KOBE, 7 Oct - Kyle Baillie has had to handle a lot of hockey sticks and sledgehammers on his way to rugby’s biggest stage, but on Tuesday he will mark a milestone for Canadian rugby when he becomes the first player from the country’s smallest province to play at a Rugby World Cup.
"I’m really excited," said Baillie after making the starting line-up for his first RWC match, against South Africa at Kobe Misaki Stadium, having recovered from a leg injury picked up shortly before he left for Japan.
"It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster with the injury and now being back, but I’m just excited to get my feet on the ground and get moving."
Baillie, pictured taking the ball in a lineout, is used to take the road less travelled in sport as the only international rugby player to hail from Prince Edward Island on Canada's Atlantic coast.
Born in Summerside, a small town of about 30,000 people, he followed in his father’s blade tracks and played defence in ice hockey until he was 17.
While the eastern province has plenty of ice hockey teams and an impressive list of players in the National Hockey League despite its small size and population, rugby is limited to one club and a few high school teams. There are also no designated rugby pitches on the island.
"Since Prince Edward Island is Canada’s smallest province, you’ll do more exploring than driving each day. Embrace the slower pace while exploring the Island’s iconic red clifftops & beaches, & seaport villages on this five-day island escape." - @NatGeo https://t.co/6uL6tD0Pwh pic.twitter.com/LciHf6wLR8— TourismPEI (@tourismpei) August 4, 2019
The first opportunity for Baillie to try out the sport came at age 15. Once he decided that rugby was his passion, he moved across the country to Victoria, British Columbia.
He continued to move around while picking up construction jobs over the next couple of years to keep his dream of playing for the national team alive.
Baillie's dedication was rewarded with his first Canadian cap, against the USA, in 2016.
He now has 28 caps for the Canucks and played every minute as Canada beat Germany, below, Hong Kong and Kenya in the RWC Repechage tournament to maintain their record of having qualified for all nine Rugby World Cups.
The 28-year-old is now fully focused on his rugby plies his trade first with London Scottish in England, then south of the border with New Orleans-based Major League Rugby club NOLA Gold.
"It’s been a while since I had to pick up a hammer. I don’t have the old hammer hands anymore," Baillie said of his earlier day jobs.
"Rugby was small when I was growing up but it is getting a bit more popular on the east coast. It’s competitive, but I knew when I was younger if I wanted to be playing for the national team, I had to move.
"I had to move from coast to coast. Our major hubs in Canada are Ontario and BC (British Columbia), so if you want to get noticed, you got to put your hand up out there.”
His start on Tuesday will be the first in the Rugby World Cup for a player from Prince Edward Island and Baillie is getting plenty of support from back home. His former team-mates are sending messages, while his high school teacher, who doubled as assistant coach of the school rugby team, has travelled to Japan to watch him play.
"It’s going to be a really physical game. They're big boys and they're going to be able to run straight," he said. "That’s something that I’m personally going to have to deal with on Tuesday and I’m really looking forward to the challenge."