In his debut appearance wearing the Maple Leaf, Conor Trainor put his first five points on the board for the men's national rugby team. The try, part of a 34-18 win over Russia at the Churchill Cup in England this June, is a likely sign of more to come from the rookie.
"He's a devastating player," said Kris de Scossa, a coach with the B.C. Bears and a well-rounded rugby mentor who's held leadership roles with professional and national programs in Wales, Australia, England, Italy and Canada.
In his first and only match with the provincial men's team July 30 against Newfoundland before joining Team Canada, Trainor scored two tries in a 43-19 win.
"I see big things ahead for him. He won't go unnoticed by the leading nations and professional clubs," said de Scossa.
But for an enormous effort by a Russian defender, Trainor would have scored 10 points in his first outing for Team Canada.
Trainor told the Courier from New Zealand where he's competing at the Rugby World Cup: "I was in the right position for many of the breaks and on two occasions I had enough speed to cross the try line. On one of them a Russian player made an amazing play to hold me up, but on the other one I touched it down. That definitely gave me the confidence I needed to play international rugby and know that I can always compete."
The 21-year-old Vancouverite, who de Scossa praises for his game-changing tenacity and vision, is in the Southern Hemisphere competing against the planet's best rugby nations, including Tonga and France in matches earlier this month. Trainor most recently played against Japan on Tuesday, briefly coming in as a blood sub for bleeding fullback James Pritchard and then replacing him early in the second half. He was slotted into the back line.
Not yet granted the glory of the starting roster, the youngest Canadian to play at this World Cup (the youngest squad member, 18-year-old Taylor Paris isn't on the top 22), Trainor gets called into the guts of a game's late stages.
"The role of a replacement player is to pick up the pace and intensity of the game and attack players that are tired after a long match," Trainor said via email.
Against 12th ranked Tonga, then14th ranked Canada battled for a win in the opening match of the tournament. Trailing a stronger French side that had more than doubled Canada's points, Trainor was called in and stepped on to the soggy field in the 67th minute of an 80-minute contest. He called it a "hard-fought battle."
He saw the most action against Japan, a game characterized by turnovers and missed opportunities as well as exceptional defense by both teams. The match ended in a 23-23 tie.
Trainor broke through the defensive line for a powerful run but one broadcast analyst described the young player as "inexperienced" when his pass missed its target. If Trainor continues to develop, de Scossa expects he could play at three more World Cups, meaning he stands to be an active national team member for at least another 16 years.
"Dressing for every game has been a big accomplishment because six months ago I didn't think I had a chance of even making the team," said Trainor. "Every time I get on the field I try to make a noticeable difference that helps our team. This can be through strong tackling or running, or doing more work to lessen the load on a player who has already played a full game."
Over six feet in height and 220 pounds, Trainor is a tall, muscle-bound runner with a cherubic blond mop that makes him easy to spot on the pitch. Before he dressed as No. 22 for the Canadian side, he reluctantly came to rugby as a smaller, weaker adolescent at St. George's. A former coach said he didn't play in Grade 8 because he was too small. Trainor avoided the contact sport for the same reason, playing soccer and basketball instead.
"Growing up, I always refused to play rugby because I was a small kid and didn't feel like being run into by guys twice my size. I first played in Grade 9 and realized there was no better feeling than making bigger guys miss tackles on me," he said.
Like B.C.'s de Scossa, Trainor's high school coaches quickly identified his potential. "We all felt and saw him grow as an athlete and rugby player," said Bud Patel, Trainor's varsity rugby coach at St. George's. "Conor was a powerful runner and defender. At sixfoot-four and well over 200 pounds in high school, he dominated opposition. He was also a superb defender and smart rugby player."
Trainor, who studies engineering at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. and competes for the Mustangs, went to New Zealand for a year following high school, playing club and soaking in the sports culture of the dominant rugby nation.
The rookie is a seasoned player in some respects, although he still has much ground to gain with the national team.
"All the older veterans make it very easy to feel part of the team and they are always willing to lend a hand to younger guys. I had a hard time learning the defensive systems, but guidance from guys like Ryan Smith and Ander Monro really helped make it a lot easier."
As his coaches forecast, the role of experienced veteran could one day be his.
Canada's next match is Oct. 1 against the top-ranked New Zealand All Blacks.