April 16th, 2024

Rugby league road a learning journey for coach Aaron Zimmerle and Canada Wolverines

By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on February 29, 2024.

Members of the Canada Wolverines, the Canadian national rugby league team, pose in front of the Las Vegas sign on Wednesday Feb. 28, 2024 ahead of their international Friday against the USA Hawks. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Canada Wolverines **MANDATORY CREDIT**

Aaron Zimmerle’s sporting journey has taken him from Australia to Las Vegas this week, wearing Canadian colours.

The Canadian-born, Australia-based Zimmerle will coach the Canada Wolverines in a rugby league international against the USA Hawks on Friday in Sin City.

The game is part of the festivities surrounding the kickoff of Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) season on U.S. soil Saturday. The Manley Sea Eagles take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs before the Sydney Roosters face the Brisbane Broncos at Allegiant Stadium, home of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders.

The Canadian men last played in November 2022, defeating the U.S. 22-10 in Tampa, Fla. Due to the pandemic, that was their first action since a 2019 tour of Serbia.

Wolverines manager Paul Buchanan estimates the Canadian players have each forked out at least $1,500 to $2,000 to pay for the Vegas trip while putting their day jobs aside.

The Canadian contingent includes a plumber, welder, personal trainer, wildlife researcher, systems integration consultant, IT specialist, swing-stage rigger, tool-and-die maker, two truck drivers, four teachers and five university/college students.

They all come with their own story.

“When you start out as a child playing the sport, you don’t really see where the journey can take you,” Zimmerle said in an interview. “We’ve discussed that. That’s been part of our process of our connecting with each other, is the players sharing their our own journeys. And in all of the stories, the highs and the lows, the game of rugby league and the people that they’ve met through it are the things that help inspire them to keep going with every other aspect of their life.

“I feel like it’s a special privilege knowing that a game, because it’s a courageous game, can help shape young men. And when people tell you that story and they’re brave enough to share it with you, it’s quite special.”

Rugby league is the 13-player version of the code, as opposed to 15-player rugby union. It is played primarily in Australia, England and New Zealand.

In Canada, there are domestic leagues in Ontario and B.C. with a small but dedicated group looking to grow the sport.

Zimmerle held a five-day Wolverines training camp last July in Vancouver, with an East-West game serving to help selection for the Vegas roster.

Born in Surrey, B.C., to a Canadian mother and Australian father, Zimmerle moved to Australia when he was 10.

“In moving there, I didn’t initially feel like I fit in. I was just lucky that I was somewhat athletic and had friends that encouraged me to play footie (rugby league). And through that, I think you earn respect. So I was a Canadian kid that didn’t exactly know what was going on but tried really hard.”

He went on to play at the semi-pro level, spending time in the reserve grade with the Penrith Panthers organization and then in the regional Queensland Cup and New South Wales Cup.

Today Zimmerle is an assistant coach in the Queensland Cup and coaches at Palm Beach Currumbin State High School on the Gold Coast. Known for its Sports Excellence program, the school has won three national championships and produced more than 50 NRL players.

Zimmerle, in his second stint as Canada coach, believes Canadians are ideally suited for rugby league, a game that blends huge hits with intricate strategy.

“They’re just built for it,” he said enthusiastically. “They’re courageous people. They’re not scared of physicality. They’re resilient. They’re all the things that are uncoachable. And Canadians have it by nature. So then all we have to do is teach them how to play the game.”

The Canadian women’s team, known as the Ravens, has taken part in the last two editions of the Rugby League World Cup, posting wins in both 2017 in Australia (over Papua New Guinea) and 2021 in England (over Brazil).

The Wolverines have yet to qualify for the men’s tournament.

Canada is currently ranked 46th in the world while the U.S. is No. 33, rankings skewed by lack of games played.

The Canada-U. S. rugby league rivalry dates back to 1987 when Canada won 23-10 in Pittsburgh.

Wolverines Roster

Charles Curran, Jason Park, Kyle Yurkiw (Brantford Broncos), Kimi Vinituraga (Vancouver Valley Vipers), Niko Andrionas, Jacob Bourne, Dillon Hamilton, Ben Stothers (Point Grey Thunder), David Astley, Jason Chuck, Lee Keegel, Daniel Martyn (Toronto City Saints), Scyler Dumas (Vancouver Dragons), Colton Carpenter, Luke Toroca (Valley Warriors), Blake Mahovic, Josh Michalik, Gus Murphy (Whistler Wolves).

Follow @NeilMDavidson on X platform, formerly known as Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024.

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