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Ditching School for Rugby Paid off for Tyler Ardron and His Country

Rugby was never on Tyler Ardron's radar growing up. He's now Canada's biggest star and the captain of the national team.
November 17, 2015, 5:25pm
Photo by Colin Watson/Courtesy Rugby Canada

In 2006, Tyler Ardron's high school coach pushed him to pit his skills against the best at Canada's provincial rugby tryouts. Then, 15 years old, Ardron said he went just for kicks. As it turned out, he caught the eye of selectors and made the Ontario team. The following year at the national championships, where the country's best got together to select the under-17 Canadian team, Ardron was put through his paces and got selected for the national team. For a kid who grew up playing hockey like most Canadian youths, and dabbled in other sports like football and volleyball, rugby was the last thing on Ardron's mind until he started making the cut at the highest grades.

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After a brief taste of national-level rugby, Ardron took a few years off and didn't revisit the sport until his McMaster University days, where he began playing Rugby 7s (seven a side) and made the cut for the Canadian under-20 team while studying for an economics degree. His plan was to finish his degree and then go on to study law. Rugby was an afterthought. Just after the 2011 Rugby World Cup, however, his career path changed dramatically. When Ardron failed to make the 2011 team, which coincided with a mass exodus of the playing squad, he earned a call up for Team Canada during a training camp and would later embark on his first tour. His law school dreams were put on hold.

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"I was hanging out with professionals and that's when it started to sink in and I felt that rugby was an actual lifestyle, a career and that I could do this forever," the 24-year old said, speaking on the phone from Swansea in Wales. "Rugby totally changed for me right at that moment. I saw what was required to actually be good and if I was going to stay at that level, my schooling would have to take a back seat."

Four years after his debut, Ardron now has a loyal following and is a regular on the national team. He captained the Canadian team at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and he's on contract for Welsh team Ospreys where he spends most of his time these days. If you look at clips of him on YouTube, you'll see him delivering bone-crunching tackles and using the ball with quick hands, dishing it out wide to players in space. You don't have to be an ardent fan to understand what's going on, either; you can still enjoy the beauty in how his 6-foot-4 muscular build can take down just about anyone at any speed.

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Ardron has entered rugby at a time where the sport in Canada needs a saviour, someone to lift it through the fog. Since the Rugby World Cup started in 1987, Canada has always been a middling team producing middling results on par with nations such as Russia, Spain and the United States. Canada has won seven games total in eight World Cups—its highest finish was the quarterfinal in 1991. At the 2015 World Cup, Canada went 0-4 for the tournament and finished last in its pool, and No. 17 overall. Common belief among rugby circles is that Canada could be better than these results suggest and could be better than its rank of 18th in the world. With rugby making an appearance at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016—breaking a 92-year absence—could a guy like Ardron galvanize a future generation of Canadian rugby players?

Canada's big rugby star. Photo by Jose Lagman/Courtesy Rugby Canada

Graeme Moffat, general manager of Rugby Canada, has been part of the rugby family for the past five years and was skills coach at the 2011 World Cup. During a recent conversation, he immediately bemoaned the 23-19 loss to a run-of-the-mill Italy team and the record-breaking 17-15 loss to Romania. He reflected on what could have been if the country won both: a possible World Cup quarterfinal berth, automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup (if Canada finished third in its pool), and more funding for the program.

"We have to look a bit deeper, beyond coaches and players and ask why we are in this position," he said. "Our development model is to get as many players overseas as we can, playing high-level rugby. Until we can get a domestic game happening here, we're going to struggle to keep competing and getting the results we desire."

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Canada was one of three teams out of 20—Uruguay and Romania, the other two—to boast a large quantity of amateur-level rugby players, as opposed to professional players. Consider this: a professional player gets paid a decent salary, trains four times a week and plays 30-45 games each year against world-class players. An amateur player does not get paid to play rugby, works a full-time job, might play ten games of rugby per year and tries to fit the sport between work and personal life. And therein lies the troubles of the national rugby team and why it finished with no wins.

Photo by Jose Lagman/Courtesy Rugby Canada

Moffat said the top eight teams have the luxury of either sending its players overseas to play at the elite level in Euro leagues, or have been able set up a domestic competition to bridge the gap between club and national matchups. Some countries are able to afford to do both. For the 2015 World Cup, the All Blacks received $3.3 million annually in rugby funding and the Wallabies got $1.04 million as part of a $120 million government investment in sporting organizations. Australia is also home to the elite 15-team league called Super Rugby, with teams from South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Argentina competing; the Aussies have five teams in that league.

Canada has its own domestic competition called the Canadian Rugby Championship, a league of four teams that fight for the MacTier Cup. It's amateur at best. And in terms of funding, according to a 2013 Rugby Canada annual report, it receives roughly $661,874 from Sport Canada, $2.7 million annually from the International Rugby Board and so far has raised $1.9 million on Own the Podium. Moffat said having more government funding to create an elite-level domestic league is crucial to help elevate and build Canada into a top-ten rugby nation.

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In the short term, Moffat pointed to the Canadian Football League as a format rugby could adopt, with a six-month professional season. Rugby Canada has just started Rookie Rugby, a non-contact version of the game played at pre-high school level. And there are discussions being had about a professional North American-based league in the U.S. where TV exposure could help grow the game over the next decade. But without success at the top to demand more funding, rugby could plateau and continue to be this invisible sport we only take note of when World Cups arrive on TV screens.

Photo by Paige Stewart/Courtesy Rugby Canada

Ardron, a Lakefield, Ontario, native believes he should have been on Canada's 2011 World Cup team, but he'd have to wait another four years before getting the call. Gareth Rees, manager of the 2015 World Cup team and national manager of Rugby Canada, saw Ardron's potential and evolution, which prompted his eventual selection. He saw a confident playmaker, who was good on the ball and had general belief in himself.

"The first time I saw him was at a trial after the 2011 World Cup. His pure athleticism was fantastic," said Rees. "He's a multi-sport guy and has played American football, basketball and volleyball. It's been very exciting to see him grow the last three-to-four years."

Rugby requires continuous movement and critical thinking. There's next to no stoppages, no playbooks and no kicking strategies. There's heavy, robust tackling without any padding. Unlike public perception that rugby is a sport made for Goliaths and gym junkies, for the uninitiated, it is a sport that's dynamic, fast moving and has enough body-on-body collisions—the same kinds we are used to seeing in hockey or American football—to keep anyone fixed on a game.

"The biggest obstacle is where rugby sits within our culture. People aren't aware a guy like Tyler is making two-to-three times the CFL average," Rees said. "The awareness of how global the game is and how much money there is to be made, is probably lacking in Canada. With hockey, football and basketball, we see it every night on our TV screens people who are making huge amounts. That's an initial conversation that works against our sport."

Photo by Jeff Bell/Courtesy Rugby Canada

Ardron tore his meniscus against France during an innocuous tackle that ruled him out of the final game against Romania at the World Cup. He said he'd be back playing again in eight weeks, thanks to the high-tech medical facilities in Swansea where his club is situated. Rees is confident that a fit Ardron—the first name on the team sheet for each match—leading the charge for Canada is the type of talent to build a team philosophy around and perhaps in doing so, it might just strike a chord with the Canadian millennials of tomorrow.