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The Messiah

1989. The CANZ series, a round robin, rugby union competition featuring Canada, two Argentinian club teams and three New Zealand provinces, reaches its half-way point.

It is early April in South America. Banco Nation and San Isidro, long standing and powerful Buenos Aires based sides, host Otago and Canada.

The Canadian squad is not quite a full national selection. Given a raft of injuries and a desire to blood some promising newcomers prior to the 1991 World Cup, it is very much an unproven outfit.

Now the wrong side of 30 and slowing down, I know in my heart this will be my last tour. Eventually, talent always trumps experience. And so, several of the youngsters snap at my heels, like hyenas hounding wounded prey. They want to play. And they deserve to.

One of the greenhorns in particular intrigues me. If somewhat rawboned, he still packs some 240 pounds on a 6’4” frame. Though modest and humble, he is very engaging in his own way. Not to mention, totally team oriented. Several shuddering hits during training sessions suggest he is equally tough, fearless and robust. He is also a powerful runner with a huge motor. Indefatigable.

I learn he hails from Ottawa. From the Ottawa Irish club.

That his name is Al Charron.

In the second of two matches, after a narrow defeat to Banco Nation, Canada meets San Isidro. I remember the contest clearly, from my position on the bench, and not because of a comprehensive 40-17 victory. Instead, though just 22 years old, Charron turns in a stunning debut performance, quite literally one for the ages.

A wrecking ball when in possession, on multiple occasions he leaves a trail of tacklers floundering in his wake. Though playing in the back row, he dominates the lineouts. And, when the home team attempts to attack, his high work rate, uncompromising attitude and countless crushing tackles ensure there is no easy way through.

Not surprisingly, the CANZ tour becomes for Charron a springboard to a simply amazing career.

Some two years later, he stars in the 1991 World Cup, part of a gutsy, masterful Canadian effort on the global stage. Dogged and courageous, he helps propel his country to victories over Romania and Fiji before a defiant loss to host France. Then, in a quarterfinal played in wretched conditions in Lille, he scores a fine try vs New Zealand as Canada bows out of the tournament with great credit.

Next, on a filthy November 1993 evening in Cardiff, Charron caps off a superb team try right on full time. His dive to the left of the posts gains Canada a thrilling 26-24 win vs Wales.

Accolades continue to pour in. He cements a thoroughly deserved reputation as one of the most dominant loose forwards in the world game. Highly regarded, both feared and admired, he becomes a huge fan favourite at every stop on his journey through the professional ranks. At Moseley and at Bristol. At Dax and at Pau. He also turns out on five occasions for the prestigious Barbarians side as well as returning to Argentina in 1997 to play for a World Invitational XV in the Pumas' centenary match.

Best of all, as a fiercely proud Canadian, he returns from Europe summer after summer, or whenever required, to represent the national XV. His remarkable 76 test caps, all of them as a starter, stand as a record for nearly 15 years. He captains the side on 25 occasions, and, by also playing in 1995, 1999 and 2003, equals a record four consecutive World Cup appearances.

Following the last of these competitions, after a win over Tonga, Charron finally draws the curtain on 14 years at the top level. That he even can suit up for the tournament defies belief, as he battles back from a full knee reconstruction surgery just four months before.

Classy, respected worldwide, he then goes on to a fifth World Cup as part of the Canadian team management. Quite rightly, for his leadership and massive contributions to the sport, Rugby Canada’s national training centre bears his name.

2016-17 is just the icing on the cake. Charron’s relentless brilliance is duly rewarded as he is voted into both the Rugby Canada and World Rugby Hall of Fames.

Still, for me, though subsequently watching him perform with distinction many more times, my mind always returns to that spring evening in Buenos Aires all those years ago. To a strapping, young, force of nature who absolutely dominates the game.

I know others see it too. For later that night, as we return to the hotel, the Otago coach Laurie Mains and his players line the walls of the lobby. Their game, the curtain raiser vs Banco Nation, is long over. Yet, they await our arrival. They realize they have been witness to something very special. They wish to pay homage.

Like most New Zealanders, they certainly know a thing or two about rugby. Understand mana, appreciate work rate and skill, applaud grit and courage, recognize excellence.

Charron finally enters the lobby. Led by Mains, the Otago players cheer and call out, then bow their heads in supplication as they usher in “the Messiah.”


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