June 15th, 2024

Canada men head to Spain as they look to gear up for road to next Rugby World Cup

By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on October 31, 2023.

Canada's Ben Lesage looks for an opening against Chile during the first half of a Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification match at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C., on Saturday, October 2, 2021.The Canadian men's rugby team leaves this week for Spain and the four-team La Vila International Rugby Cup. For centre LeSage, it's the latest stop on an eventful journey that has seen him injured in Tonga and — restored to health — training in England in recent months.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

The Canadian men’s rugby team leaves Wednesday for Spain and the four-team La Vila International Rugby Cup.

For centre Ben LeSage, it’s the latest stop on an eventful journey that has seen him injured in Tonga and – restored to health – training in England in recent months.

The Canadians play No. 19 Spain while the 18th-ranked U.S. face No. 26 Brazil on Nov. 11. The winners will meet in the Nov. 18 final while the losers play for third place in Villajoyosa, a coastal town some 365 kilometres southeast of Madrid.

With Canada sitting out the World Cup for the first time, LeSage says he and his Canadian teammates “want to be a part of the solution that qualifies for 2027.”

“The road to (the 2027 World Cup in) Australia starts right now,” LeSage said.

“There’s a lot of belief in the team that there’s the guys that can do the job,” he added. “It’s just about spending as much time and getting as many games together as we can to start building towards that.”

The team’s leadership group, he said, was “texting non-stop” as the World Cup opened in France with players discussing what needs to be done to get things back on track.

The 27-year-old from Calgary called missing out on the sport’s showcase, after 2021 qualifying series losses to the U.S. and No. 22 Chile, “probably the lowest point in my rugby career.”

LeSage’s last Canadian tour was also painful. He was hurt early in the second half of Canada’s 28-3 loss to Tonga on Aug. 9 in Nuku’alofa.

After Canada won a scrum, an onrushing LeSage took a pass from teammate Spencer Jones and ran straight into six-foot-one 233-pound Tonga centre George Moala, who picked him up and bundled him hard into the ground.

Moala, a former All Black, was sent off for the illegal tip-tackle. Sidelined by a shoulder injury, LeSage missed the second Tongan test, a 36-12 Canada loss.

Moala was subsequently banned for five game, which prevented him from appearing in 16th-ranked Tonga’s first three games at the World Cup – lopsided losses to No. 2 Ireland, No. 6 Scotland and No. 1 South Africa. Moala returned for Tonga’s final Pool B game, a 45-23 win over No. 20 Romania.

Moala’s misconduct came three days before England captain Owen Farrell made headlines for a high tackle on Taine Basham in a 19-17 win over Wales at Twickenham.

Farrell’s yellow card was upgraded to red upon review while he sat in the sin-bin. But an independent judicial committee subsequently cleared Farrell, citing mitigation via an England player pushing Basham just before Farrell slammed into the Welsh forward.

In an unusual move, World Rugby appealed the decision and Farrell was eventually handed a four-game ban.

LeSage found himself in the spotlight as the rugby community debated the disparate disciplinary procedures. He joked he had always wished that if he went viral it would be for scoring a try or making a good tackle rather than “getting my shoulder injured and then laying on the ground.”

But he has no hard feelings toward Moala, saying there was no ill-intent.

“It was just sort of a bit of an unlucky situation where I was sort of running flat at the line and might no be expecting the ball so was running a bit more upright than usual. And he committed to the tackle. Obviously they’re big strong boys and he got the better of me in that collision.”

LeSage is coming off a “fairy-tale” club season that saw his New England Free Jacks win 12 straight en route to the Major League Rugby title in July. He then went to England to join Gloucester for its pre-season, returning to join the Gallagher Premiership side after the Pacific Islands tour with Canada.

He wasn’t on contract with the English club, rather serving as a possible reinforcement with six Gloucester players away at the World Cup.

New England and Gloucester have ties. Namibian backrower Wian Conradie played for Gloucester before joining New England while former Free Jacks back Jack Reeves is currently with Gloucester.

That prompted LeSage, who has long dreamed of playing in Europe, to ask whether he could spend time with Gloucester.

“it’s been incredible,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of cool things in my rugby career and I think this would be right up there with some of the other stuff. For North American players, we’re very fortunate that we get to play in a professional environment but we understand that there’s levels above what we play in. And there’s always sort of a wonder ‘What does that look like? What does that feel like? How far away am I from that?’

“So it’s been a really cool opportunity for me to be able to to see that firsthand. Definitely, an incredible learning opportunity. I felt like I’ve come a long way.”

Prior to the Free Jacks, Lesage played for the Toronto Arrows and now-defunct Los Angeles Giltinis in MLR.

LeSage, who made his Canada debut in November 2016 against Romania, is no stranger to injury.

He broke his hand four minutes into Canada’s opening match at the 2019 World Cup, a 48-7 loss to Italy in Fukuoka City. He tackled an Italian, whose knee landed on his hand as he went down.

Italy scored four minutes later, allowing Lesage to try and flag down a physio for some attention. But the physio was busy dealing with fellow centre Nick Blevins, who had broken his jaw 30 seconds earlier in head-on-head contact.

LeSage, knowing the substitute back options on the bench had been thinned, gritted his teeth and kept going.

He later found out he had broken the third metacarpal bone in his right hand.

Following the game, LeSage flew back to Vancouver to undergo surgery. After getting three screws put in to align the bones, he returned to Japan to join friends and family at the tournament.

The six-foot 215-pounder holds a degree in mechatronics engineering – a subset of mechanical engineering that focuses on robotics – with a minor in commerce from the University of British Columbia.

Away from rugby, he works for a British company named Omnipresent that specializes in helping businesses with human resources around the globe. Being a part-time engineer isn’t really viable, he said.

He started as employee No. 9 three years ago. The company is now around 200 to 250 employees.

LeSage’s partner is a physio who lives in Vancouver.

“She’s been incredibly supportive of me pursuing all my rugby dreams and journeys,” he said. “It’s definitely not ideal but those are the cards we’ve been played “¦ We’ve just been making it work so far.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2023.

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