Since arriving on the Semiahmoo Peninsula in September, Sam Knights has served as a player/coach with Bayside’s men’s rugby teams. (Don Wright photo)

Young rugby coach finds success with Bayside Sharks

Online search leads Sam Knights to South Surrey coaching gig

These days, there isn’t much that you can’t find online – a new job, a used car, or a perfect vacation at a cut-rate price.

None of that is news to Sam Knights, however. He found a whole new life via a simple Google search.

In search of a new adventure, the 24-year-old rugby player and coach – who grew up with the game in England – took to the Internet to find a new city in which to live and play the game. After deciding Vancouver was the place for him, he typed “rugby clubs Vancouver” into his search engine, sent off an email to “about 10 different clubs,” including the South Surrey-based Bayside Sharks, and then waited for a response.

He didn’t have to wait long.

“(Bayside director of rugby) Andy Blackburn was on the phone to me within probably 20 minutes,” Knights told Peace Arch News. “We got to talking and it kind of just went from there.

“It was all just a bit of a whim, really. I decided that I wanted to move abroad and experience living in a different country, and I just decided Vancouver was the place – I like skiing and you’ve got the mountains and winter here, and in the summer, the beaches look amazing.”

He arrived on the Semiahmoo Peninsula – with cousin Jack Knights and friend, Rhys Redman, who both joined the rugby club, too – in September, intent on playing for the Sharks’ men’s program, and also coaching the under-23 side. But the U23 team didn’t get off the ground as originally planned (“I think a lot of clubs are struggling to put together under-23 teams and full men’s teams,” Knights said) and later that fall, men’s coach Pete Clifford had to abruptly leave his post and head back to England, so Knights was tasked with taking over, while also continuing to play.

And though, at 24, he is far from the youngest member of the team – “We have a fairly young side, I think 23 or 24 is fairly average for our squad,” he said – Knights did admit to being “quite wary” when first thrust into the role of coach.

“Particularly, there’s some senior players on the team who’ve played for Bayside since they were 14 years old, maybe even younger, so I knew I’d have to win those guys over, and I knew Pete was held in very high regard by the boys,” he said.

“It’s an ongoing process, but I think I’m managing to do OK… we’ve had good numbers at training and I think the guys enjoy it and enjoy the direction we’re going.

“So, I think I’m doing a good job, but I guess you’d ask the other guys about that.”

Knights isn’t alone as the men’s program decision-maker, however. He handles the in-game decisions and strategy, and also runs practices twice a week, while Blackburn handles lineup decisions and other off-the-field issues.

“It can be a little difficult to manage sometimes, but I think we’ve struck the right balance… I think things are going well, and I inherited a very talented squad. Pete did a fantastic job before me, so my job has really been to just carry on that work, really.”

One person who he has impressed in his short time with the club has been another English ex-pat, Blackburn, who, in a conversation with PAN before Christmas, called Knights “probably the best coach I’ve ever coached within Canada, and I’ve been here for 18 years.”

High praise indeed for someone only in his mid-20s, but Knights’ resume is an impressive one.

His father was a longtime rugby coach at St. Benedict’s, a school in West London at which the younger Knights attended, and also coached a variety of men’s teams in London on Saturday afternoons.

“I kind of grew up watching him coach,” Knights said. “And I’m a scrumhalf, traditionally, so I’d often coach the younger scrumhalfs at school – I’d help them with passing and kicking.”

From there, Knights decided to make coaching his university focus, and went on to earn a coaching degree at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales. While at university, he managed to get some work experience helping coach at Bath Rugby Academy.

“That’s when things really began to accelerate for me,” Knights said.

“I got two weeks of work experience with them over the summer, and that two weeks turned into six weeks, and then every time they’d have a holiday camp, I’d take some time off from university to go coach with them.”

Eventually, he began working exclusively with the academy’s under-18 program, where he spent a couple years before his Google search brought him to Canada.

Knights knows his future in the game likely lies exclusively in coaching, but for now, he said he plans to continue on in a dual player-coach role for as long as he can.

“Down the road, I will probably make a choice but I don’t think it’ll be too soon. I’d like to keep playing. I love it – I’m crazy about the game, so as long as I’m fit, I’d like to continue to play,” he said.

“But coaching is also more of my focus. I know that I’m not going to play professional rugby – that dream is kind of done but I would like, one day, to be able to coach as a professional.”

For now, Knights said he’s focused solely on one thing – helping make Bayside “as successful as I can.”

The men’s first-division team has played two games since the second half of the schedule began – a narrow loss to the Vancouver Rowing Club in late January, followed by a win two weekends ago in Langley.

“It was a really, really good performance by the boys,” Knights said.

The men’s teams – both first and second division – did not play last weekend, but return to the pitch Feb. 17 when they’ll travel east to take on Abbotsford.

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