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Having spent time playing in England, Canadian international flanker Matt Heaton wanted a new challenge in the wake of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Major League Rugby in North America beckoned.
"I'd been watching the league while I was in the U.K. still and I was kind of at a crossroads with where I wanted to go next," said the 28-year-old from Godmanchester, Que. "And then when the MLR kind of popped up, I looked at all the cities and I said 'Where is the place I'd least likely end up?'
"I said 'Atlanta,'" he added with a chuckle. "And looked into it. I liked the coaching staff. I liked some of the guys involved. I spoke to coach (Scott) Lawrence and he said to me 'There's no red carpets. We're going to have weights and we're going to train like professionals.' And I said 'Perfect. That's what I want.' And I showed up. And so far so good. A really good decision on my part."
Heaton, named Rugby Canada 15s Player of the Year in 2017 and 2019, has been joined in Atlanta by fellow Canadian international Conor Keys, a lock forward from Stittsville, Ont.
Both played their part Saturday in Rugby ATL's last-second 33-29 win over the Toronto Arrows, who are sharing ATL's training facilities during the pandemic. Atlanta replacement hooker Ross Deacon bulled his way over for the go-ahead try in the inaugural Fire and Ice Cup match between the two sides.
Mark Janse van Rensberg scored two tries and Jason Damm and Mark O'Keefe added singles for Rugby ATL (4-3-0). Adriaan Carelse kicked four conversions.
Mike Sheppard, Ben LeSage, Gaston Mieres and Tomy de la Vega scored tries for Toronto (3-5-0), which rallied in the second half from a 26-14 deficit to lead 29-26. Tayler Adams added three conversions and a penalty.
The game, at Lupo Family Field at Life University in suburban Marietta, was officially listed as a home contest for the Arrows. Rugby ATL was deemed the home side when the two met in the season opener March 20 with Atlanta winning 21-14.
Heaton, Rugby ATL's co-captain, is happy in Marietta, which is located some 35 kilometres northwest of the Georgia state capital.
"It's a nice little town," he said. "It's like any other suburban American, Canadian city. It's kind of got everything you need. It's pretty relaxed.
"It's exactly kind of what you'd want in a professional environment. We're pretty high-stress, high workload, lots of rugby. And then when you want to switch off, you live in an area that's quite peaceful and relaxed and pretty laid-back. Everyone's really friendly. Everyone's really hospitable. So I'm enjoying it."
The one drawback is his fiancee remains in Canada. They are slated to get married next year.
He's been sharing his local knowledge with the Arrows, many of whom he knows from international duty with Canada.
"I feel it's part of my duty," said Heaton, who used to room with Toronto co-captain Lucas Rumball. "I'm based here. I know all the good spots. I know where the good sushi restaurants are, the good BBQ joints so I try to make sure I get the guys out once in a while."
After MLR called off the 2020 season five games in mid-March, Heaton retreated to the family farm in Godmanchester, just over an hour southwest of Montreal. It was the first time he had spent any significant time there since he was 17 or 18.
"I grew a vegetable garden, just came up with a few hobbies to do — just to pass the time. I completely avoided sports. I didn't train. I didn't do anything. I just completely switched off."
When it came time to get back to business, he started doing some construction odd-jobs and training in his homemade gym.
Heaton ran the gamut of emotions at the World Cup in Japan.
He came on in the 16th minute in Canada's opening match against Italy, replacing an injured Rumball. A minute later, captain Tylor Ardron cut through the Italian defence and passed to Heaton just metres from the try-line with no defenders in sight.
Heaton couldn't handle the pass and dropped the ball. He was later sent to the sin-bin for deliberately pulling down a driving maul in the 48-7 loss.
After starting in the 63-0 loss to New Zealand, he scored Canada's lone try in a 66-7 loss to eventual champion South Africa.
The tournament remains a special memory, providing the chance to test himself against the best in the world.
"It was a wild ride," he said. "It's funny. I always say this — in the moment, you don't really notice how special all these things are because you're just so focused on the performances and you're focused on the game and everything.
"I actually appreciated the World Cup more when I came back and I looked back it. And I said 'Wow. That was a really special moment.' I wish I had spent more time in the moment, but again you're there to do a job at the end f the day. We were all very very focused om the rugby side of things … I'm pretty proud and happy to have been involved."
Signed with Rugby ATL through the end of the 2023 MLR season, Heaton is looking forward to resuming play with Canada. He believes the 23rd-ranked Canadian men will reap the benefits of having more than 50 players training and playing full-time in MLR.
"Now that we have that, we're going to be going places," he said.
Heaton has come a long way since picking up rugby in Grade 8 at the suggestion of a "pretty girl in my class." He discovered he liked the game, playing for Quebec at the youth level before playing for Canada at the U-20 level.
He moved to Vancouver Island to train with the Canadian 15s and sevens team before heading to England to pursue 15s play.
Heaton played in the lower English leagues with Otley and then Darlington Mowden Park, where he played and also did some coaching.
"I just said 'You know what? I'm going to pack my bags. I'm going to travel a little bit. I'm going to play rugby and I'll see where this thing takes me. In hindsight, it was a really good decision. I got a true authentic rugby culture with Otley, a really old traditional club. I absolutely loved it."
Darlington Mowden Park proved to be another positive, combining good rugby with a family feel to the club. He says he has the same at Rugby ATL.
"We all live in the same facility. .. It's got that really good friendly family kind of vibe. But we show up, ready to work every day."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press