Outliers: Rugby's Unlikeliest Heroes

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Outliers: Rugby's Unlikeliest Heroes

From the Cherry Blossom's Michael Leitch to Australia's Israel Folau, here are the ones who shouldn't have made it, but, somehow, did.
October 4, 2015, 12:00am

#TheGameStartsHere in partnership with Beats by Dr. Dre

VICE Sports has teamed up with Beats by Dr. Dre to bring you a unique perspective on this year's Rugby World Cup. From unlikely heroes to the lowdown on cutting-edge equipment and technology, we're delving into the stories behind the stats at the pinnacle of global rugby.

"Unlikely" is a slippery word, like offside or post-modernism. It's not easy to define what is "unlikely" in elite sports – when those who have made it to the Rugby World Cup wherever they started are, essentially, the unlikeliest people on planet earth. It takes a lifetime of dedication to develop those gigantic, inflated bodies and find joy in putting them through the ringer every weekend.

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But that doesn't make for a very interesting article, so we did some digging. Turns out, rugby players – just like footballers, basketball stars and the people you see lingering outside of Wetherspoons at 8am on a Sunday – are a varied, diverse bunch. They come in all shapes and sizes, from many walks of life, and that means more than just through the local park on their way to the nearest private school.

The wider sport is filled with misfits, inspirational characters and the odd English player who doesn't pronounce "yes" as if they were a dog trying say the word "yarn". Here are our favourites, the ones who shouldn't have made it, but, somehow, did.

Michael Leitch, Japan

The scene is the Liberty Stadium, Swansea. It's 2008 and Japan are preparing to run out against France in their opening game of the 2008 IRB Junior World Championships. Michael Leitch, then 19 years old, is conducting his pre-match speech not in French or English, but in Japanese. The result doesn't matter (Japan go down 53-17), it's the message: Michael Leitch, born in New Zealand to Fijian parents, is Japanese.

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Despite only having intended to study in Japan for one year in 2004, Leitch enjoyed it so much he decided to stay, wining a scholarship to Tokai University a year later to play rugby. Under Leitch's stewardship, Japan have ranked as high as ninth in the world. A 6-foot-2 man with a New Zealand twang of Fijian origin may not be precisely who everyone thinks about when they consider the Brave Blossoms, but it will be Leitch who leads out Japan at Kingsholm against the Scots on September 23rd. Leitch, at 26, is also the third youngest captain in the whole tournament – losing out in the baby-faced-stakes to Wales's Sam Warburton by two days, and to Canada's Tyler Ardron by a whole two years.

Israel Folau, Australia

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Folau is one of those human beings that you watch in motion and wonder whether or not they are powered by lungs or kerosene. He will be Australia's greatest weapon during the World Cup, but, despite being 26, he only made his international debut for the Wallabies two years ago.

This is because Folau can do whatever he wants. Starting out playing rugby league with Melbourne Storm, he set the season record for most tries scored in one year (21). During the two-year spell at Brisbane Broncos that followed, Folau went over the line 37 times in 38 games. He then went on to become the youngest ever player for Australia's rugby league side, before trying his hand at the AFL for a couple of years with the Greater Western Sydney Football club. (Which, admittedly, didn't go so well).

He has only played two years of professional rugby union and has already scored 18 tries for Australia. In his first year, he equalled Lote Tuqiri's record of 10 international tries in a season in the final test against Wales, during the 2013 Autumn tour. Like England's great Jason Robinson, Folau took the long-way round to making the number 15 jersey his own.

Nathan Charles, Australia

Even though Charles did not make the Wallabies squad, his tackle with cystic fibrosis warrants his place. The 26-year-old has to take 28 pills and vitamins every day to remain healthy and is presumed to be the only player ever to have the disease and play rugby professionally.

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Despite the average life expectancy of someone with cystic fibrosis being only 37 years, Charles has nevertheless stacked up 4 Australian caps and a five-year career with Western Force in the Super Rugby competition. An ex-Wallabies coach put it best when he said Charles "seems to have defied science and defied logic". An inspiration.

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Jeff Hassler, Canada

Back in 2010, Jeff Hassler was just 19 and the starting running back for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. You can check out a highlight reel here and, yes, that is Canadian football. He had three years of scholarship football to look forward to. Hassler, however, played rugby in the summer – against his coach's wishes. Eventually, he was picked up by the rugby side and entered the national programme.

