John Moonlight – A Canadian Rugby Legend in the Making
By Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
Photographs by and courtesy of Judy Teasdale Photography
Photo with Author by Mark Knutt
Not a lot of people are aware that Rugby Canada's 7s captain John Moonlight hails from Canadian rugby royalty. His cousin David Moonlight, 8 years his senior, is a capped player for Canada on the 15s side as a winger in 2004-5, and is one of the all-time leading points scorers on the 7s side for Canada. These are big shoes to fill for #CaptainCanada Moonlight.
According to his Mom Debbie and twin sister Michelle, it is a role #CaptainCanada takes incredibly seriously.
27 year old John is a native of Pickering Ontario. He was always destined for a sports career; be it hockey, football, or rugby. Cousin Dave encouraged the strong, fast-paced John to try rugby in grade 9 and he was hooked. Mom Debbie says that after the very first practice she could see the love for the game in his eyes and that she can still see it now. In grade 12, John got a dream chance to attend prestigious Queen’s University and play football for them. Instead, his response to Debbie (when she suggested that he could make a lot of money playing football) was that rugby was his passion, so he had to follow his heart and pursue his rugby career. He attended Wilfrid Laurier for two years before realizing after his U19 World Cup that he would need to be in BC to be part of the national program. So John followed his dream and went to the University of Victoria to make it so.
Fast forward less than 10 years and what you have is one of Rugby Canada’s shining lights, without a doubt. Moonlight’s on-field presence is obvious every single game, whether the result is a win for the team or not. His leadership skills have him respected by his teammates at Rugby Canada and the Ontario Blues, as well as Canadian Rugby press, and his passion and heart for the game are obvious to rugby followers. Michelle says that “John puts his heart into everything he does and that is why he is so good at what he does,” which is evident to anyone who follows him. It is also evident to Under Armour, who have made John their Rugby Canada brand ambassador. Protect this house, indeed. John emanates the response of “I Will. “
John Moonlight’s 15s debut was in the 2009 Churchill Cup against Georgia. He didn’t play again until November 2012 when he faced fierce opponents Samoa. He has made 14 appearances as a flanker (and one at number 8) and has scored three tries. There is no doubt that he is an integral member of the 15s team and that he enjoys playing it. To Moonlight, the best element of the 15s game is the “contact side as it’s a lot more physical.” There isn’t a tackle he won’t make.
It is as a 7s player that Moonlight has had an even deeper impact. John was named Canadian player of the year in 2012 and 2013, and along with Phil Mack was named to the World 7s Dream Team in 2014. Quite the honour to be plucked out among all that great 7s talent - but it’s evident on the field how much grafting John does to ply his trade. He’s played over 80 7s matches and 30 tournaments since 2008. He is fast on the field and fearless in a tackle. He is a trusted ball carrier and crosses the line. He’s one of the most entertaining Canadians to watch, and his favourite part of the 7s game is ”the one-on-one aspect and the extra space you have to take on an opponent.” It’s obvious Moonlight enjoys this kind of interplay when you watch his footwork and ball handling skills.
Of watching their son and brother play, Debbie and Michelle both agree that it’s hard to sit still when he’s on the field, whether they watch live or by other means.
Michelle adds that watching John in person is “pretty amazing. I really enjoy hearing the comments in the crowd when people are cheering him on. Makes me sometimes want to say ‘Hey, That’s My Twin Brother!’ The whole atmosphere of the live game is always better than watching it online.” Of online games, Michelle tries not to miss any of them but finds it a challenge. A lot of Rugby Canada supporters are the same. We will try to time-shift to watch but often it’s an impossibility, a challenge shared by all Canadian fans - especially when there are technical difficulties online. It makes firing up the #rednation a bit tougher for the folks at Rugby Canada.
It is with tremendous heart and patriotism for Canada that drives John to be the best he can be and encourage the same of the players he captains on the 7s squad. Mom Debbie says: “John sets very high standards for himself and he is his own worst critic. [As] captain, I know John wears his heart on his sleeve. He takes his position very seriously and wants himself and his teammates to do the very best for themselves and for their country. He has often said to me ‘I am representing my country not only when I play but in every aspect so I want to be a good role model’.” Moonlight’s outlook deserves a tremendous amount of respect. He is a fantastic ambassador for Canada, and with the Prime Minister watching, it’s a role worth living up to for John, who was honoured when PM Stephen Harper congratulated he and Mack for making the 7’s World Dream Team.
