SPORTS

Canadian hooker calls it quits as impact of international rugby takes its toll

04/03/2015 12:11 EDT | Updated 06/03/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Ryan Hamilton's Rugby World Cup debut came a little sooner than expected.

The West Vancouver hooker was on the Canadian bench in Whangarei, New Zealand, on Sept. 14, 2011, when he saw good friend and captain Pat Riordan in a bad state against Tonga.

"I looked up and Pat was bleeding out of like six holes in his head about 30 minutes in," Hamilton recalled Friday. "I was like 'OK, this is real.' And then they said 'Warm up,' and I said 'Pardon?' "

He went on for the 10 minutes it took doctors to put Riordan back together again. Riordan returned for the second half, with Hamilton replacing him for good in the 68th minute of a 25-20 Canadian win.

The six-foot 229-pound player came off the bench in Canada's three other World Cup games: losses to France and New Zealand and a tie with Japan.

"I was 23, I wasn't expecting to play at all to be honest," Hamilton said of the tournament. "I kind of accepted my role as being the backup to Pat."

Hamilton, who turns 27 on April 9, proved to be more than that. A former Canadian under-17, under-19 and under-20 player, the UVic grad made his debut for the senior side against Uruguay in 2010 and went on to win 17 caps.

Injuries and then the demands of law school slowed his rugby career, however, ultimately prompting Hamilton to formally announce his retirement.

"I was faced with my own mortality a bit," Hamilton said with a slight laugh. "The bumps that I was getting that I would have shrugged off almost instantaneously when I was younger were lasting a little bit longer now and so I was pretty aware that maybe it was time to move on."

Canadian coach Kieran Crowley called Hamilton "an outstanding servant for Canadian rugby."

"He always performed to a very high standard and it's unfortunate he has been forced to retire when coming into his prime as far as a player goes," Crowley said in an email to The Canadian Press. "His work ethic and commitment to improve his game was an inspiration to others and his involvement in the program will be sorely missed."

It goes both ways. Hamilton says his connection with the sport and its people have been nothing but positive. He paid Crowley the ultimate compliment, saying he always trusted the New Zealand-born coach and his decision-making.

Leaving the sport he loves has not been easy.

"I've been playing rugby since I was an infant, so it was a pretty tough decision," Hamilton said.

He didn't take it lightly. He took a break from the sport to let his body heal before playing in the Americas Rugby Championship, then going on tour with Canada last fall to see if his body was up to the test.

He was injured in the first game on tour against an all-star team from England's second-tier league. Another knock in training kept him out.

The force of impact at the elite level of the game took its toll.

"I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad I have it another shot,' he said. "But now I know."

Hamilton admits to a "history of concussions" but says that wasn't the sole issue for retiring. Like other front-rowers, he had neck issues. And other injuries weren't healing the way they had before.

"Little things were becoming big things," he said.

And that prevented him from playing at his best, which bothered Hamilton.

He says his body responded well "once I stopped running into things."

"I'm still dealing with a few little things here and now but it hasn't prevented me from doing anything," he said.

These days, Hamilton is hitting the books. On Friday, he was in the library at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.

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