NEWS
09/30/2011 03:20 EDT | Updated 11/30/2011 05:12 EST

From quarterback to Rugby World Cup, Canadian prop prepares for All Blacks

It was just three years ago that former Simon Fraser quarterback Jason Marshall was looking to crack the Edmonton Eskimos roster as a fullback.

On Saturday night (Sunday in New Zealand), on the other side of the world and in a totally different sport, he gets to test himself against the best at the Rugby World Cup as Canada (1-1-1) takes on the mighty All Blacks (3-0-0) in Wellington.

The 26-year-old tighthead prop from North Vancouver will be scrummaging against Tony Woodcock, a six-foot 260-pound sheep and dairy farmer who with 79 Test appearances is the most capped prop in New Zealand history.

"Yeah, well, their whole team is the best at every position, pretty much," the six-foot-three 255-pound Marshall said when asked about his loosehead opponent's pedigree.

Marshall has 11 caps going into this weekend's game. In contrast, the 30-year-old Woodcock made his Test debut in 2002 and had won 11 caps — including three against the British and Irish Lions — by the time Marshall took over as SFU's starting quarterback in 2005.

Woodcock has also played more than 100 games in Super Rugby.

It's no wonder Marshall admits going up against the best rugby team in the world will be "an almost surreal moment."

"A lot of us idolize these guys. Like they're the best of the best. To them, we're just another opponent ... Hopefully we don't take 10 to 20 minutes to realize that we're playing against them instead of just watching them and we come out firing, performing like we can and try to give them a game."

The Canadian players know that the All Blacks "will make you pay on any mistake you make," Marshall said.

"If we bring our 'A' game and are able to hold onto the ball, we'll be able to be competitive against them. I'm not saying that we're going to beat them, obviously a goal for us is just be competitive and just show the people that maybe we shouldn't be classified as an underdog all the time.

"I think if we take them lightly or we don't show up, that we can be embarrassed on a world stage, which obviously won't be a good way to finish the tournament considering how well we've done so far."

Top-ranked New Zealand is a 64-point favourite, hardly surprising considering Canada is ranked 12th in the world and its starting 15 features just six players with pro contracts.

In contrast, the All Blacks starters have a combined 737 Test caps and play at the highest professional level.

Canada's combined cap count is 381.

The Canadian goal is to stave off Tonga (1-0-2 going into its game against France) and finish third in Pool A, which would mean automatic qualification for the 2015 tournament.

Marshall spent five years at SFU and was starting quarterback for three of them, suffering through an 0-22-2 record from 2005 to 2007.

He played rugby and football at high school but was essentially told to give up club rugby in his third year at SFU when he became a football starter.

When his SFU football days were over, he returned to playing rugby for the Capilanos in January 2008. But he switched back to football when the Edmonton Eskimos signed him in May 2008, looking to turn him into a fullback.

Marshall thinks he did not get a fair shake in camp given the position change, but he's not complaining.

"That's what professional sports is all about. Pretty cut-throat."

He told himself he was done with football and went on vacation to Thailand for a month. While he was there, he was invited to try out for the B.C. Lions.

At the same time, Rugby Canada invited him to play for the West all-stars at the NA4 tournament in Denver. He chose rugby over football and later that year won his first cap for Canada, on tour against Scotland.

He made the national team squad as a flanker by virtue of his athleticism. But Canada has a wealth of back-row talent and his coaches suggested a position shift would give him a better shot at success.

So he moved forward to prop in the frontline of the scrum. The first practice there was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

"I had no idea what I was doing and I had my ass handed to me," he said with a chuckle. "I was not having a good time. I actually hated it."

Undersized, he took a beating against bigger, more experienced men.

"It made things difficult but it also made me learn things the hard way. I really had to learn how to have good technique, instead of using my weight."

He stuck with it and added muscle to his body in the gym — he weighs some 30 pounds more today than he did in his senior year at SFU.

"It was almost like overnight one day it just felt like it clicked," he said of playing prop.

Marshall, loosehead prop Hubert Buydens and captain/hooker Pat Riordan have been front-row fixtures for Canada at the tournament as coach Kieran Crowley has fielded his strongest lineup for each game.

Marshall, who spent three years trying to make the World Cup squad, says the tournament experience has been first-rate.

"It's gone by so fast," he said. "I catch myself, like 'God, it's almost over.' ... It's an awesome time.

"It is all about the rugby but at the same time we're trying to experience as much as we can what New Zealand has to offer."

In Canada's opening game, Marshall found himself up against hard-nosed Tongan Sona Taumalolo.

"Guys were playing with their hearts on their sleeves, making huge hits, sacrificing the bodies, making great runs and making awesome plays," said Marshall.

The Canadians emerged upset 25-20 winners.

"Everything just kind of fell into place. To me it was one of the best moments I've ever felt, when the final whistle blew and we won."

Marshall soon had a different kind of feeling.

"I was sore for about three days. I couldn't even move. My back was cracking every time I moved my neck. It felt like the body would never feel better."

"Pain is kind of a temporary thing if you get the result," he added. "If I had broke my arm in the Tonga game, I probably wouldn't have felt it due to the fact of how happy I was that we won the game."

Having made it to the World Cup, Marshall now looks to earn a pro contract and play overseas — no easy task given European rugby restrictions on imports that make Canadians less attractive than some more establish players in the sport.

He has already had initial talks with some clubs but says nothing has been finalized yet.