Learning to be a leader

For men's rugby captain Zach Klassen, this season will be like no other in his 15 years on the field. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

St. Thomas University men’s rugby captain Zach Klassen fades in and out of the grainy Teams call. His chosen background, an industrial office with huge blue lockers, occasionally chop off parts of his face and hair. Even in this low-quality reality, the grin on his face is clear as he discusses the informal nondisclosure agreement by which all rugby players abide.

“There’s a rule in rugby, ‘whatever happens on the road stays on the road,’” he said.

This year, there will not be much time on the road. Usually, the team would be travelling throughout Atlantic Canada to compete against rival universities. Now, much has changed, and Klassen is grateful to even have a team to train with.

“When I first heard we were having practices, I was pretty stoked,” said the fourth-year student.

“But at the same time, I knew that there would be no season.”

Klassen will be playing a different game, focused on building, rather than competing. This season will be like no other in the captain’s 15 years on the field.

Klassen first began playing rugby at six in Kenya, where his parents worked for the United Nations. He lived there for seven years. At 11, his family moved back to Canada. Klassen’s new home in the small town of East Dalhousie, Nova Scotia, had a much smaller rugby community. Despite this, he continued to play throughout middle and high school.

Once graduated from high school, he said it was a no-brainer to continue his rugby career.

“I spoke to the coach at the time, Curtis Lauzon, and he offered me a role on the team. I didn’t really think twice,” he said.

Once arriving at STU, Klassen entered an atmosphere where anyone is encouraged to play, even if they have no rugby experience. Almost all his coaches have been STU alumnus and understand the school’s community and culture. With his new team, Klassen thrived as an athlete. After two years of playing, he was being considered for regional and national teams.

In the winter of 2019, during an off-season training session, he met members of the local Loyalists rugby club. By the end of their session, Klassen and some of his teammates had been invited to join the team for a match in Boston.

Klassen continued to play with the Loyalists throughout the summer and into the next school year.

“Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I had STU. Tuesday, Thursday I had [the] Loyalists. Then on Saturday, I had a Loyalists’ game and on Sunday, I had a STU game.”

The extra time on the field paid off. Klassen was offered the role of captain that fall, something the athlete had been working towards for years.

“In high school, I put in more time than anyone else and I didn’t get captain there. So, I came here, tried harder and got captain here. It was quite rewarding,” he said.

Klassen said being captain has been a constant learning experience. At first, he was unsure of what to do in the position and is still learning every day.

This year will continue to be a learning experience. With no games, Klassen is a captain without a season. This year, he will work to build and improve a team, preparing for the return of university sports. This is possibly the athlete’s final year at STU and he may never get to play with the team he has worked to improve.

“I would much rather see the guys next year perform because of what we did this year,” Klassen said.

Even if this year is the end of his university career, Klassen’s time on the field is far from over. For the past few years, his life has been “governed by rugby” and does not see this changing anytime soon. He said coaching could be in his future and he sees himself playing with the Loyalists for years to come.

“I plan to play basically until I can’t,” said Klassen.

“Rugby, it’s just been my whole life for a while.”