Australian-born forward Corey Thomas relishes time with Canadian rugby team

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A meeting at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan set Australian-born forward Corey Thomas on the path to representing Canada.

Thomas was playing club rugby in Kamaishi where Canada was due to play Namibia until Typhoon Hagibis struck. The game was called off but Thomas got to connect with former Canadian hooker Ray Barkwill, an assistant coach with Canada.

The two had played together in Perth, Australia. And when they met in Kamaishi, Barkwill suggested he contact Canada coach Kingsley Jones. Thomas is eligible for Canada thanks to his father Philip who was born in Edmonton.

"That's sort of what planted the seed," said Thomas, who won the Major League Rugby title this season with the Los Angeles Giltinis. "The rest sort of fell in place."

On Saturday, the 27-year-old Thomas will pull on the Maple Leaf again as the 23rd-ranked Canadian men look to end their European tour on a winning note against No. 28 Belgium in Brussels.

Canada is coming off a 20-17 loss to No. 19 Portugal last Saturday in Lisbon with Manuel Cardoso Pinto scoring a late try to negate a Canadian comeback. It marked Portugal's first ever win over Canada in five meetings.

"The players didn't deserve to lose that way," said Jones. "They worked so hard and the replacements did so well as well … It was a tough one to take."

Tougher because there was no video replay on the day to review the winning try, with Pinto touching down a kick in the end zone. Canada also rued two missed conversions.

The two-game European tour follows Canada's failure to qualify for the 2023 World Cup after losing two-legged aggregate series against the 18th-ranked U.S. Eagles and No. 26 Chile in September and October, respectively.

A win Saturday and the Canadians can at least point to three victories out of their six fall fixtures.

Thomas played in Australia for the Perth Spirit, GPS Club and Brisbane City before moving to Japan to play for the Canon Eagles, Kamaishi Seawaves and Super Rugby's Sunwolves.

He made his Super Rugby debut for the Japanese team in February 2020 against the Queensland Reds only to see the season cancelled weeks later because of the pandemic.

He loved his time in Japan, citing the people and the food. At six foot four and 253 pounds, he also attracted attention.

"I actually had hair back then. I had blond hair so I stood out even more," said Thomas, whose head is now shaved.

Thomas' Australian grandmother married a Canadian. But when her husband died, she moved the family back to Perth when Thomas's father was six.

"From a young age it was a just a dream to come to Canada," said Thomas.

His father currently works in Indonesia while his mother, a New Zealander, lives in Perth.

Thomas says while his father has had difficulties getting to watch his matches, he managed to catch his son make his debut against England at Twickenham in July.

"He was very proud," said Thomas. "I just hope he can come over and see some footie (in person) soon, because it's been tough not having him around."

Thomas, who has toured B.C. with his girlfriend in recent months, roomed with former Canadian international DTH van der Merwe for a time on the road with the Giltinis.

Despite the recent setbacks, Thomas sees "lot of potential" in the Canadian squad.

"The more game time these boys get together, the better they're going to be. It was disappointing not being qualified (for the World Cup) but we just need to accept what's happened and focus on the next steps," he said.

The Belgians, playing their third test of the year, are coming off a 23-21 loss to the Netherlands in May in a Rugby Europe Championship playoff. That relegated the team known as the Black Devils to the second-tier Rugby Europe Trophy.

A win and the Belgians will climb at least two places in the rankings. A loss would drop Canada to its lowest-ever ranking with defeat, depending on the margin and other results.

The Belgians are fielding a young squad, however, with 11 potential debutants among the matchday squad.

The two teams have met just once before with Canada winning 43-12 in Brussels in November 2010.

Jones has made four personnel and one positional change. Thomas, prop Tyler Rowland, scrum half Jason Higgins and wing Isaac Olson slot into the starting 15 while Brock Webster shifts from wing to fullback, Olson earns his first cap while Higgins makes his first start.

The hope is Canada's fitness will pay off as the match progresses.

Thomas scored two tries off the bench against Portugal, showing his power in bulling his way across the try-line.

"He's a big boy … We need that power ball-carrier," Jones said of Thomas, who can play both lock and No. 8.

Life on the road can be challenging. After being assigned a "mud-bath" field with no markings for a practice session this week, the Canadians found a well-appointed soccer field which they did not have permission to use.

When the groundskeeper arrived and objected, Jones got him onside by gifting him his T-shirt and everyone left happy.

The Canadians subsequently found another rugby field to train on in Waterloo, the site of the famous 1815 battle south of Brussels.

Canada:

Cole Keith, Sussex, N.B., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Andrew Quattrin, Holland Landing, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Tyler Rowland, Mississauga, Ont., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Conor Keys, Stittsville, Ont., Rugby ATL (MLR); Kyle Baillie, Summerside, P.E.I., Toronto Arrows (MLR); Lucas Rumball (capt.), Toronto, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Michael Smith, White Rock, B.C., San Diego Legion (MLR); Corey Thomas, Perth, Australia, L.A. Giltinis (MLR); Jason Higgins, Cork, Ireland, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Spencer Jones, Cambridge, New Zealand, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Kainoa Lloyd, Mississauga, Ont., James Bay AA; Quinn Ngawati, Victoria, Rugby United New York (MLR); Ben LeSage, Calgary, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Isaac Olson, Vernon, B.C., Canada men’s sevens; Brock Webster, Uxbridge, Ont., Canada men's sevens..

Replacements:

Eric Howard, Edmonton, NOLA Gold (MLR); Djustice Sears-Duru, Oakville, Ont., unattached; Foster DeWitt, Courtenay, B.C., Pacific Pride Performance Academy; Josh Larsen, Parksville, B.C., New England Free Jacks (MLR); Mason Flesch, Cobourg, Ont., Toronto Arrows; Ross Braude, Pretoria, South Africa, Toronto Arrows (MLR); Rob Povey, Calgary, Houston SaberCats (MLR); Lachlan Kratz, Victoria, NOLA Gold (MLR).

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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