It’s a long way to the international rugby stage from the confines of snowy Calgary.
But that’s just what Ben Lesage is about to do this weekend in Hong Kong, when, as a member of Canada’s U20 squad he will butting heads against some of the top young rugby players on the planet at the IRB Junior World Trophy.
The 18 year old, who rose out of the Calgary Canucks ranks and also helped lead Henry Wise Wood to three city high school championships, figures to play a prominent role for a Red and White squad primarily composed of B.C. players, which is understandable.
Calgary is not exactly the easiest place to hone rugby skills year round. Vancouver is much more ideal.
“It’s definitely different because I’m one of two Albertan players on the team (Canmore’s Adam McQueen is the other one). We’re definitely a minority,” said Lesage, who moved to the West Coast last fall to join the UBC rugby team and begin a degree in engineering. “Rugby is not as big in Alberta just because you can’t play year round. The season’s restricted to June and July when you’re a junior. So it’s two months versus all the B.C. kids who play basically year round.
“So there’s definitely a bit of difference in the amount of time (on the field) and the skill development.”
That’s not to say it can’t be done. McQueen rose out of the Calgary Hornets organization and cracked Team Canada’s roster for the Americas Rugby Championship last year. Locals Nick Blevins of Calgary and Jeff Hassler of Okotoks are on the senior national radar, playing for Team Canada in exhibition action last fall, including against the New Zealand Maori All Blacks.
Lesage is well aware that Alberta rugby players with national team aspirations have to make up for less field time with more time in the gym, with a gigantic dose of determination.
“There’s still tons of really good coaches in Alberta,” he was quick to point out. “I’ve been dedicated enough to know that I have to work in the off-season, so even when it’s snowy out, I’ll be training in the gym with Rugby Alberta and (following) the program that they have in the off-season. And doing weights, maybe, instead of rugby stuff. Just trying to keep up with all the guys who are playing rugby all year.”
Whether or not that leads to a starting assignment in Hong Kong remains to be seen — (Lesage started two of three games at inside centre for the U20 squad during a recent England tour) — but he plans to help them win in anyway possible.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good chance this year,” said Lesage. “Last year Canada finished second behind Italy and so Italy moved up (to the Junior World Cup — the top tier of U20 international competition) and the (United) States moved down (after finishing last in that competition).
“We’ve got as good a shot as anyone, but obviously there’s a few tough teams in there that we’ll have to beat.”
Canada opens the tournament against Namibia on April 7 before facing other Pool B competition — Uruguay on April 11 and Japan on April 15. The U.S., Tonga, Georgia and Hong Kong are in Pool A. The top two teams in each group will meet in the final on April 19.
“We’ve got a big forward pack, so we’re definitely a physical team,” said Lesage. “There’s a lot of emphasis on being solid defensively and making big positive tackles, but we’ve also got some good speed. When we’re on offence we try to move the ball quickly and use the width and try to attack with a lot of speed and try to catch the other team on their back foot.”
Canada warmed up for Hong Kong with a tour to Leicester, England last month, which allowed them to see the style of play in one of the world’s premier rugby hotbeds.
“It was a really good experience,” said Lesage. “First of all, we got to play in Leicester Stadium, which is one of the most famous stadiums in England. Tons of famous players have played there. It was kind of an eye-opener to see just how good players are in England. They’ve been playing their whole lives. Kind of what level you’d have to get to if you wanted to look at playing rugby professionally.
“We played some pretty tough games and it was pretty impressive, seeing some of the players and how good they were. It kind of gave our team motivation, showing where we have to get to if we want to be a solid team.”
And another eye-opener on Lesage’s path to what he someday hopes will be a spot on Team Canada’s senior side.
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