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North Vancouver rugby star earns pro spot

World Cup leads to contract in French league

FEW "fork in the road" moments offer as wildly different paths as the one faced by North Vancouver's Jason Marshall in the fall of 2008.

Unceremoniously released from Edmonton Eskimos training camp earlier that year, circumstances saw Marshall facing down this odd choice of potential career paths: accountant, or rugby player.

Both paths had pros and cons: not many accountants have their legs broken while on the job but, then again, not many accountants get to stand on a pitch in New Zealand with the All Blacks a few yards away dancing their famous haka.

Both of those things have happened to Marshall because smash beat out math, and the would-be accountant instead followed his dreams all the way to this year's Rugby World Cup, the sport's highest stage, and a pro contract with a team in France he signed the day before Canada's final game of the tournament.

A two-sport star at Carson Graham secondary, Marshall chose football after high school and went to Simon Fraser University to play quarterback. While at SFU Marshall focused on football - he was forbidden from playing rugby - but the team was terrible during his tenure, setting records for futility. He did, however, graduate from the school with a bachelor of business administration. He also earned a look with the Eskimos - he tried out as a fullback, not a quarterback - but nothing came of it.

Marshall found himself back at the Capilano Rugby Club and earned his way onto some touring teams, soon catching the eye of national team coach Kieran Crowley who offered him a carded spot training with the national team.

There were a few snags though: Marshall had to move to Victoria to train, spurning an accounting job he had already lined up; the Canadian coaches wanted to move him into the front row as a tighthead prop instead of his normal flanker position; and, once he did decide to go to Victoria, he promptly broke his leg. The decision to stay and play, however, was actually a fairly easy one, says Marshall.

"I kind of just thought to myself I'll never get this opportunity again and you only live once, so I picked rugby."

The decision to play might have been easy but the position change - a tighthead prop is one of the three players at the front of the scrum - was not so easy. Prop is a brutally physical job that requires enormous strength to control a scrum that can contain 16 bodies totaling nearly 2,000 kilograms. In football terms the move was a bit like a coach asking his quarterback to drop down and play centre. For Marshall, it was tough.

"The transition from back row to front row was very difficult, I hated it," says Marshall. "I was garbage when I first started, it was actually really depressing in a way. I knew how much work I had to do to make it at any level, random Joe Schmoes were beating my ass, just kicking my butt on the field."

Marshall credits his parents Helen and Harvey for sticking with him as he struggled though his latest sports odyssey.

"I think a lot of parents would have been like, 'What are you doing? Why are you wasting your life chasing these weird dreams?' But they supported me and I'm pretty grateful."

After two years of flailing away at his new position, a few injuries to Canadian players opened up more opportunities for him to play internationally and things finally started to click.

"I don't want to give myself too much credit but I have been working my butt off for the last three years and trying to improve as much as possible," he says. "It was a risk - my goal was to make the Rugby World Cup but I had so far to go with my development to actually make it and there were times even less than a year ago where I thought there was no way I was making the World Cup team. But then again I have been working really hard and obviously with the help of a lot of coaches and the strength and condition coaches I was able to do well and make the transition."

Marshall did make the World Cup squad and actually started every game, helping Canada earn a win over Tonga to open the tournament, an important victory considering the team did not win a game at the last World Cup in 2007.

"There were quite a few guys on this year's team who were on that last one and they kind of had that hangover feeling of not winning a game and it was obviously weighing on them quite a bit," he says, adding that the Tonga game feels kind of like a blur now.

"I just remember that my body was really sore after the game - that's all I really remember. It kind of went by really fast. I remember going into the change room at halftime and I thought to myself, 'Wow, that's the fastest half of rugby I've ever played.'"

The atmosphere in rugbymad New Zealand was fantastic, says Marshall.

"It felt like I was a Canadian hockey player in Vancouver - it had that Olympic feeling to it where everybody was crazy about rugby."

Canada's tournament ended with a showdown against New Zealand's famous All Blacks. The score ended up 79-15 but it was a thrashing Marshall will never forget.

"A team like that, when you make mistakes they will just make you pay right away - without even blinking they'll be down at the other end scoring a try," he says. "The All Blacks are the best team in the world and they're that one team that everybody wants to play against. I idolize a lot of the guys that are on that team - the style of play, how hard they work."

Marshall's play at the tournament earned him a one-year injury fill-in job with second tier French pro team Stade Aurillacois Cantal Auvergne. The team also indicated that if he plays well they'd love to keep him there on a long-term contract - a move that would do wonders for his game and put him in great shape for another crack at the World Cup in 2015.

So for now the accountant's desk will have to wait as Marshall is putting his brawn as well as his brain to work in a new world. He's scheduled to leave for France today.

"At the moment I know zero French so it's going to be pretty tough at the start," he says with a laugh. "I've already got the Rosetta Stone going at my house trying to learn as much as I can before I go over."

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aprest@nsnews.com

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