After five years at UBC, Izzak Kelly looks to the future

Even for his position as a rugby lock, fifth-year Izzak Kelly towers over the competition.

He’s one of the first players that catches your eye when watching UBC men’s rugby. His 6’6” stature aside, Kelly’s versatility on offence and defence sees him pummeling opposing players one moment, then skying in the air for a lineout the next. He isn’t just physically imposing — his passion to win on the pitch shines through.

It wasn’t always this easy for him. Kelly’s story is a thread tied intricately to the game of rugby.

Kelly was raised in White Rock by a single mother, and hadn’t heard about rugby until right before he entered high school. “I played hockey and lacrosse my entire life up until then,” Kelly said.

“I knew [Earl Marriott Secondary] had a decent rugby team and an okay football team.” The decision between the two teams came down to what he enjoyed the most. “I just liked rugby more than football,” he said, laughing.

“It’s just open play, you’re just playing and then one team makes a mistake, and then you have the advantage. And then if you make a mistake, the other team gets the advantage. You can get caught up in a good 50-60 minute just going nonstop.”

Eventually, when it came time to choose between sports in grade 12, the decision was clear.

“It was either going to be rugby or lacrosse at the time, and I was like, ‘I have a little bit more fun playing rugby,’” Kelly said. This was coming off a grade 11 season where he began to make a name for himself provincially through stand-out performances at several different Team BC rugby setups.

At the youth level, playing wasn’t an all-expenses paid deal. For Kelly, it often meant trying to find funding to help him pay his way through those national opportunities. His mother set up a GoFundMe to aid in paying for a USA tour when Kelly was selected for the U18 Canadian 15s team.

Kelly knew that he was going to continue rugby at the post-secondary level. However, the question as to where loomed large until the last possible moment. “I was kind of tossing up decisions at the time because I didn’t know where I wanted to go,” he said. “I thought maybe I might try and go to a university that was a little farther away.”

But as fate would have it, Kelly would remain close to home. “I had waited too long for all the universities to make my choice because I didn’t want to say no to anybody,” Kelly laughed. “One thing led to another, and I ended up settling on UBC.”

It would prove to be the best environment for his development. The lock has spoken positively about his experiences within a historic program, with deep roots in the growth of rugby in Canada.

Kelly looks out at the Gerald McGavin Rugby Centre at sunset.
Kelly looks out at the Gerald McGavin Rugby Centre at sunset. Solana Pasqual / The Ubyssey

“I could tell right away that it was a fairly professional environment in terms of how the team was run,” Kelly recounted about his first impressions arriving at UBC. “The coaches Curry [Hitchborn] and Bruce [Rainer] made it very clear the boxes that you had to tick off if you wanted to advance and play for the top team.”

“I needed the routine, I needed to have the gym sessions at every time and having the intensity in the training.”

He viewed his progression like moving up the rungs. The UBC thirds development team was his first introduction to playing men’s rugby. Playing at the university level required making adjustments. “There’s a reason why I started off on the third team,” he said.

Kelly steadily worked his way up, each and every year with the T-Birds. “You go up to the second team, that’s another level, another rung up, it’s another speed where you have to be able to interpret things differently.”

“It just takes a little bit more with each rung, you just need to be another level better.”

And with those challenges came improvements. Kelly was never afraid to ask questions or seek feedback, very much a student of the game.

“I asked a lot of weird questions, but it’s because I’m trying to figure it out in my head,” he said. The transparency in communications with the coaches helped him address shortcomings and improve his strengths.

“If you’re doing something poor, they’ll tell you. That’s something that I appreciate because I like stuff like that. I like a lot of feedback.”

It wasn’t just limited to rugby either. “Curry brought people in from different avenues of rugby in all different spectrums [to speak with us],” Kelly said. “He brought in one gentleman to talk to us about the mental side, but then he also had some guy in just to talk to us about jobs and job opportunities, how to pursue, how to maintain connections with people and how to advocate for yourself.”

His time with the Thunderbirds has taken him all over the world. Kelly’s been on tour to Japan playing in the World University Rugby Tournament and friendlies across the States.

The exposure and experience he’s gained have given him opportunities at the international level. Kelly has been a part of the U20 Canadian Men’s 15s setup and recently has been invited to train with the senior national team and represent his country at the highest level.

It’s that international perspective that has given Kelly a sense of acceptance from the rugby community. “Everybody has a position, it doesn’t matter your size, the shape [of] your build, your makeup, where you’re from, everybody can play,” Kelly said.

“The camaraderie and the overall brotherhood and friendship and the relationships between the coaches and the players, all of my coaches that I’ve had, I thought they’ve been very approachable and they’ve been open for conversation with me about anything within rugby or outside of rugby.”

Now in his last year with the Thunderbirds, Kelly has one more goal — to defend the team’s BC Premiership title after a successful university national title defence. But what comes after that?

“I’d like to play professionally overseas hopefully,” Kelly said immediately. “I’d like to learn and experience rugby outside of what’s been exposed to me here in North America.”

His logic is simple — he can always return to school, but he’s only ever as young as he is at this moment in time. And with school done, Kelly’s time opens up. “I can put all of my effort into rugby, into properly bettering myself.”

“I really want to see how far I can go.”