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An outstanding leader

World Cup beckons for 'very strong, tough kid'
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After starting out as an under-14 player with Capilano Rugby Club, 23-year-old Hamilton is now donning the Maple Leaf to compete in New Zealand.

AS a Grade 10 Rockridge secondary student on the far-off shores of Wales in the spring of 2004, West Vancouver's Ryan Hamilton was already showing the qualities that would eventually lead him to his current spot on Canada's Rugby World Cup team.

Then just a junior player called up to the senior team for the school's UK tour, Hamilton had already earned the respect of his older teammates. A Grade 12 player missed a tackle beside him and Hamilton let him know that was not acceptable.

"The Grade 12s completely respected that," said Perino Zambon, then a Rockridge assistant who is now head coach of the team. "Here you've got a kid in Grade 10, not calling him out in a bad way, but just saying, 'C'mon, you gotta make that tackle,'" and everybody just kind of listening and nodding. He already possessed that kind of leadership and that kind of command of other's attention, even when he was a young kid."

Two years later Hamilton was the Grade 12 captain of a dominant Rockridge team that went undefeated against Canadian competition, winning the AA provincial championship as well as the provincial premier league, becoming the first and still the only AA school to take that title.

Five years at the University of Victoria followed, leading up to this summer when Hamilton, a 23-year-old with two international appearances already on his resume, was one of 30 players named to Canada's roster for the World Cup, which runs Sept. 9 to October 23 in rugby-mad New Zealand.

The roster was finalized in July and those who made the team were alerted with emails from the coach.

"Everybody was pretty nervous to get it. There were a few weeks there when everyone was like, 'Did you get the email? Did you get the email?' It was great when I finally got it," Hamilton told the North Shore News. "I was in my house in Victoria with a few of my roommates and they just heard me kind of scream, 'Yes!' and then run around like I was on fire."

Wearing a Maple Leaf jersey and representing Canada is a dream come true for Hamilton, who aspired to those heights when he first took up the sport as an under-14 player at Capilano Rugby Club.

"I'm lucky enough now to be in a position to put on the (national team) jersey if given the opportunity and I just want to do the country proud," he said. "There's nothing like it. It's probably the biggest honour I could think of. Ever since I put on my first rugby jersey here at Cap I always wanted to do it."

Canada will play in a pool with France, Tonga, Japan and the host team, New Zealand's famous All Black squad. Hamilton said he can't even imagine what it will be like to step onto the field for a Rugby World Cup against New Zealand on their home soil.

"To be honest I'm not sure what it'll be like because I've never experienced it," he said. "I'm sure it will be a very hostile environment but it's almost more exciting that way. It's a hell of a challenge, but why not? I prefer to have a harder challenge than to have an easy ride. None of our games are easy. Right now I think we might even be the lowest ranked team. It doesn't matter, we still have our goals and we'll do our best to attain them."

National team head coach Kieran Crowley knows what to expect from Hamilton, who will start the tournament as the backup hooker behind captain Pat Riordan.

"(Ryan) is very physical; he brings a physical presence to the game which is what we're looking for in a hooker," said Crowley. "He's got the opportunity to establish himself as the number 1 hooker in Canada over the next several years. He's going to bring a real presence to the Canadian team, a real physicality."

The word "work" is one that both Crowley and Zambon used numerous times in describing what Hamilton does very well.

"His work ethic was always exceptional," said Zambon. "Just a very strong, tough, physical kid on the field - always very clean, never dirty, but just uncompromising in his toughness and the way he played the game. Very, very strong kid."

Off the field he worked on being a well-rounded student, said Zambon.

Hamilton may not yet be able to imagine what stepping onto the pitch in New Zealand will feel like, but Zambon certainly has an idea.

"The men's World Cup is something special," he said. "They're going to be playing New Zealand in New Zealand in the World Cup. It's going to be an amazing experience for him. He's going to be able to stand on the field and witness an All-Black haka firsthand in their own home country when they're favoured to win the World Cup. It's an experience that he's never going to forget. We're just really, really happy that he's had the opportunity to get there because he's one of those guys that's a combination of being a great rugby player but he's also an outstanding young man. We couldn't be happier for him."

Canada opens the tournament against Tonga Sept. 14 and faces New Zealand Oct. 2. All of Canada's games will be broadcast on TSN.

aprest@nsnews.com