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Peter Nelson's professional plan on hold after World Cup heroics


Making moves: Peter Nelson in action at the World Cup

Making moves: Peter Nelson in action at the World Cup

Making moves: Peter Nelson in action at the World Cup

If things had gone according to plan, Peter Nelson would have been in San Diego today.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic pulped that plan, but this was no sightseeing trip to the west coast of the United States that had to be abandoned. It was meant to be the next phase in the former Ulster player's professional career.

The 27-year-old Canada international had agreed terms with the Seattle Seawolves - where ex-colleague at Ulster David Busby is based - and was ready to fly out last month and play in America's Major League Rugby programme up to its intended conclusion in mid-June.

But it wasn't to be and, instead of togging out in San Diego today and clocking up the air miles by criss-crossing the country to play in various places including Houston, New York and New England, Nelson is still at home in Northern Ireland, with the US season now, naturally, abandoned.

His plan now is to try and land a professional deal with a club on this side of the pond - which was his intention anyway had he completed his stint in Seattle - although clearly not being in any shop window, and with so much uncertainty surrounding when the game will pick up again, never mind what financial shape it might be in, all makes things rather complicated.

No better time, then, to reflect on what has been a dramatic year for the 60-times-capped Ulster utility back, which has taken him from leaving the Kingspan last May to the absolute highlight of playing in the Rugby World Cup for Canada.

It hasn't all been rugby either as being in Japan when Typhoon Hagibis made landfall allowed the Dungannon man to witness its power and appetite for destruction. Their final group game with Namibia was cancelled and then Nelson helped, along with his Canadian team-mates, in dealing with some of the clear-up in the northern coastal city of Kamaishi.

"We were gutted that our game was called off as it was one we'd been targeting to win," recalls Nelson, who had earlier played against and lost to Italy, the All Blacks and South Africa.

"The day after it hit, we had beautiful weather and it was perfect to play, but the damage that had been done meant that the game just couldn't go ahead.

"When we saw the damage to the place, it really put things in perspective.

"When it hit, we had been in our hotel and it was right on the sea.

"They had completely cleared the ground floor the evening before the typhoon was due."

"We really didn't know what to expect," he adds of an uneasy time, "but thankfully for the hotel, it wasn't as bad as they thought it could have been as there was only a small amount of water on the ground floor. Everything else was fine."

After venturing outside, the players decided they would do what they could to help the hard-hit local community.

Their assistance provided an image every bit as memorable as what occurred on the pitch during the tournament.

"It had been pretty much destroyed by a tsunami several years before, then this typhoon hit," explains Nelson.

He remembers being in one very elderly woman's home, or rather what was left of it after the water had subsided.

"Some of the houses were completely destroyed, and we spent quite a lot of time at this lady's house. You could just see that the water had been halfway up the walls and she was, I think, in her 90s," he says.

"She was trying to sort her house out, so we helped her clear her house and then just helped in the streets.

"We didn't do an awful lot compared to what was being done by others. We just helped out where we could."

While the memory of the typhoon's aftermath and its impact on the local population, will always stay with him, the experience of actually playing in the tournament is an undoubted career highlight.

"Being there was incredible," says Nelson, who qualifies to play for Canada through his grandmother and who hooked up with them straight after finishing his eight years with Ulster last May.

"It was very special. The whole country was just amazing and it was just a brilliant experience for me.

"I loved every minute of it and I got to play against South Africa, who went on to become world champions, and New Zealand."

Though Canada suffered heavy defeats in both group games, the experience of going toe-to-toe with two of the world's best sides was an intensely exciting challenge, especially with his parents and other family members having made it out to Japan.

An interesting footnote to his game with the All Blacks was coming up against Angus Ta'avao, who had coached him at Royal School Dungannon when the prop had been on an exchange.

Not only that but Nelson swapped jerseys with opposing fly-halves All Black Richie Mo'unga and Springbok Elton Jantjies. Both shirts are now framed at his parents' home, along with his first Canada cap and the one presented to all World Cup players.

Not bad for a player who made his Ulster debut at Leinster on Boxing Day in 2011 and rarely got a consistent run as a starting player.

Since the World Cup, though, things haven't been so easy for him.

He had hoped to pick up some form of contract back in Europe in the wake of playing in rugby's premier tournament, but nothing materialised and he put his time in coaching at Dungannon - he might yet coach when the playing is over - and then turning out in a couple of AIL games for them after Christmas.

The Seattle deal offered a break in the routine, but with that gone Nelson is just trying to stay fit while at his parents' house - no mean feat for any professional sportsman at this time - and hoping that something will turn up, whether it be in the UK, France or indeed Ireland.

Obviously, a lack of game time and recent exposure to attract potentially interested clubs is a problem, but Nelson is remaining upbeat. "My main goal is to stay in professional rugby, but like everybody I'm on hold and just waiting to see what's happening over the next few months," he says.

Regardless of how things pan out, he will always have the World Cup, where he took on the best in the game and also helped out in another time of crisis.

Not bad for this talented but largely unheralded Ulsterman who got to play on the biggest stage of all.

Belfast Telegraph