Matt Klimchuk Living His Five Year Plan
Updated: Jan 3
Matt Klimchuk was only 16 years old when I first wrote about him as a young prodigy. At the time, he was just starting to be pegged as someone with the potential for greatness on the rugby pitch. He was getting noticed, received junior player of the year accolades from Saskatchewan Rugby Union, and was already on the radar of scouts.
But the even more remarkable thing in the Fall of 2018 about this enthusiastic and driven player? He had only been playing rugby 18 months.
The rise upward for Matt and the Klimchuk family was already dizzying in 2018. Flash forward four-plus years and it's still an amazing trajectory. Further, Klimchuk's ride doesn't appear to be slowing – he received his first senior men's 15's cap in the Netherlands this past Fall.
Coach Robin MacDowell saw the spark instantly when he first coached Klimchuk in Saskatchewan back then. To MacDowell, it was equally as brilliant for Matt to discover the oval ball as it was for the seasoned coach to discover his raw talent and hone it.
While one might be inclined to say that hard work has paid off, the 20 year old 6'3" back rower will be quick to tell you that the hard work has only just begun. It’s an honour he doesn’t take lightly. He wants to be the best and he wants to continue to be selected to the senior men's squad.
In 2018, MacDowell proudly shared that Klimchuk was the youngest member of his U19 Barbarians 7s team in Dubai. When MacDowell is impressed by a player, it'll be the whole package he sees, from intuition to work-rate. Klimchuk possesses those traits. “He attended his first MacDowell rugby academy session in 2017 after exploding onto the rugby scene only a year prior," MacDowell says. "But within a year, he was mentoring guys years older than him.”
MacDowell has remained impressed, watching closely over the past four and a half years and always in contact. They'll remain close, and not just because Klimchuk was the first to sign to MacDowell's prairie academy in 2017. “He works every day. To be named to the national team only a year after picking up the oval ball shows the level of skill he possesses.”
Klimchuk says he chose to enroll in that first academy the “the second the opportunity was available” as he’d fallen in love with the sport during his grade 9 year at high school. “I wanted to get better any way I could. I saw the academy as a way to get better and improve my skills.” That attitude hasn't waned in the least.
Matt and his parents Michelle and Dean knew next to nothing about Rugby prior to 2017, but are impressed with the level of chivalry with the game, our core values, and the close family feeling that exists within rugby.
“At first I saw it as a brutal sport," Matt shares. "I never thought it would be a sport that I would focus on until I first played it. I was immediately hooked." First impressions forever changed, Klimchuk knew he would do anything to play at the highest level. "I love the culture behind rugby. Everything from the mutual respect between players to the international aspect of the sport trumps any other game in my mind.”
Michelle Klimchuk says the game was pretty foreign to the family and wasn’t accessible to her or Dean when they were younger. With Matt so entrenched in the game, the family has now fully embraced the sport. Like her son, Michelle's first thoughts underwent an evolution. "Our perception of the game initially was that it was a rough and aggressive sport and we didn’t understand the rules. The more we learn, the more we appreciate the skill and finesse required to be at the elite level.”
Like many young players who show early promise and who get to represent their country before completing high school, rugby quickly became Klimchuk’s primary focus. Rugby, he says, is an integral part of his life and his life has been fully centered around the sport over the last five years.
When I first spoke to him in 2017, Klimchuk was looking forward to represent Canada in "any way that I can.” He was looking ahead to the possibility of playing professionally, and he was also looking - wisely - beyond his playing days.
His focus in 2023 remains on representing his country to the best of his abilities. “Everybody, from my parents and family to coaches like Robin have supported me throughout my journey, and I want to make them proud! I see myself doing my best and going as far as I can in rugby.”
