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The Highs and Lows

The Highs and Lows

As Peter Nelson streaked through the All Blacks defence in October, the roar from Rugby Players Ireland’s offices could probably have been heard in Ōita. In fact, any Irish rugby fan looking on will have urged the Dungannon man to the line.

The moment took off like something of a childhood dream. As Lucas Ramball got the ball away to the former Ulster Rugby player, only Beauden Barrett stood between him and Canadian rugby folklore. From inside his own half, the out-half dared to do what few might.

“I had to back myself,” Nelson says of the moment he slalomed outside the covering full-back and darted for the line. “At first I thought I was away but all the time Beauden was reeling me in. Have you seen how fast he is? He’s very quick! The speed those guys play at is unbelievable. It was a special experience.”

Though Nelson came up just short, on the whole his Canadian side were bettered by 63 points. Memories of such defeats would ordinarily be discarded with haste, yet the opportunity to play the All Blacks is one Nelson gratefully appreciates. Afterwards, Richie Mo’unga sought out his counterpart to swap shirts. The jersey is yet to be framed but will soon find a place where it can be cherished for years to come.

“Playing New Zealand in a World Cup is definitely a highlight in my career,” Nelson admits. “I have always been ambitious to play at the highest-level even when I found out I’d be leaving Ulster last year. It wasn’t a case of my best years being behind me, I felt I still had a lot to offer. I decided to explore an option I had with Canada because my grandmother was born in Toronto. I joined up with them last June and a few months later I was on the world’s biggest stage!  

“To be honest, I felt the World Cup had gone really well for me. I had some good moments and thought I’d be putting myself in the shop window. I really thought it was going to propel me on and set myself up. Even though the season had already started, I came back from Japan hoping something might materialise somewhere in Europe. But weeks and then months passed, and nothing appeared.”

With most squads settled on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, Nelson simply wanted to get his hands on a rugby ball. At the turn of the year he togged out for Dungannon in AIL 2B a couple of times before an option to move stateside emerged. While his preference was to remain a little closer to home, a short-term deal was struck with the Seattle Seawolves. Nelson wasted little time in packing his bags and was set for a March departure.  

“I guess it’s just been very frustrating ever since the World Cup. It got to the point where I just wanted to play and I’d have gone anywhere. It was a bit disheartening when nothing came up and then as soon as things began to happen, Covid-19 happened. Maybe I’m lucky I didn’t get trapped over there, but whatever might have panned out I’d actually be back by now anyway so I’m trying to put it all behind me and look forward. 

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

“We’ve been trying to get in contact with clubs but the current climate makes it very tough. It has been very slow and quiet. Understandably, teams are having to reassess their finances and some are cutting back their squads. You’re seeing it a lot on social media at the moment – guys coming off contract with nowhere to go. In some ways I’m glad to see I’m not the only one, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

At the back of Nelson’s mind is also his position within the Canadian squad. While Kinglsey Jones has reassured him that he remains in his plans, Nelson is keenly aware that he needs to be playing rugby. He is indebted to Rugby Canada for giving him an opportunity on the biggest stage and isn’t prepared to say his goodbyes.

Despite being a relatively new face in the team, Nelson also built a very strong bond with a group of players that drew great praise throughout their Japanese experience. They might have shipped 177 points during their time in Japan, but Typhoon Hagibis didn’t allow for much self-pity.    

“Having New Zealand, South Africa and Italy all in our group meant that we were really focussed on the game against Namibia. It was disappointing when that was cancelled on the morning of the match. There was nothing in the diary obviously, so a lot of the boys got together and we went out into Kamaishi to help with the clean-up after the typhoon.

“I was in an old lady’s house and it was wrecked. There was no saving it. There were water marks halfway up the walls. She had a lifetime of memories in there, all gone. That was tough trying to put it into some sort of shape so she could have a roof over her head.

“In hindsight, it was very special. They are a very proud people so to be there to help pick up the pieces of someone’s life is something I’ll always remember.”

Reuters

Filling his time during lockdown with training and delivering food supplies to cocooners in his community, Nelson hasn’t been resting on his laurels. In anticipation of new opportunities, he can’t afford to. Now that he has seen the other side of the fence, he’ll be sure to grab any chance he gets with both hands.

“There’s no getting away from how tough it has been to go from the highs of playing in a World Cup to returning home and struggling to find anything. I have to keep reminding myself of how fortunate I have been to do some of the things I’ve done. I think of that old lady in Japan and see how different it all could have been.

“I took rugby for granted. We all took rugby for granted. I took my job for granted. I won’t be doing that anymore.”

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