Thursday, July 18, 2024

Conor Keys has ‘full circle’ experience playing rugby for Canada vs Scotland

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By Jackson Starr

Conor Keys was first introduced to rugby at a young age while watching a Scotland vs Canada match at Twin Elm Rugby Park with his dad. Nearly 20 years later, the Stittsville native got to play in a match featuring the two teams, this time on a bigger stage at TD Place Stadium on Saturday evening.

“It’s definitely a full circle moment,” said Keys after the match. “To be able to come back here and play on the same team but to actually be involved is such a cool feeling.”

Keys has family ties to Scotland, with his nephews making the trip across the ocean to see him play. The country does have a special spot within his family.

“It’s not often you get to sing both national anthems,” he highlighted. “My parents sing ‘The Flower of Scotland’, I sing ‘O Canada.’ Together we get both, so it’s pretty awesome to have that full circle moment.” 

Canada vs Scotland men’s rugby match national anthems. Photo: Derek Mellon

Despite a strong start, the result was not what Team Canada hoped to deliver to its home fans.

After scoring an early try, the #22 world-ranked Canadian men struggled to keep up with the potent offence of the #6-ranked Scots, falling 73-12 in front of an announced crowd of 11,447 fans. 

Scoreline aside, Keys revelled in the large crowd and positive atmosphere around the event, which could not be quelled.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable,” he indicated. “It shows the growth of rugby in Ottawa. Last time we played here we only had one side (of the stands) open, this time we had two sides. It felt like the crowd was on top of us.”

Conor Keys. Photo: Derek Mellon

Ottawa fans turned out in big numbers last year as well when they set a new women’s national team attendance record with a crowd of 10,000+. Men’s national team head coach Kingsley Jones also said TD Place offered a great place to play a match. 

“It’s a fantastic stadium,” Jones said. “One of the best rugby stadiums that you could find, it’s a great venue. Just wish that we could have delivered a bit more.”

Jones also said that these events are critical to inspire young athletes to get into the game and create more stories like that of Keys’ entrance into the sport.

“That’s where it starts for these players,” Jones signalled. “That’s the lifeblood for us. It’s so important for the youngsters to get exposed to international sport and international rugby as a live spectacle.”

Keys also viewed the big crowd as a reflection of the sport’s growth in the area in recent years.

“I just took a bunch of pictures with various kids who went through the same Sacred Heart program as me,” recounted the Sacred Heart Catholic High School grad. “It’s cool. Back then it (was) one or two guys who played rugby… and now there’s kids that identify themselves as Sacred Heart rugby players.”

Read More: 3 local players preparing with Canadian U20 women’s team in town before transatlantic series

Along with current members of the Sacred Heart Huskies community, Keys had got 38 tickets for his own friends and family. Even more than that showed up from his high school and his playing days across various teams in the Eastern Ontario Rugby Union.

“It’s always cool to see them and then obviously see my family. My nephews running around on the field (postgame) – it’s pretty once in a lifetime,” underlined Keys, who thanked his supporters for the role they played in his success.

“To go see them again today and feel that connection” was special, he added. “They’re proud… to see someone from the Ottawa area succeed. It’s pretty moving to connect with the guys again. Haven’t seen them in ages, you snap right back to when you played together. That’s the power of rugby I think.”

Conor Keys wins a line-out for Canada. Photo: Derek Mellon

The Canadian men have one more match in the series of test matches as they face Romania at 7 p.m. on Friday, at TD Place once again. Keys said he’s hopeful that a large crowd will once again be there on Friday. 

”It makes such a big difference,” added the New England Free Jacks player who will then return to his Major League Rugby team for its eastern conference semi-final playoff game on July 20. “Once you hear that crowd behind you it just gives you that little extra push, something we haven’t had in a while playing a lot of away tests.

“It’s something we probably weren’t even used to when we started the game. To hear that crowd and to hear everyone cheering your name is pretty awesome.”

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