Klimchuk shares that the last half decade has been an evolution. More recently "under the tutelage of Phil Mack and Hubert Buydens, the last 2 years at the Pacific Pride have been instrumental to my development. It has provided me with a high-performance rugby environment that is manageable alongside my studies at the University of Victoria. Various other opportunities such as the Canadian-West Selects and Canadian U20 have also been very helpful – not only from an identification standpoint, but also in getting high-level minutes playing rugby." Klimchuk comments on an issue all rugby folk in North America struggle with: on-pitch minutes: "Just playing the game has been critical for me as a player and is what I believe to be one of the most important parts of any player’s development."
Touring with the senior team this Fall was an experience that will drive Klimchuk on days he's tired or homesick. "Throughout my time on tour I was just trying to experience everything and get the most out of the opportunity. For the first time in my career I was able to see what the current highest level of rugby in Canada looks like. From large-scale playing systems, to individual players' habits and standards, there are a multitude of things to take away and learn from just by being in that environment and witnessing the hard work and dedication demonstrated by other players." Always learning. Always taking it in, as he was right from the beginning. MacDowell can attest that this has always been the Klimchuk way.
“As a coach it is quite rare you come across an athlete that has it all,” says MacDowell. That Klimchuk has kept a laser focus throughout his teen years says everything MacDowell needs to know. It's a great feeling for Robin that he can spot talent from the outset and see it proven years later. While it's not the first time for the natural scout within MacDowell, Klimchuk is special; nothing has changed since day one. His level of commitment remains sky-high.
“Size, skill, focus, commitment, work ethic, true passion for the game, coachable, ambitious, and most importantly a mature, genuinely positive attitude. In over 30 years of coaching I have only met three male players that have it all from a young age: Thomas Kay, Patrick Kay, and now Matt Klimchuk. For me, it is truly an honour to work with an athlete like Matt. It is my responsibility to give him the best support and guidance to set him up for success in his young rugby career.
“The most important thing I have learned as a coach is how we measure success. Results come and go, but the opportunities we create for athletes through sport offer life-lessons. Their experiences build self-belief, which will be with them for life. This is what matters the most."
To echo MacDowell's sentiment, Matt shares that his first senior cap "was an incredibly valuable experience to see what it takes to be great at that level, and highlighted some key assets I have as a player. Being back in the Academy, I am able to work on some of those individual skill sets. While it's tough to replicate true international rugby in any training environment, having an idea of what it takes to succeed on that stage is huge."
Klimchuk admits the experience was a highlight in his life. "I remember thinking about the culmination of so many hours of training on the field, working in the gym, tracking my nutrition, studying film, and most notably all the support I have received from family, coaches, and other players," he says.
Klimchuk admits that it was the "fastest, hardest hitting rugby" he's ever played. "It is really a whole new ballpark with bigger collisions, less time to make decisions, and requires a higher workrate."
As a fine postscript, he mentions how it felt to be greeted by his family after that first cap. "Having my parents and sister there was great. I don't think I will ever forget the post-match huge family hug."
The Klmchuk family remains grateful to MacDowell and the support he's continued to offer to Matt five years on.
“Robin is a fantastic coach and a great person. Matt is very lucky to be influenced by someone with so much rugby knowledge and experience with coaching. Robin has played a significant role in Matt's development. He is passionate about the sport and selfless in his dedication to rugby and his athletes. He has given countless hours toward developing and growing rugby," Michelle says. Anyone who has worked with MacDowell sees how important his players become to him. His rugby family is definitely mighty large, and very close-knit.
The only word that comes to mind for Klimchuk's parents is proud: "Proud of seeing him grow as both an athlete and as a person, and proud of his efforts and dedication to better himself – both on and off the pitch," they say. But, they add, mostly they are just excited to see where the oval ball takes their son, and they are confident that it has and will continue to change his life for the positive.
When I wrote about Matt Klimchuk four years ago, I was excited for this teen who was so stoked about the game and was looking forward to seeing not only what Matt could get out of it, but what he could offer it. To have confirmation that the acorn MacDowell spotted back then is in fact growing into a mighty oak of a player is the kind of affirmation rugby folk thrive on. Now to sit back and see what the next decade – and beyond – brings for this young talent.
Karen L. Gasbarino, January 2023
Rugby Hive Editor