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For the try: Calgary rugby star gets pro shot in Toronto

Calgary’s Ben LeSage has rugby in his blood.

His grandfather was one of the founding members of the Barrie, Ont. Rugby Club. That’s what got his dad involved at a young age, too.  

“I grew up watching him and then playing as my coach. So, he actually got me started quite young,” the nearly-24-year-old LeSage told LiveWire Calgary.

Now, after coming off his time with Team Canada at the recent Rugby World Cup in Japan, LeSage signed with Canada’s only professional rugby squad, the Toronto Arrows of Major League Rugby (MLR).

Toronto just finished its sophomore season in the 12-team MLR, which has teams from across North America – but only one in Canada. A team is expected to launch in Dallas, Texas in 2021 and there are ongoing negotiations with five other teams, including two Canadian ones: Halifax and Vancouver.

LeSage, started playing as a nine-year-old and grew through the ranks of  junior club rugby with the Calgary Canucks. While he attended EP Scarlett High School in Calgary, the outside centre (position 13) had to commute to Henry Wise Wood High School to play rugby for three years.

The Rugby World Cup ‘was pretty incredible’

The born and raised Calgarian attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (Engineering degree – mechatronics), and though he’s earned 15 caps (14 starts) since he joining the Canadian national team in 2016, the pinnacle was the Rugby World Cup experience.

“It was pretty incredible, to be honest,” LeSage said. The fan support, even from those people who are avid Rugby Canada fans, and who’d travelled across the Pacific to cheer the team one, was something he’ll remember.

“It’s pretty special to be able to kind of take part in that and, and especially being in Japan, the locals in the community really bought in and they were just thrilled to be in the hosts took hosting very seriously as well. So, it’s pretty cool to kind of get a peek into their culture to be hosted so well definitely added to the experience.”

World Cup experience was invaluable for growth, LeSage said

Calgary rugby player, now professional with the Toronto Arrows, Ben LeSage. SUPPLIED

The experience that the Rugby World Cup gave to him was invaluable to helping him get in the right frame of mind for what it takes to get to the next level – not only as a professional, but for when the 2023 Rugby World Cup rolls around in France.

He said he’s already got that one circled on his calendar. LeSage broke his hand in the squad’s first game against Italy, so he had to watch much of it from the sidelines.

But seeing the world-class teams like the New Zealand All-Blacks or South Africa or France put his game into perspective.

“I think that’s just the big thing as it kind of gives you a first-person view into what the best in the world looks like and then can kind of help you figure out what you need to do to get there,” he said.

Now he’s set to bring all of that developed skill to continue building the talent level in the MLR.

Turning pro with the Toronto Arrows

LeSage wanted to finish up his degree while prepping for the World Cup. He didn’t want his studies to suffer, but he’d had thoughts of going pro with the introduction of the Toronto Arrows a couple years back.

“I was training for the World Cup and just focusing on rugby and then it was just an obvious transition to sign with the Arrows and get involved with the MLR and just kind of make rugby my full time job for the next foreseeable future,” he said.

He said international rugby, given some of the powerhouse international teams, is a half-step up from the North American pro ranks. The biggest difference, he said, is many of the North American players have specializations in their skills set and the top international players bring an entire toolbox with them. But, the development of the pro league in North America is going to bring the level of play up.

“I think as the league grows and guys get more game time – myself included – you can round out your game and improve on, not just your best stuff, but some of your weaknesses as well,” he said.

“You’ll see the league improve as the years go by.”

LeSage said more international talent is signing in the North American league and that will bring an added flavour to the gameplay.

Arrows sign core Canadian rugby talent

The team signed nine players from across Canada at the end of October.

“We are really excited to have signed not only many of our core players from last year, but also some great new Canadian talent,” said Arrows Vice President and General Manager Mark Winokur, in a prepared release.

“This underscores our commitment to homegrown players, and with the mix of off-shore players coming into the squad, we feel this gives us what all teams want – the best chance to win games in a tough league.”

Last year, the Arrows 11-5-0 and went to the league semi-final.