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Canadian international and beardo Adam Kleeberger retires from rugby

07/10/2015 06:50 EDT | Updated 07/10/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - With Canada trailing host New Zealand 65-15 in the 73rd minute at the 2011 World Cup, 262-pound All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock headed towards the Canadian goalline with a teammate to his right if needed.

There was just one Canadian defender in front of him — Adam Kleeberger.

The 216-pound Canadian flanker flew at the big man in what turned out to be a violent head-on-head collision that left both face down unconscious on the pitch. They finally got up but had to leave the game, with an unsteady Kleeberger helped to the Canadian locker-room in Wellington.

It was the kind of commitment Canada regularly got from Kleeberger, who has announced his retirement from elite rugby. He won 38 caps for Canada, starting all but five of those matches.

While Kleeberger has come back from a variety of serious injuries, he says his body would not let him perform at the level he wanted.

"Obviously quite a difficult decision, a hard decision to make," he said in an interview Friday. "But looking at the way it unfolded, I think it's the right one for me at the time. I don't have any regrets about the decision I've made and the experiences I have through rugby up to this point"

The 31-year-old from White Rock, B.C., played in two Rugby World Cups for Canada and won notoriety as of Canada's "beardos" at the 2011 tournament.

Kleeberger and fellow forwards Hubert Buydens and Jebb Sinclair went into the tournament with mountain men beards, drawing attention from around the globe.

While Kleeberger could grow a beard, he had to make do with a body that broke down during a hard-nosed career.

He had two shoulder reconstructions and suffered ongoing back pain from disc and nerve issues. And those injuries robbed him of the chance to show all his skills in club stints in both England and New Zealand.

Kleeberger captained the B.C. Bears to third place in the recent Canadian Rugby Championships. His last game was July 1, a 31-30 win over the Atlantic Rock.

He believes he could have made the team for this fall's World Cup.

"But if I was going to be on the team, I wanted to be a contributing member rather than just a passenger. And although there were some lingering things with my body, it was just more an overall feeling I need to be performing at the best of my ability to be happy attending this next World Cup."

Kleeberger says he came into rugby knowing injuries were part of the game. But his were of the painful and untimely variety.

In 2010, he had a chance to play ITM rugby for Auckland in New Zealand but dislocated his shoulder in the second week. The shoulder just kept coming out and eventually required surgery six months before the 2011 World Cup.

"That was a bit of a dicey period," he said. "It was pretty intensive with the rehab and the return to play."

Still he appeared in four World Cup games for Canada and won a post-tournament contact with London Scottish in 2012. He was looking to move to England's top flight when he dislocated his other shoulder on trial with Saracens.

The back issue flared up during his time with London Scottish and continued during his time off for the second (different) shoulder surgery.

Kleeberger debuted for Canada on Nov. 12, 2005, against France in Nantes. He also represented his country at the under-19 and under-21 levels and played sevens for Canada at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

He saw action in one game at the 2007 World Cup and played for England's Rotherham Titans in 2009-10.

He pointed to the 2011 World Cup as a career highlight, citing the culture and closeness of the Canadian team.

While Kleeberger never sought the spotlight, he was a good sport about his beard notoriety. Rick Mercer shaved it off after the tournament on TV to raise funds for cancer research and earthquake relief aid for Christchurch, New Zealand.

Kleeberger, who has a degree in kinesiology, has spent the last two years as strength and conditioning coach at the Canadian Sports Institute in Victoria. He has also worked at Shawnigan Lake School.

He does not rule out playing club rugby down the line, but says he would like to stay involved in the sport through coaching or another support role.

He still feels his rugby aches and pains, but says there was no medical advice telling him to quit the sport.

"There are still some mornings that are tougher than others, but I think now that I'm not as involved with the performance aspect of rugby I can focus more on my lifestyle and health and well-being."

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