Friday 20 September 2019

O'Leary sets sights on fulfilling World Cup dream with Canada

Former Connacht out-half relishing the chance to represent the country of his mother's birth as Japan looms large on the horizon

Shane O’Leary in action during his time in the green of Connacht. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Shane O’Leary in action during his time in the green of Connacht. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Shane O'Leary was no different to every other Irish kid growing up, in that his dream was always to play at the World Cup.

As soon as it became apparent that it wasn't going to happen in a green jersey, however, O'Leary began to look down his other available route.

His mother Delia moved to Cork from Canada, where she was born, when she was quite young, but she always kept close ties with her family, who remained back home.

For O'Leary, he was always aware that he was eligible to play for Canada and when he finished as the top points scorer in the 2013 IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, his World Cup dream was reignited.

Since playing a key role in Connacht's 2016 PRO12 success, O'Leary spent a brief period playing in Canada before returning closer to home, where he has since been in the Championship - firstly with Ealing Trailfinders last season before moving to Nottingham during the summer.

All the while he was finding his feet, the 25-year-old, who grew up in Cork, then moved to Ballina, Co Tipperary, helped Canada on their way to the World Cup.

Having won all three of their repechage qualifiers, which culminated in a 27-10 win over Hong Kong in November, Canada secured their place in Japan, where they have the unenviable task of competing in Pool B alongside New Zealand, South Africa, Italy and Namibia.


Canada boy: Shane O’Leary in action against the USA. Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Canada boy: Shane O’Leary in action against the USA. Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

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While the team understands the sheer scale of the challenge that lies ahead, with Ireland in line to play either of the top teams from the pool in a potential quarter-final, O'Leary could, in theory at least, play the country of his birth in the last eight.

"When I was a young fella, this might have been viewed as an alternative route to get to a World Cup, but playing in a World Cup is playing in a World Cup," O'Leary insists.

"Other guys in the squad have talked about how they wanted to qualify for the guys who haven't been there, because it is the most special thing that has happened in their careers.

"It's just surreal. We know how special it is to represent your country. It would always have been a dream to play against New Zealand and face the Haka."

It hasn't all been plain sailing for Canada, however, as behind the scenes there was plenty of unrest from supporters, who felt that the union would have been better off directing the resources elsewhere.

The fickleness of that attitude has been proved by the fact that since they maintained their record of having played at every World Cup since its inauguration in 1987, supporters have come back on side.

"I think it has been received pretty positively," O'Leary explains.

"The players' subs in the country were raised across all levels in order to help the national men's senior 15s team qualify for the World Cup. It gave us the best prep possible.

"There was initially a bit of outrage and anger to that. People were complaining and saying, 'The sevens are better and the women are better, why don't we find them?'

"It comes down to the fact that the men's 15s team is what brings in the majority of funding from World Rugby, so it was massively important for us that we did qualify for the World Cup and that we kept our Tier 2 status.

"If we had dropped to Tier 3, Rugby Canada would have missed out on more funding. I think it has been received positively now that we have actually gone and done it.

"We have secured some funding and we are actually going to the World Cup. The whole country is excited now. There are a lot more positive messages coming through, even on social media and stuff.

"When we were struggling for results, there would have been some nasty messages coming through saying: 'Why are we funding this?'

"But now that we are winning, some heads have turned and we have been receiving some really positive messages. We have the country's backing now.

"Some of our games were televised and I know there were big audiences tuning in, so it's massively positive. The next step is to prepare for Japan and hopefully be on that plane."

Former Welsh international Kingsley Jones, who has been around the coaching block, took over as head coach last year and he hasn't yet shown faith in O'Leary.

He won the last of his 10 caps in the defeat to USA back in June and now faces a big task to prove to Jones that he is the man to lead Canada in Japan.

"I suppose in the last month, I wasn't selected and there are two ways you can react to that; you can either moan about it and get p***ed off or else put your head down and work harder," O'Leary maintains.

"I obviously would have played with the Cookies (Young Munster) and on occasion, we would have been known as a bitter bunch, so I have that instilled in me.

"Even as a young fella, I have always wanted to prove people wrong when they doubt me. Not being selected just makes me want it even more. I have a renewed burning fire to go out and be better.

"I am going to prove him (Jones) wrong. I have no doubt in my mind that I am going to be on the plane (to Japan) and I am going to be starting.

"I just need to prove to him through consistent performances with my club and make sure that he sees that I am learning the way he wants me to and that he thinks I will be the right guy to drive the team."

O'Leary's contractual obligations with Nottingham means that he will miss Canada's Americas Rugby Championship in the spring.

That leaves him with the warm-up Tests next summer to prove his point, but O'Leary has come too far now to give up on his dream, as he looks to make his mother proud.

"Obviously my whole family are proud of me, but I think it's that bit special for mum that I am representing where she is from," he adds.

"The ties aren't being forgotten. My granny lives in Ireland now too, she has done for years. She loves it as well. She is always asking how I am getting on. It means a lot to her too.

"You are always proud of where you are from. It doesn't matter if you are from the roughest part of town or the poshest, you're going to be proud of where you are from and who you are.

"It's an honour for me to play for Canada."

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