By Michael Sun
For Eric Howard and Conor Keys, playing rugby for Canada in their home town brought out their emotions – with Howard calling it “a dream come true,”and Keys saying it was “incredible” and “a little bit emotional.”
Although Canada lost to Russia 43-20 at Twin Elm Rugby Park on June 16, the locally-raised duo milked the opportunity to play in front of family and friends in their hometown.
“Having the opportunity to actually do that for me was obviously pretty emotional and pretty amazing,” Howard said. “And getting some good game time during that was awesome, and hearing my best friends and my family cheering me on was awesome.”
“I never thought that would happen,” Keys added. “I never thought we would get a game in Ottawa.”
Canada also lost to Scotland (in Edmonton) and the United States (in Halifax) on their summer tour.
“We have to say it was disappointing…but one good thing is we take something from each of those games,” Howard said.
Both players said they didn’t grow up intending to focus on rugby, yet each ended up playing at the university level. Howard reached the peak of U Sports, winning a national championship in his final year at Guelph. This year was his first as a hooker with the New Orleans Gold of Major League Rugby. Meanwhile Keys, a second row forward, currently plays at the University of Victoria.
Each also played for Canada at the Under-20 level, but in different sports: Howard playing soccer and Keys playing hockey.
Howard picked up rugby at Earl of March S.S. and decided to keep with the sport at Guelph after falling in love with it while in Grade 12. He also played at the Ottawa Beavers Rugby Football Club.
“It became evident that I really enjoy soccer but I love rugby,” he added. “I love the physicality of it and everything about the sport really suits me as a person.”
While coming back from an ACL injury in 2014, Howard said he nearly lost his passion for the sport.
“It was really hard,” he described. “I was like, ‘why do I keep doing this, why do I keep putting my body through this? I could have another big injury.’”
After he joined the Brantford Harlequins, he rediscovered his love for the game.
Howard recalls how after one victory he thought, “This is what I do this for… because I love what I do.”
He noted how just enjoying the game instead of always focusing on taking the next step in his career has allowed him to be successful.
For Keys, this summer has been about his rugby career coming full-circle.
He and Howard agreed that it’s the sport’s social aspect that make it so enjoyable.
“Being part of rugby community is best part of it,” Keys added. “A really tight community,” Keys said.
Keys’ father, having played rugby in Ottawa as part of that community, got his family tickets for a 2006 Canada-Scotland match. Keys cheered for the Scots in that game because of his heritage. The next day he signed up for the Barrhaven Scottish Rugby Football Club, inspired after watching that game and cheering against the team he would grow up to play for that night at Twin Elms Park.
Canada’s last game of the qualifying tournament for the 2019 Rugby World Cup is in November.