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From Belfast to Vancouver: Nelson chases unexpected World Cup dream

The former Ulster back on how he ended up on Vancouver Island pushing for a place in the Canadian squad.

IT WAS NO secret that Peter Nelson’s eight-year Ulster career was coming to an end last season, but what wasn’t widely known was his future plans, meaning Rugby Canada’s most recent squad announcement took many by surprise. 

Dungannon born, bred and educated, Nelson is an Ulster man through and through. He came up through the province’s academy system, represented them 60 times at senior level and was a valuable squad member since his debut against Leinster in 2011.

Peter Nelson Former Ulster back Peter Nelson. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

So when the 26-year-old’s name was included in Canada’s extended squad for their upcoming Pacific Nations Cup campaign, the very fact Nelson qualified to represent Les Rouges was news to most.

Out of contract at the end of the season, Nelson’s departure from Kingspan Stadium had been well flagged and, like the retiring Rory Best and Darren Cave, he was given a deserved send-off for all he gave in the white jersey.

But few could have expected his next move, even if it was something he’d been planning in the background for a number of months, having first spoken to Canadian head coach Kingsley Jones last year.

“It was an opportunity too good to turn down,” he tells The42, from his new surroundings on Vancouver Island.

That opportunity was to play international rugby and, in this year of all years, play at a World Cup. 

Nelson, it turns out, qualifies to play for Canada through his Toronto-born grandmother and while he was always aware of his family heritage, the possibility of representing Jones’ side only became realistic in recent times.

With his time at Ulster coming to an end, and the World Cup in Japan looming large on the horizon, the out-half — who can also play at fullback — felt it was an opening he had to explore, rather than look for another contract closer to home.

“I suppose it was something I was always aware of,” he explains. “I knew I could play for Canada through my Granny and coming through the last season and thinking about my next step, this was something I wanted to try.

“Kingsley had been in touch and it sort of went from there. We spoke a few times over the course of a few months and it was something that I was really excited about. I knew it was a massive opportunity for me to play at the top level. It’s every rugby player’s dream to play international rugby and that was something that really drove me on to explore it further.

“I’ve really wanted to play at a higher level and push myself on. In the last year or two, it started to become a possibility and I suppose with the exciting opportunities coming up, I wanted to get over here and get into it.

“It was an opportunity I knew I couldn’t afford to turn down.”

Peter Nelson runs in to score his side's second try Nelson played for Ulster 60 times. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

So, after Ulster’s Pro14 semi-final defeat to Glasgow, Nelson enjoyed a short break and then packed his bags for Canada, to start a new chapter in his rugby career and life.

With their Pacific Nations Cup campaign getting underway against USA on 27 July, Nelson was thrown straight into Canada’s squad for an intensive training block at their Langford headquarters on Vancouver Island.

From the outside, it all seems to have been a bit of a whirlwind period for Nelson as he closed the door on one big part of his life and opened up another on the other side of the world, but he has been able to enjoy the highs and lows of the experience.

Now three weeks into life in Canada, Nelson is pushing every day to make an impression on Jones, the coaching staff and his new team-mates as that game against USA draws ever closer. Getting into that matchday 23 is the focus for now, but Japan is the big ambition.

“I’d never been to Canada before, so just to come over and settle in has been enjoyable,” he continues. “My Granny always spoke very fondly of it and it was always a place I knew she was very, very proud of. 

The focus for me is to come over here, take whatever opportunities I get and see where it takes me in the next few months. Hopefully, if I can make something of it, My Granny, who passed away earlier this year, can be very proud of that as well.

Nelson, who previously represented Ireland U20s and the Emerging Ireland side, is one of three uncapped players in the Canada squad, alongside Andrew Quattrin and Travis Larsen, while former Connacht out-half Shane O’Leary is also involved having played a big part in their World Cup qualification.

The Dungannon native’s versatility in being able to play a number of positions across the backline should stand him in good stead when it comes to selecting a 31-man World Cup squad, but Nelson knows he has a lot of work to do between now and then to be on the plane to Japan.

Jones’ side open their Pacific Nations Cup campaign against USA in Colorado, before further outings against Fiji [2 August] and Tonga [8 August], while they will also face Leo Cullen’s Leinster in a marquee friendly in Ontario on 24 August.

Having made his Ulster debut against Leinster at the RDS and then won the last of his 60 caps for the northern province against their southern rivals back in May, Nelson laughs at the coincidence of facing Cullen’s side in the red of Canada in what could be a pivotal outing for his World Cup chances.

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Darren Cave celebrates after the game with Peter Nelson With Darren Cave after their last home game in Ulster colours. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I just have to take it step-by-step,” he insists, not getting carried away by the prospect of a fast-track pass to Japan. “I’ve to work hard every day and hopefully if that goes well, go from there. The World Cup is a huge ambition obviously.”

Between meeting new team-mates, settling into new living arrangements with five other players and regaining his bearings after a big change, Nelson hasn’t as of yet decided on his club future.

He explains: “I’m obviously focused on this at the moment and I’m still exploring different options. This opportunity I have at the moment with Canada is what I need to put all my focus into but there are definitely possibilities over here.

“Major League Rugby has really taken off, and there are some great teams in it. I’m going to speak to the boys over here who are playing in that league, so it’s definitely a possibility.”

While all of this is exciting and Nelson appears to be relishing the challenges ahead, it is only natural to reflect on his Kingspan Stadium exit with a tinge of sadness after eight memorable years at Ulster. 

“I left school and went straight into the Ulster academy,” he says. “It was a huge part of my life and I loved my time there. I loved every Friday night game, whenever Kingspan Stadium was packed and you ran out to the crowd roaring.

Every time it got me and finishing my Ulster career with a win against Leinster in Belfast will always stay with me. It’s something I’ll always treasure.

“I was sad to leave Ulster come the end of the year, and it was tough to leave, but I knew I needed a new challenge and something different.

“This came up and I knew it was something I had to go for and grasp. It’s sad to leave your home club but I’m loving my time out here so far and it would be amazing to play for Canada. 

“It would make my family very proud, it would make me very proud. It would be very, very special.”

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Ryan Bailey

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