Initially he went to Victoria for 15s, and it wasn’t until Coach Doug Tate mentioned going out for 7s trial that John even considered it as an option. He also never imagined a potential podium stop in his career back when he was “just enjoying playing the sport with all my buddies from high school.” It’s a real possibility now.
Being captain of the 7s team is a responsibility John Moonlight takes in stride. He is tremendously proud and wants to represent his country on the international stage. For John there is truly no “I” in team. When asked what is different now that he is captain, he replies that “nothing has really changed with being the captain of the team. Our team is full of leaders and guys who can help lead the team. I have the title but the team is lead together as a group.” Aside from a few extra meetings and media events he has to attend, the team works, lives and plays together, with the goal in mind to win games and tournaments. There IS one standout element of Moonlight being captain - he’s been playing 7s since before it was wildly popular; it will mark it’s debut in the Summer Olympics in Rio 2016, and Canada is hoping to make it to the podium.
Of his training at the Rugby Centre for Excellence (COE) in Langford, BC, John says “the off field support at the COE is awesome. We have staff in place to make the environment as professional as possible and it's paying off on the field.” Of his teammates, John shares that “the team’s very tight off the field and I think that's what makes our team so great. When your good buddies are the same guys you have on the field beside you it means a bit more and you work harder for them.” This is the general Moonlight attitude that makes him stand out from other players. He isn’t playing for glory. Take his response to my comment that I’m surprised he isn’t playing professional rugby overseas. Casually, he says he’s “been in discussion with teams in the past with regards to a contract. Since the Olympics have become a possibility for us, I have made that my goal.” However, he adds, “ I don't know what the future holds after the Olympics but I would never rule it out.” Fans will live in hope that it becomes a reality before Moonlight’s playing days are done.
No one expected that John would become a popular sports figure in Canada, but thanks to the increasing popularity of the 7s game (particularly the incredibly popular cult status of the 7s World Series tournaments), and due to the increased attention on Social Media, John is getting recognized. John’s sister Michelle finds the attention “amazing” and she is very proud to say he’s her twin brother. Debbie is often told that people “follow” John and tell her they think he’s “awesome and a hard working rugby player.” Debbie says: “I can't even begin to explain the feelings - they can be overwhelming at times. I come from a big family and each and every one of them are so very proud of John, especially his Grandmother - she tells everybody she's sees about him whether they want to hear or not!”
Of the social media (and specifically Twitter) support that Moonlight and the Rugby Canada players get, John feels that the attention is not intrusive: “social media has become such an influence on athletes of many sports. The support we are seeing has grown tremendously over the past few years and it's greatly appreciated and well received. Any support for what we do is awesome and all the positives coming in are great.” Sister Michelle echoes that sentiment: “Social media is very important these days. It’s a great way for athletes to connect with their fans, family and friends. Social media is always helpful for the games as well. If I am out and can’t watch I can always keep up to date with the status of the games. I find it amazing how many people tweet about rugby and their favourite players. I search for John’s name and I see all the tweets and it makes me proud to call him my brother.” Debbie sees how social media support and the way the word is spread via Rugby Canada’s #rednation and Rugby United’s wide-spread reporting is impacting the game here in Canada. Debbie happens to be one of our best supporters on our Rugby United @RugbyCAN_ feed. She retweets many of our posts as well as being active in her support of all Rugby Canada programs and news. She says “I think Twitter and Facebook have been a great source of social media for John and the team. The amount of info and resources out there is unbelievable. All the resources are there to keep us well-informed about the team and tournaments as well as what is happening overseas. [Rugby United] for one has made a huge difference with all the connections [it has made]. Look at the games at the BMO Field [in Toronto, where Rugby Canada play many of their international tests] - the crowds get bigger all the time and we now have a whole lot more fans following Rugby Canada.” John himself is even aware of Rugby United’s ethos being “a network of people from every country supporting rugby on all levels.”
This July Canada is host nation for the 2015 Pan-Am Games, and John and Co are expected to do quite well, and as hosts, expect to podium. This is a goal they have set for themselves, and very much the business at hand. After that is Rugby World Cup 2015 in the UK, where John will again don his 15s boots and apply his trade at the breakdowns. A year later is the Ultimate Goal for John – the 2016 Olympics in Rio. There is still work to be done before that’s a sure thing, but with John Moonlight at the helm, I’ll wage my bets that Canada will get there – and get a stop on the podium to boot.
@RugbyCAN_ co-Manager Karen with Moonlight in September 2013 after the Ontario Blues captured the Canadian Rugby Championship.