Hassler now plays for Welsh side Ospreys in the Guinness Pro12, which is apt being as he grew up along the Sheep River (ahem). In his first year he scored eight tries in just 17 matches, which earned him a spot in the RaboDirect Dream Team. A compact, physically robust player, he has the strength of a forward with the shift of a back. In 2014 he scoredwhat may be the try of the season – but it could have all been so different.

Matt Gilbert, England

Gilbert is the only professional sportsman in England who is deaf, currently playing as a flanker for Worcester Warriors in the RFY Championship. Diagnosed with a rare condition as a kid that meant he'd lose more and more of his hearing as he grew up, Gilbert's rise to professional sportsman is both surprising and inspiring. Not that he sees it that way, of course: Well, I was the biggest kid at the school," he admits. "I just picked the ball up and ran with it."

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George North, Wales

The Welsh winger is one of the finest players on the planet. He is also lucky to be alive. Last season North suffered three – three – concussions and missed five months of competitive action. That is a seriously bad run of luck, and thankfully Northampton neurologists advised him to take a break from the sport until the World Cup.

Not to understate it, but concussions are massive deals – just this month 32-year-old Welsh forward Jonathan Thomas had to retire from the game after developing epilepsy after a career filled with head traumas. Despite being included in the Welsh squad, North has yet to pass the concussion return-to-play protocol. Welsh fans will have their fingers crossed that he does, while everyone will be hoping he remains healthy in the long term.

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Chiliboy Ralepelle, South Africa

Nominative determinism suggests Chiliboy Ralepelle should be a politician, like fellow exceedingly well-named South African Tokyo Sexwale, not a rugby player. By choosing to be a sportsman, he is defying the laws of the universe, and therefore makes this list.

The Entire Uruguayan Team

Playing in their first World Cup for 12 years and only their third ever, the Uruguayan team are made up of mostly semi-pros, given gravitas by a dash of professionals. There are only 5,829 registered players in the entire country. Sadly, the sport is mostly remembered for the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 tragedy, when a plane carrying the Old Christians rugby club crashed in the Andes, resulting in cannibalism and the death of 24 of its 45 passengers.

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90% of the current squad's Wikipedia pages were created on the same day (September 13th) and read exactly the same "… is a Uruguayan rugby union player. He was named in Uruguay's squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup." Certain players – like Agustín Ormaechea – are more well known, however, being the son of Diego Ormaechea, the only player in Uruguay's history to score a try in the World Cup. Their captain, Nicolas Klappenbach, is a doctor by day who plays as a hooker, so expect him to be clinical at raking the balls during the scrum.

Ben Morgan, England

A few years ago, England's number 8 was working as a builder and weighed 21 stone. He hadn't even signed a professional contract. He was – in his own words – "abusing my body… I was absolutely clueless". Now, Morgan weighs 18 stone and has been chosen to start in England's opener against Fiji, despite breaking his leg back in January. He's one of the breakout stars of England's rejuvenated side.

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Richard Metcalfe, Scotland

Metcalfe is seven foot tall. While too old to play this time, he is still the world's tallest ever rugby player and Britain's second tallest ever sportsman. Playing as a lock, Metcalfe's upper body stuck out of the scrum like a lorry parked in a Santander Cycle docking station. Amazingly, it wasn't his back that ended his career but his knee.

Richardt Strauss, Ireland

The South African-born Irishman was ruled out for the entire season back in 2013 after doctors discovered he had a serious heart problem. He was told he'd be lucky to get back on the pitch, but Strauss is apparently made entirely of steel, as he was back in the Leinster match day squad a mere three months later. It is amazing he's performing at that level – let alone starting for Ireland as their first-choice hooker.

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Courtney Lawes, England

Born in Hackney, Lawes isn't the typical English rugby player. His Jamaican-born father Linford once worked as a pub doorman, before moving into property development; Val, his mum, is a prison officer and once described her son's prowess on the field as "all over the place". Lawes didn't pick up a rugby ball until the age of 15 when at Northampton School for Boys. Seven years later, he was at his first World Cup, a meteoric rise for a player whose family had never intended him to play the game.

Lawes's desire to put his body on the line for the team has taken its physical and mental toll. In the past few years, he has been sidelined for 10 months to injuries to his shin, knee, elbow, ankle and, most recently, both his shoulders. The 6-foot-7 giant is, at only 26, held together by sheer force of character (and maybe a bit of surgery, too).

Lawes – though a long-term member of England's young side – has only in the past couple of weeks returned to full fitness, and it's a blessing for England he has done.

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