You could say Spence McTavish was destined to be a rugby player.

As a toddler wanting to be closer to wherever the family was, over and over he banged his forehead against his crib’s railing to nudge himself closer to the door.

They nicknamed him ‘Thumper.’

The right nickname for a rugby career, yet odds seemed perpetually stacked against the skinny kid who eventually became revered as one of the best backs in Canadian rugby.

Growing up, McTavish was always small for his age. Only 112 lbs while attending Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary, he took up rugby, but preferred soccer, baseball, and basketball. By the time UBC coach Donn Spence installed him as starting winger, McTavish had filled out and his skills filled in. He could run, kick, had good hands, and the uncanny ability to stop and turn on a dime avoiding tackles. Teammates began calling him ‘Arachnid’ for his footwork, then ‘Spider,’ before ‘Spidey’ gave way to ‘Spike.’ Some say a prerequisite for a Hall of Fame rugby career is a good nickname. McTavish had five.

His 1970 call-up to the national team contained a sprinkling of fate too. A late November day McTavish was playing badminton in War Memorial Gym against a fellow PE student for a case of beer. Someone barged in saying the Canadian rugby team training nearby on campus needed him as an extra body at practice.

Expecting nothing, he went. Then the regular Canadian wing missed his flight and McTavish went from practice pitch fodder to Canada’s starting wing in an international match against Fiji. In an inch of snow at Swangard Stadium, having never earned selection to represent British Columbia let alone Canada, he scored a try and prevented two others, marking the beginning of an outstanding seventeen-year international career.

He was still wearing the maple leaf at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 as Canada’s longest-serving player of international standing, a 37-year-old vet outfoxing opponents nearly half his age.

Over that time McTavish earned twenty-two full Canadian caps—scoring six tries—at a time when international fixtures were much less frequent than today. He served as vice-captain for Canada’s 1979 English tour, and as captain for the 1982 Canadian tour of Japan.

His swashbuckling sideline play became well known to the broader rugby world—blazing speed, crunching open field tackles, and those flowing blonde locks—Canadian rugby’s speed merchant equivalent to hockey’s Guy Lafleur. Recognition came with selection to a 1976 Overseas XV match versus Cardiff. Four years later he was chosen for the World XV on the occasion of the Welsh Rugby Union Centenary.

Provincially, McTavish’s record is unparalleled. He made over fifty appearances for BC during his career, ten of which were in national championships.

In 1973, he helped form the UBC Old Boys and while playing for the long-standing club, the Vancouver Rugby Union awarded McTavish its prestigious Howie McPhee Trophy in 1976. Three times he led teams to McKechnie Cup victories, emblematic of the championship of BC.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.

McTavish is also inducted in the UBC Sports Hall of Fame. For his UBC biography, please visit