As we talk to Al Charron the jersey of All Black Alan Whetton hangs proudly behind him on the wall of his basement at home in Ontario.
It is part of his collection of rugby memorabilia that reflects a storied playing career that took him all over the world while representing his country 76 times and at four Rugby World Cups and saw him inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2017.
Now an employee of Rugby Canada, Charron (main picture) has lots of memories to draw upon, not least Canada’s run to the quarter-finals in his first tournament appearance in 1991, which came to an end when they were beaten 29-13 by New Zealand in northern France.
With just seven caps and a year’s international experience behind him, playing the reigning world champions in a Rugby World Cup quarter-final was obviously a big deal for Charron at the time.
“For me, playing New Zealand was awesome,” the burly back-row said.
“I came into rugby fairly late and back then there wasn’t a lot of cable television carrying rugby games and any high level rugby came via video tape sent from other parts of the world.
“Some guys at my rugby club, Ottawa Irish, said if you want to learn how to play rugby watch the All Blacks so I did and I was mesmerised by how good they were, and by the Haka and everything else.”
Canada had secured their place in the last eight thanks to wins over Romania and Fiji, followed by a narrow defeat to France in their final pool game.
Charron’s fellow Hall of Fame inductee and Rugby Canada employee, fly-half Gareth Rees, says their extended stay in France led to a few frantic calls back home.
“I distinctly remember us sitting in the lobby after the win over Romania qualified us for the quarter-finals and guys going to an actual phone – not one in their hands like we have today – to call their employers to see if they could have another week off.
“I think there were a couple of guys who were doing jobs they didn’t particularly like and were happy to risk it, but to a man, we had everyone available.
“I often tell the current players that a choice might have had to be made between going back to work or playing in a World Cup quarter-final, to give them a sense of perspective.”
Unaccustomed to such long stays away from home, the quarter-final appeared to be a game too far for the Canucks when, in atrocious conditions, they trailed 21-3 at half-time at the Stade Metropole in Lille.
But a brave second-half fightback, rounded off by Charron’s try with the last play of the game, saw them ‘win’ the second half.
“Credit to New Zealand, they scored some magnificent tries against us, but it was a game that opened up the eyes of the world that Canadians could play rugby,” says Charron.
“There weren’t many emerging nations back then that could say they beat the New Zealand side on the scoreboard in a half so that was something to take away from it.
“But, at the end of the day, we still lost. There were mixed emotions from that World Cup: I know we did better than people expected but we expected a lot of ourselves.”
ON A MISSION
Another thing that Charron could take from the experience was his opposite number’s jersey, a prized capture that nearly got away.
“I have to admit I was a little off-put by us doing a lap of honour after the game because you only normally do one if you’ve won but that wasn’t my call,” he says.
“During the lap of honour there was probably three of us who hadn’t swapped their jerseys yet and as I had no idea how long my career would be, how many World Cups I’d play at or how many times I’d play New Zealand, I was desperate to get one. If there is one jersey you want besides one from your own country, it’s an All Blacks jersey.
“I remember thinking I’d better get in their changing room before I miss my chance, the guys at Ottawa Irish would’ve been all over me if I hadn’t got one.
“Fortunately enough, I found Alan Whetton. It was cool to get his jersey and it’s now hanging to the left of my first Canadian jersey.”
Rees does well to remember any detail of the match after feeling the full force of the All Blacks defence in putting Charron over for Canada’s second try.
“I took a heck of a shot putting Al over the line and I still go on about it to this day. The result was done by then, but we weren’t going to lay down,” he said.
“We were totally defiant and that was one of the characteristics of our team.
“We knew we had the wrong accent to be playing in a World Cup quarter-final but that drove us on, we wanted to prove to the world we could play decent rugby and that we were a good side.”