Gilbert Rugby honours local club president

FERGUS – When Joe Bowley moved to Canada from England nearly 20 years ago, he found a home at the Fergus Highland Rugby Club.

That was in 2005, when the club was much smaller, but Bowley said it provided him and his young family a connection to their new community.

“To find the club, it just gave us something to home ourselves,” Bowley said.

Since then, the club has grown significantly, and Bowley is being given some of the credit for that, in the form of an award of sorts from Gilbert Rugby, a company known for its rugby gear.

Bowley, who serves as Highland Rugby Club president, was selected as a 2024 Gilbert Rugby Champion, a distinction that honours individuals who are working to grow the game of rugby in Canada. 

He joins the ranks of 40 athletes, coaches and community builders from across Canada whose profiles can be viewed at

Bowley says the honour is not an award in the traditional sense, in that there is no plaque or trophy, but rather it is recognition of the work each individual has done to raise the profile of the game. It is also a chance to collaborate with them to continue that work.

“Over the next six months, we’ll be working as a group to promote the game,” Bowley says.

As an example of the kind of promotion he expects to be doing, Bowley says he could have created a video of the evening as the Fergus club started its season on April 25, and shared it on social media.

“I’ve been told I’ve gotta do TikToks,” he says, noting such work is not really his expertise, but he has lots of support within the club.

Bowley first started playing rugby when he was 11 years old in Leicester. He and his family still cheer for the Leicester Tigers, a team in England’s top rugby division.

At age 52, Bowley’s rugby career has spanned more than 40 years, and has included playing, coaching, refereeing and club administration.

He had a senior role in the Market Bosworth Rugby Club in Leicestershire before coming to Canada.

When he joined the club in Fergus, Bowley says there were just a couple of teams, but the club has since grown to 16 teams, and more than 300 members. The youngest of these is under five years old, and the oldest is over 65, he said.

“It’s just really good to see that development,” he added.

In his bio on the Gilbert Rugby website, Bowley gets credit for much of that development.

“He played a pivotal role in establishing and expanding the mini and junior programs at Fergus Highland Rugby Club, promoting the sport among local youth and schools,” it states.

Prior to becoming president of the club, he was director of rugby, where he focused on bridging the gap between the club and high schools “to create a seamless pathway for aspiring players,” the bio continues, noting Bowley’s efforts to nurture young talent at local high schools and the club.

“His coaching efforts aim not only to develop skilled players but also to instill a love for the game and a sense of belonging within the rugby community.”

For Bowley, the sport is all about community.

“We like to say, when you play soccer, you play for the team, but when you play rugby, you play for the club,” he says.

He calls it a “family environment” and notes that his kids now play.

Bowley has also worked to create connections for club members with the greater rugby community by organizing exchange programs, and creating opportunities for local athletes to play abroad.

“One of the big things I’ve tried to do with this club is promote relationships,” he said.

One of the club’s current head coaches was one of the first to take part in an exchange, Bowley said, noting “he’s come back here, and he’s giving back to the club by coaching.”

Bowley also continues to coach, and even to play with the HOGs — which stands for Highland Old Guys — when he has time.

He says the Gilbert Rugby award is a reminder that the effort he has put into the club is worth it.

“It’s just nice to be acknowledged and to be able to share the story of what Fergus and Highland and rugby has done for me,” he said.