Calgary, Canada – Not long ago, a trip to the Commonwealth Games seemed unthinkable for Calgary native Matthew Oworu.
After all, he grew up in Zimbabwe, which withdrew from the Commonwealth two decades back.
So there was no chance of playing his adopted sport — rugby — for his adopted country at the international sporting event.
But Canada came calling on the massive talent, and a few years later, the 21-year-old is part of the Canadian contingent focused on the 2022 Commonwealth Games, which open Thursday in Birmingham, England.
“Honestly, just really excited about it,” said the affable Oworu, a nearly 6-foot-2, 245-lb (1.88m, 111kgs) phenom of Canada’s rugby sevens squad.
“This has really been a big year for me, going to so many places that I’ve never really been to before and just playing the sport that I like. I don’t feel there’s any pressure on us as Canada — the outside world doesn’t really know what we’re capable of. So we are at the point where we can hit these teams with a sucker punch, and that’s always fun.
“We have a strong brotherhood. We want to get out there and show what we’re really made of.”
There’s that Can-do attitude.
Here’s hoping it’s contagious among all Canadians at the Commonwealth Games, spreading through all 16 athletes with Calgary-area connections competing in the 12-day, 72-nation event.
Star diver Caeli McKay (Calgary) and stellar swimmer Rebecca Smith (Red Deer) are the most recognizable names of the local athletes gunning for gold in Birmingham.
Others include: shot putter Sarah Mickey (Redcliff); 3×3 basketball’s Jordan Jensen-Whyte (Calgary); cyclist Sarah Orban (Calgary); diver Margo Erlam (Calgary); field hockey’s Melanie Scholz (Calgary); weightlifter Hannah Kaminski (Calgary); lawn bowlers Jennifer MacDonald (Calgary) and Greg Wilson (Cochrane); and swimmers Stephen Calkins (Calgary) and Finlay Knox (Okotoks).
But in rugby is where fans will find the most area talents at the U.K.-hosted Games. While Oworu is the only local product on the men’s squad, the women’s sevens crew features fellow Calgarian Piper Logan, Vulcan’s Keyara Wardley and Canmore’s Krissy Scurfield.
“It’s quite a young squad currently,” said 21-year-old Logan, a graduate of Ernest Manning High School. “Most of the older girls who have been around for quite some time have started retiring out of the program, unfortunately. But fortunately for us younger girls, especially with the Olympics coming up in a couple years, it’ll give us a good amount of time to prep for that and get some experience under our belts.”
Same goes for the Canadian guys.
“We’re definitely in that same role,” agreed Oworu, also 21. “We had nine, 10 guys retire right after the Olympics last year. The first couple of tournaments were lots of learning for the new guys, myself included. We kind of had more continuity in terms of squad selection and that stuff. Now we’re just working on, ‘OK, can we replicate these strengths and find some consistency in our game play so we can end the season on a high note and go into next season with higher expectations.’”
Right now, however, the focus is on a Commonwealth coup, beginning with pool play against Zambia, Wales and — gulp — Fiji.
“All big games — no teams that we’re taking lightly,” Oworu said. “Wales and Zambia, we’re looking to really go at and beat. And Fiji is, obviously, one of the best teams in the world. So they’re pretty much in a spot that we’re looking to get to eventually.”
Perhaps it’ll be with the help of forward Oworu, whose size and aggressive play is a boon for Canada.
He’s there to provide big tackles and force turnovers. Plus he carries the ball in heavy traffic.
“My role is to assist my team as much as I can with the physicality, so that’s one of the glaring strengths in my game,” declared Oworu, who grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, playing with his younger brother, James. “Our coach (in Zimbabwe) would say, ‘So Matthew and James are amazing tacklers’ … that was a strength. If someone was in front of us with the ball, we would give it our all to tackle the guy. That was funny, because even up til today, that is one of the things I enjoy most in rugby — I’d always try and make sure that a high percentage of my tackles are the ones that get the crowd hyped.”
Being from Calgary, rugby wasn’t always his sport.
Not even close.
Basketball and football were more to his liking, but a move during his Grade 6 year to the Southern African country changed that.
“Definitely, rugby was easier to pick up there than in Calgary,” said Oworu, born to Nigerian father Akins and Zimbabwean mother Maria. “Pretty much a month or two after joining the new school (in Harare), our P.E. teacher was like, ‘Yeah … you guys are bigger than everyone, so you’re going to have to play rugby.’
“The first year, it wasn’t really passionate at all for us. We’d just go play because we felt like we kind of had to and we didn’t have much to do after school. My dad’s brother was a big rugby player at his high school in Zimbabwe, and he’d tell us how prestigious the sport is and how fun it is once you get into it. And our mom and dad were big supporters of us doing it, too.
“We were big and used to rough house a bit while growing up, being two boys a year apart. That was probably a nightmare for our parents.”
But it soon became a dream situation for Oworu, who went on to play flanker for Zimbabwe’s under-18 side and captained that crew in his second year.
When word went worldwide about his prowess, Canada’s rugby 15s head coach, Kingsley Jones, contacted him to join this nation’s development program. In July 2020, he returned to Calgary, and after attending the national 15s camp later that year, he relocated to Victoria, B.C., to play for the much-heralded Pacific Pride, Rugby Canada’s developmental academy.
The unique pathway has led him to what appears to be a promising time in Canadian rugby.
“Being born and Calgary and growing up in Zimbabwe, there was such a vast diversity in cultures,” Oworu said. “I’m just glad we got pretty much the best of both worlds.”