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Pete Nelson: My grandmother would be so proud of me in the red Canada jersey at the Rugby World Cup

 

Making moves: Peter Nelson in action at the World Cup
Making moves: Peter Nelson in action at the World Cup
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It's more than seven years now since Peter Nelson first played against Italy in a World Cup.

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That summer's day in Cape Town, Mike Ruddock had picked him at outside centre for the Ireland Under-20s and the Dungannon man scored a brace of tries in a 41-12 rout that just wasn't quite good enough to pip hosts and eventual champions South Africa for a place in the semi-finals.

Looking back, it's quite the squad that Ireland fielded that day that eventually went on to finish fifth by beating France in Newlands.

Nelson was partnered in the midfield by his fellow Dungannon clubman Chris Farrell, while Jack Carty and Luke McGrath were the half-backs.

The pack boasted the likes of Iain Henderson, Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier. Tadhg Furlong, Niall Scannell and Tadhg Beirne had to make do with spots on the bench.

While those former team-mates have all graduated into the senior national set-up and spent this week preparing to face 2019 World Cup hosts Japan in Shizuoka this morning, Nelson was both close at hand and far way.

Some 900km south of the Ireland team in Fukuoka, the former Ulster utility back was once again preparing to face the Azzurri, this time in the red of Canada as the most unlikely Irishman at the World Cup.

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Qualified for Les Rouges thanks to a Toronto-born maternal grandmother who moved to Ireland in her youth, it was only this summer that he was first called up to the squad - and indeed first set foot on Canadian soil.

"It was always something I had in my mind, I was always aware of the possibility," he said after what ultimately ended in a 48-7 defeat for Kingsley Jones' men on Wednesday.

"Being at Ulster, that was always my full focus but when it was coming to the end of the year and I knew that I wasn't getting renewed at Ulster, it was something that I wanted to look into.

"(Ulster attack coach) Dwayne Peel knew Kingsley Jones from his days back in Wales, he put in a word with Kingsley - hopefully a good one - and he helped the process along.

"When we started talking this was a huge opportunity a long way in the distance, but it was in the back of my mind."

Well-liked within Ulster and a valued squad member for a number of coaches over the years, his club career stalled somewhat with a nasty foot injury that looked then as if it may threaten his career in 2015 and ultimately kept him on the sidelines for 15 months.

His versatility sometimes seemed as much of a curse as a blessing at Kingspan Stadium too, never getting a run in a consistent position despite making 60 appearances for the side.

And while it was a wrench to leave, it was only a month or so after his last game for Ulster against Leinster at Kingspan Stadium that he was setting off for his first Canadian training camp in Victoria Island, knowing few of his team-mates nor what to expect.

Canadian Rugby has been through a tumultuous time over the course of this World Cup cycle and has not beaten a tier one nation since 2005.

Finishing bottom of Ireland's pool four years ago, Treviso-bound Kieran Crowley was replaced by former Ulster coach Mark Anscombe for what was a disastrous spell. Sinking to a lowest-ever world ranking of 23rd, the struggle to qualify for this year's tournament saw the man who led the northern province to a Pro12 final sacked in the summer of 2017.

Replaced by Jones, subsequent losses to Uruguay saw them relying on the repechage tournament to maintain a streak of featuring at every World Cup, 1991's quarter-final appearance beginning to feel like a quirk of a bygone era.

The 20th of 20 teams to qualify, their squad still contains a number of amateur players despite the nascent but expanding Major League Rugby, where the Toronto Arrows reached a semi-final in their first season.

Jones has called the increased number of professionals in his squad a "lifeline" - starting hooker Eric Howard, for example, has been able to give up his day job mucking out horse sheds - and Nelson has bore witness to a squad willing to do whatever it takes to show they still belong at this level.

"Coming in, I didn't know what I was getting myself in for really," he said.

"But the lads have been incredible, they're a great bunch of guys. They've welcomed me with open arms from day one.

"The work ethic of the group is incredible. Some of the guys aren't playing professionally but the effort is unbelievable.

"The boys whenever I first got there brought me out and about, swimming in all the lakes, it was an incredible experience.

"It's a really, really lovely country."

That's what he'd always heard from his grandmother, who spoke fondly of the country of her birth and had intended to go back but sadly passed away earlier this year having never had the chance.

"It's sad she's not still here to see it but she'd be very proud to see me out there in the red jersey," Nelson said. "She loved Canada, she spoke about it a lot really. I know she'd have been really proud."

So too were his friends and family, many of whom have made the trip for the tournament. His ex-Ulster team-mates were watching the game against Italy from their team room.

"My mum and dad were here, my auntie and uncle and my girlfriend too," Nelson added. "They were straight on the internet booking flights and booking tickets as soon as they found out I was in the squad. It's just reward hopefully for all the hard work that they've put into me over the years.

"My family have been there through everything and are a huge motivation for me."

While Nelson played well himself against the Italians, posing a threat with a varied kicking game, the team's performance was profligate while Conor O'Shea's men were naturally able to last the pace better as the final whistle approached.

Canada, for whom 2011 World Cup winner Graham Henry is here as an advisor and Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth has been helping out with defence, created plenty but handling errors left them with little to show.

Things don't get any easier - the Cannucks will play none other than the All Blacks on Wednesday before taking on South Africa six days later.

For Nelson to be preparing for such opposition when he didn't know where he'd be playing his rugby after the team he'd played for since leaving Royal School Dungannon let him go, is a dream come true.

"This is what any player would want," said the man whose earliest memory of this competition is being stood on the terraces of Ravenhill when soon-to-be world champions Australia demolished Romania in 1999.

"You grow up dreaming of games like that. You want to play against the best in the world and we'll play against two of them in the next few days. We're under no illusions as to the size of the task, it's the biggest there is. We have to get ourselves right and put in as good a performance as we can."

For Nelson especially, games with such a large audience will act as a shop window too. He has no club beyond the World Cup despite some earlier interest from sides in France. For now, that's far from his mind.

"I'm focused on this and hopefully if I play well I can pick something up in the next few months. It wouldn't be right to be thinking about anything else when this is such a massive tournament," he said.

As his last year shows, the most wonderful of opportunities can arise when you least expect them.

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