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Full-follicle Canadian flanker answers World Cup beardo questions

09/16/2011 08:26 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 01:34 EST
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Adam Kleeberger has evolved from average-looking flanker to bearded backrow star at the Rugby World Cup in the space of seven months.

Looking like a lumberjack with an axe to grind, Kleeberger lit up social media sites after inspiring Canada's opening win over Tonga, one of three men in the starting team with the so-called "beardos."

If he can reproduce his man-of-the-match performance on Sunday against France, which left bearded colossus Sebastien Chabal out of its squad this time, Kleeberger will surely only increase his chances of winning a professional contract somewhere.

"If it does then that's great," the 27-year-old B.C. Bears backrower said. "I didn't really have a reason for growing the beard when I started and it's now got more attention than I ever thought possible."

But if he does get that contract, he quickly adds, "hopefully it's based on the way I'm playing as well."

Kleeberger has been something of a rugby journeyman, with playing stints in tough leagues in England, Australia and New Zealand before winding up in Canada, where there's no professional league.

That doesn't detract from his credentials.

Canada coach Kieran Crowley won a World Cup as part of the New Zealand All Blacks squad at the inaugural tournament in 1987. He has been driving a more professional approach since taking over in Canada in 2008 and has developed something of a stock phrase when talking about the development of the national team, saying it contains "some of the best professionals I've ever seen, only they don't get paid for it."

Crowley is encouraging his leading players to get experience with big clubs in Britain, France and Australasia, saying its a crucial move to bridge the gap between the so-called tier one and tier two nations. Kleeberger is among those good enough to be earning a good living from the game.

So if the likes of Kleeberger have to grow a big, bushy beard to get noticed on the world stage, so be it, Crowley says.

"They're pretty awesome bushes," the clean-cut Crowley told The Canadian Press before the tournament. "Once we start seeing people in the stands with beards on, that'll be the telling point when it's become a bit of a folk thing."

The "beardo" look is already popular among fans in New Zealand, and not just the travelling Canadians.

Bearded lock Jebb Sinclair barged over a try against Tonga on Wednesday, while Hubert Buydens played an important role by holding back the big, powerful Tongan scrum and Kleeberger was all over the Pacific islanders at the breakdowns.

"We had the attitude that they're not going to push us around -- we're going to push them," Kleeberger told The Associated Press. "We've had belief in the team that we can take on any side. When we came home at the end there, I think we proved that to ourselves."

Crowley retained the same starting lineup which scored two late tries to win by a whisker over Tonga to play again on Sunday against France.

Kleeberger is starting to attract plenty of attention from English and French-speaking media. He replies to all the match-related questions with the rigour of a PR-trained pro athlete. Get to the beard, though, and it draws a smile.

And, for a growing legion of fans who're interested, he's some answers to questions posed by the AP:

Do rivals try to yank it?

"It happens every now and then, but at the end of the day we know only girls pull hair, right?"

Are you three a walking advertisement for Canadian mountain men?

"We all started independently, didn't know what each other were doing until recently. It's just something that happened."

Is there a competition to see who can get the longest, bushiest beard?

"No, no competition (laughing). Hubert has been growing one for ... I don't know, I've never seen him without one. Jebb started growing a beard when he was in Wales, playing over there, so it just sort of happened. I don't have a reason for growing mine either."

Kleeberger started growing his hair and beard seven months ago when he was recovering from an injury, and it's now easily down to his chest.

After all the attention it has earned him, it's hard to believe he'd consider losing the flowing locks on his head and face.

"It would be pretty hard for me not to shave it off," he said. "I kind of miss having my face.

"But right now I'm just focusing on this Rugby World Cup and I'll think about that afterwards."

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