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Aussie-born fullback James Pritchard set to make Canadian rugby history

06/09/2013 12:02 EDT | Updated 08/09/2013 05:12 EDT
KINGSTON, Ont. - The scar on the inside of James Pritchard's forearm is hard to miss, the remnant of a broken arm suffered playing for his English club side.

The Australian-born Canadian international fullback was hurt in a March 2 loss to Bristol in the second-tier English Championship. He played the full game for the Bedford Blues but was taken to hospital afterwards where the Blues captain was diagnosed with a broken radius bone, requiring surgery to insert a plate.

Prior to Saturday's Test match against Tonga, Pritchard's comeback had consisted of 20 minutes with Bedford.

"It's just a joy to get back out on the field," he said.

The happiness was shared by more than a few Canadians as Pritchard scored a try and added 18 more points with his boot to help Canada defeat an ill-disciplined Tonga 36-27 in IRB Pacific Nations Cup play on a grey, occasionally rainy day at Richardson Stadium.

Elite goal-kickers are a must in international rugby with teams looking to punish opposition mistakes. Pritchard is such a kicker — he was good on all seven of his kicks Saturday: four penalties and three conversions.

Fortunately for Canada, Pritchard was able to practise his kicking for much of his convalescence. After four weeks with his arm in a sling, kicking was about the only thing he could do with a rugby ball.

Pritchard, who turns 34 in July, qualifies to play for Canada by virtue of his Saskatchewan-born grandfather. His great-grandfather had come to Canada from the United Kingdom to work on a farm just outside Regina.

When he first approached then Canadian coach David Clark to inform him of those bloodlines, his goal was to make the 2003 World Cup in his adopted country. Now, he hopes to make the 2015 World Cup in his adopted home of England.

And he is poised to make Canadian rugby history along the way.

His 23-point haul against Tonga increased his Canadian total to 485, just six shy of Gareth Rees' national record of 491.

Pritchard downplays the record, admitting only that it might be nice to reflect on once his playing career is over.

"You don't look for personal accolades in a team sport like rugby," Pritchard said.

His try Saturday was also the 14th of his Canadian career, moving him past Morgan Williams into sole possession of second place behind Winston Stanley (24).

Pritchard has called Rees "Canada’s greatest all-time player." Rees, now manager of the national men's program, calls Pritchard a fine striker of the ball and "an excellent Canadian servant over his time.

"If any record's going to fall, he's a good man and he's done a lot for the (Canadian) team," Rees said last year.

Pritchard made his Canadian debut in July 2003 in a 65-27 loss to the New Zealand Maori, recalling that a stiff-arm to the face from winger Rico Gear was the photo plastered over the Calgary news the next day.

It was the first step towards making Canada's 2003 World Cup team.

"I sort of did that and I had a hunger for it," he explained. "It's the atmosphere within the team, I want to come back for more. I'm 33 years old now and I know a lot of guys that I grew up with, that I started playing with, aren't playing anymore. But it's this sort of camaraderie, this sort of drive that this team has, I want to be a part of it for as long as possible.

"I'm just holding on for as long as they'll have me be a part of the team."

Pritchard is not exactly excess baggage. His right foot is money and, while not big — he is listed at five foot nine and 185 pounds — he is fearless. He took a shoulder charge Saturday that earned a Tongan a trip to the sin-bin but got up and kept playing.

Tonga picked up one red and two yellow cards on the day, with Canada collecting one yellow.

Pritchard's game against Tonga was his 48th cap. He can become the 15th member of Canada's half-century club June 19 against Japan, assuming he plays Saturday in Toronto against Ireland.

Pritchard takes nothing for granted, however. He knows there is far more depth in the Canadian squad these days under coach Kieran Crowley.

"That's only good for the team because I know I can't have a bad game, because I've got young fellows at my heels who want my shirt," Pritchard said. "And everyone's like that."

When he does call an end to his playing career, Pritchard is contemplating returning to Canada. He has been taking coaching courses and plans to keep honing those skills.

"I'd love to be a coach and pass on basically everything I've learned over the years. I've played in quite a few places and it would be good to give back," he said.

He is also a personal trainer and nutritionist (www.jptcorestrength.com).

Pritchard, who has two children and a partner back in England, played rugby league for the Parramatta Eels in Australia’s National Rugby League before switching codes to play rugby union for Randwick.

He came to Canada's attentions during a tour of Australia in 2002, when he approached Clark and asked whether he might consider him for selection.

Clark, an Australian himself, said yes — but only if he came to Canada to play.

Pritchard accepted the challenge and moved to Regina to join the Prairie Fire. He has been a national fixture ever since.

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