By MARTY KLINKENBERG
Saturday, June 9, 2018
EDMONTON -- At 6-foot-5 and nearly 250 pounds, Tyler Ardron would not look out of place at tight end or linebacker for the Edmonton Eskimos.
Ardron, among the best rugby players this country has produced, is on a threeweek break from the New Zealand Chiefs of the elite Super Rugby league. But the man who looks as if he was chiselled out of granite suffered a concussion several weeks ago when the Chiefs played in New Zealand and will not play in a key game for Canada this weekend.
It's a big loss. The 26-year-old must watch from the sidelines at Commonwealth Stadium as Canada's men's national rugby team competes in a test match against Scotland on Saturday night. It is the first in a cross-country tour for the Canadians, who have scrums with Russia in Ottawa on June 16 (when Ardron is expected to be back) and the United States in Halifax on June 23.
Ardron is slated to leave before the Halifax test to rejoin the Chiefs, who play the Highlanders on June 30 in a Super Rugby match in Suva, Fiji.
How vital is Ardron to the team? Consider that he is the first Canadian to compete for a Super Rugby team in New Zealand and only the third to play in the league, which also has clubs in Argentina, Australia, Japan and South Africa.
Rugby Canada likens the accomplishment to a kid from New Zealand making it to the NHL. He is under contract with the Chiefs for two seasons, and while his salary has not been disclosed, he earns more than most players in the CFL, where the average salary is about $80,000 a year.
Ardron also played four seasons for a Welsh club called the Ospreys and was captain of the team Canada sent to the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
This is a path he never anticipated taking as he grew up in small-town Ontario.
He comes from Lakefield, a village of fewer than 3,000 people a little less than two hours northeast of Toronto.
As a kid, he loved to fish and hunt and played almost every high-profile sport other than rugby. He was good at hockey in particular, but even some gifted young players are not suited for the NHL.
"At some point you realize you are not good enough to go anywhere with it and I had to make a decision," Ardron says, seated in the lobby of the national team's hotel in Edmonton. He unfolds like a rope ladder as he plops down on a couch. "You know pretty quick if you are going to make it in hockey or not."
As a ninth-grader, his school's rugby coach invited him to play and the following summer wrangled an invitation for him to try out for Ontario's provincial junior team. He made it thanks to size and raw talent and the following year was selected for Canada's under-17 national squad.
At the time he played rugby for enjoyment, but never considered it a feasible living. He even gave it up for a couple of years before joining the team at McMaster University while he was pursuing an economics degree with a long-term goal to study law.
"I didn't realize there was any money in [top-flight rugby]," Ardron says.
He was captain at McMaster when the Ospreys recruited him to play overseas.
Thus ended, at least temporarily, a budding law career.
"The way things have worked out is probably better than if I had gone to grad school," Ardron says.
He became a standout player in Wales and was regarded highly enough to garner the attention of the Chiefs. The organization was criticized for bringing in a Canadian forward, but the fans changed their opinion upon seeing his bone-crunching manner.
"If I saw rugby in slow motion, I probably wouldn't do it," Ardron says good-naturedly.
Canada's national team is fighting for a berth in the 2019 World Cup. It is using the three matches this month to prepare for a winner-take-all qualifying tournament in November against teams from Asia, Europe and Africa.
The Canadians previously failed to clinch one of the two positions reserved for teams from the Americas with losses in two-game series against the United States and Uruguay.
They have qualified for every World Cup since 1987, but have advanced only once past the opening round. Their overall record at the World Cup is 7-20-2, with three victories over Tonga, two over Romania and one each over Fiji and Namibia.
They have not fared well against the sport's most powerful countries and went 0-4 at the World Cup in 2015.
Scotland enters Saturday's game in Edmonton fifth-ranked in the world. The Canadians are No. 21. They have met seven times, with Canada winning twice, but not since 2002.
Scotland narrowly averted a loss in 2014 in Toronto at BMO Field. A relatively easy kick that was missed and a late penalty call derailed the upset bid as Canada fell, 19-17.
The history of Canadian men's rugby is one of workmanlike perseverance without great success. Unlike the world's best teams, Canada's lineup largely consists of part-time players and semi-pros and the odd star such as Ardron.
"Getting a win over Scotland would be a big thing for us," Ardron says. "The whole rugby world would perk up a bit."
He says funding is an ongoing issue.
The Scottish team probably spent more to travel to Edmonton for one game than the Canadians spend in a month. It is a sport where there is great disparity between the haves and have-nots.
"People see the end results, but we push way above our weight," Ardron says. "Our results are much closer than the amount of money that is spent."
He believes Canada is moving in the right direction, but desperately needs to improve its ranking in the world standings.
"We need to have full-time players," he says. "If not, it is going to be difficult to compete."
After his contract is fulfilled in New Zealand, he would love to play for a team that wins a European championship and then play in Japan. Clubs in the Japan Rugby Football Union are bankrolled by huge corporations such as Honda, Toshiba, Sanyo and Mitsubishi.
The level of competition is not as elite, but salaries can exceed US$1-million. By comparison, quarterback Ricky Ray makes less than half that with the Toronto Argonauts, which he led to a Grey Cup win last year.
"It wouldn't be bad to big a big fish in a little pond," Ardron says.
Canadian rugby star Tyler Ardron is seen on the field at Commonwealth Stadium ahead of Saturday's match against Scotland in Edmonton on Thursday. Ardron was recruited to play elite rugby, first in Wales and now in New Zealand.
AMBER BRACKEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL