Rugby took fly half Shane O’Leary from his native Ireland to France. Thanks to his mother’s New Brunswick roots, it has brought him to Canada.
And strangely enough, he now finds himself pitted against a former Irish teammate wearing American colours as Canada and the U.S. battle this weekend for a Rugby World Cup berth.
Cork-born O’Leary and Dublin-born AJ MacGinty faced off at fly half last Saturday at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field when the two North American rivals played to a 28-28 draw in the first leg of their Rugby World Cup qualifier.
“We were laughing about it,” O’Leary said.
“Two boys that were born in Ireland, playing across from each in a game, two mates,” he added. “Mates off the field, but you’re never mates on the field.”
MacGinty, now with England’s Sale Sharks, used to play for Connacht Rugby in Ireland where he and O’Leary duelled for the No. 10 shirt.
“We actually became good mates,” said O’Leary, who roomed with MacGinty for a while.
MacGinty, 27, qualifies for the U.S. through residency rules having lived in New York and studied at Life University in Georgia.
The return leg of the World Cup qualifier goes Saturday at Torero Stadium in San Diego with the winner slotting into Pool C at the 2019 World Cup in Japan, along with No. 2 England, No. 8 France, No. 9 Argentina and Oceania 2.
The loser has two more chances to qualify, first via a playoff with No. 18 Uruguay and second via a world repechage.
Canada is currently ranked 23rd in the world while the U.S. is No. 17.
The 24-year-old O’Leary qualifies for Canada because his mother was born in Campbellton, N.B. His grandfather, a doctor, came to Canada to work and had three kids before moving the family back to Ireland when Shane’s mother was a toddler.
Shane O’Leary grew up playing for Munster’s under-18 and under-19 teams but missed out on under-20 representative honours. He joked about playing for Canada, “not really thinking too much of it.”
“And then Dad actually looked it up and found there was a (Canadian under-20 team),” he recalled. “So I got all excited about that.”
He contacted the coach and eventually helped the Canadian under-20 team to the final of the Junior World Trophy, a second-tier U20 tournament, in 2013 in Chile.
“The rest is history, as they say,” he said.
O’Leary moved to France to play one season for the Grenoble academy. Then he returned to Ireland and spent three seasons with Connacht in Pro 12, a 12-team league with clubs in Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
He had to put his Canada career on hold while with Connacht because he would have been considered an import and taken up one of the few foreign roster slots.
“It didn’t really fit for the first two seasons,” he said of juggling club and international duties.
He had a good start with Connacht last season but then got injured and fell down the pecking order. The two parted ways.
O’Leary has yet to find a new club — he signed with one but the deal fell through — but is making the most of the opportunity to play for Canada.
He made his Canadian test debut in the 13-0 loss to Georgia on June 10 in Calgary.
“Mum was very excited about it,” he said. “I remember just before I left she said ‘Make sure you represent the homeland with pride. Make sure you bring me back something really Canadian. Maple syrup or something. Real maple syrup.’”
Despite unpredictable windy conditions in Hamilton, the five-foot-10 198-pound O’Leary kicked 13 points in last weekend’s tie including the 78th-minute penalty that evened the score. MacGinty booted eight points.
O’Leary hopes to become a fixture for Canada.
“I have every ambition to be the No. 1 (fly half) in the Canadian jersey for the next 10 years,” he said. “That’s my ambition anyway.”