you are from up north, there has got to be more people just like you.’”
While in Williams Lake they were hoping to invite a player or two to try out for the BC Bears which will be competing in Halifax, N.S. June 11-20, 2023.
There was an inner-squad game in Abbotsford last weekend with hopefully two teams to go against each other.
“We will make some cuts after that,” Ilnicki said.
The majority of training sessions for the team is in Vancouver so a large number of the players are drawn from the Lower Mainland, but it is not limited to the area which is why Ilnicki was happy to have Hitchborn visit the Cariboo Chilcotin and be exposed to more athletes from the Interior and North.
Aside from coaching, he is pursuing an electrical apprenticeship.
He lives in Langford, near Victoria, with his wife Lindsay Machin, who originally from Richmond.
She is a physical education teacher and runs a soccer academy on Vancouver Island.
“We are always spit-balling coaching and academy ideas off each other and what to do with our groups of players all the time, which is nice.”
His personal rugby history
Ilnicki grew up in Alexis Creek.
He began playing rugby in high school in Williams Lake, which is why he is eager to give back locally, and was a member of the Williams Lake Secondary School Stags coached by Mike Levitt.
From there he went overseas to play professionally for six-month stints in Australia, New Zealand, England and France.
“I was involved with the Canadian team for the past 10 years. It was lots of travelling and rugby with those guys as well, which is good.”
Because he played 15s, he never played in the Olympics like Williams Lake’s own Kayla Moleschi who played 7s.
He did go to two world cups though.
“I love the camaraderie of rugby that comes with working your butt off and getting face down in the mud with some good buddies. I have a really close group of rugby friends I call brothers.”
The accessibility of the game is something he also loves.
“All you need is a pair of cleats and mouth guard. You can travel anywhere in the world and play.”
Around 20 years ago a Canadian team rugby player Matt Weingart came to Williams Lake and gave a workshop.
From that workshop Ilnicki, his brother Riley and some friends were hooked, he recalled.
“We thought if Matt can do it, so can we. Ever since then I’ve really wanted to do something similar and I’m hoping after today the relationship with BC Rugby builds and grows and we start having similar camps like these, even bigger.”
He said Riley also lives on Vancouver Island and is still involved with rugby.
On Saturday, in addition to giving the workshop, Ilnicki played for about 10 minutes with the Rustlers in their last game of the day.
“I had lots of fun running around with those guys again.”