11/22/2012 01:31 EST | Updated 01/22/2013 05:12 EST

Aussie-born fullback Pritchard recalls Canada debut, nears national record

James Pritchard has one overpowering memory of his rugby debut for Canada against the New Zealand Maori in 2003.

He went after winger Rico Gear, in what would have been his first ever tackle in international rugby. Instead he got a stiff-arm to the face.

"And that was plastered all over the Calgary news the next day — me going to make this tackle and his hand basically just covering my whole face, as I'm going in there, and pushing me off," Pritchard said in recalling the 65-27 loss in Calgary.

Nine years and almost 50 tests later, the Australian-born fullback has a lot of happier memories in the Canadian jersey as he prepares for another encounter with the Maori — now known as the Maori All Blacks.

Friday's game, in Oxford, England, wraps up a European tour that has seen 13th-ranked Canada lose 42-12 to Samoa and defeat Russia 35-3. Both games were played in north Wales.

Samoa, which went on to upset Wales 29-16, now stands ninth in the world rankings while Russia is No. 20.

The Maori All Blacks are described as a selection of the best of New Zealand's Maori rugby players and an "aspirational pathway" for young Maori players.

Traditionally they also deliver some exciting ball-in-hand rugby.

The team's rich heritage dates back to 1910. In 2010, they marked their centenary by defeating Ireland and England. Previous victims include the British & Irish Lions.

They beat Canada 59-23 at the 2007 Churchill Cup and also defeated the Canadians 30-9 in another 2003 match.

The current Maori All Blacks opened their European tour with a 32-24 loss to the Leicester Tigers before thumping a Championship Select XV 52-21.

The Maori game is not considered an international test so any points picked up by the 33-year-old Pritchard, a world-class kicker, will not count in his pursuit of Gareth Rees' Canadian record of 487 points.

Pritchard's total currently stands at 462. That includes 13 tries, joint second with Morgan Williams and DTH van der Merwe behind Winston Stanley' 24.

Pritchard calls Rees "Canada's greatest all-time player." Rees returns the favour, calling 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.

Pritchard, who plays professionally for the Bedford Blues in England's second tier, says he'll think about records when his playing career is over. But he's happy to talk about his international career with Canada, a fortuitous turn of events that has taken him around the world.

Born in Australia, Pritchard 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.

Pritchard 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 then national team coach David Clark, told him about his bloodlines 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. That led the way to his selection to Canada's World Cup team in 2003 and he has been a fixture ever since.

"It's always been a passion of mine ever since I was given the opportunity to play for Canada, to put the Maple Leaf on," Pritchard said.

"I don't have to be asked twice. When it comes to the November tests and summer series, you're sort of hanging around the phone or waiting for that email to come through, because it's been part of my life for the last 10 years pretty much.

"It's something that I just love being a part of. A great bunch of boys and it's just so good to get out there and represent your country."

Pritchard has spent nine seasons at Bedford where he and his family make their home. He divides his time between England and Canada, usually on rugby duty.

He knows his talk with Clark changed his life.

"It's opened up opportunities for me. If I had never had that conversation, I definitely wouldn't be here today, so I think I owe a lot to David for taking a chance on me at the time and bringing me into the fold.

"Sometimes you do sit back and look at how things could have panned out if I didn't have that conversation. Or if I did end up choosing that switch over to rugby (union) ... Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing at all because I've met some of the best people in the world and I've got to travel around and see some of the best places, especially around Canada."

Prichard's cultured boot has been a consistent source of points for Canada over the years. He knows it has helped him keep his place in teams, although he says he takes nothing for granted with Canada.

"It's waiting with bated breath when he (coach Kieran Crowley) reads out the team sheet," he said.

His grandfather was a soccer coach and Pritchard credits his kicking abilities to his younger days playing soccer.

"I think those skills just transferred over to the rugby field. And it's something I pride myself on."

Pritchard received special mention from TV commentar Chris Horsman on the recent telecasts of the Canada matches against Samoa and Russia.

Horsman told listeners the two had been flatmates when Pritchard first joined Bedford and that Pritchard moved on without ever telling him.

Pritchard fills in the rest of the story, saying there were four of five of them staying in a small space. The flat was also above a sex shop.

"As a young boy coming from the country, I wasn't quite used to that sort of stuff so I ended up moving out and me and another boy found a place that was a bit quieter and away from all that sort of stuff," he said with a laugh.



Hubert Buydens, Prairie Wolf Pack, Saskatoon; Ryan Hamilton, Pacific Tyee, West Vancouver; Jason Marshall, Aurillac (France), North Vancouver; Jebb Sinclair, London Irish (England), Charter's Settlement, N.B.; Tyler Hotson, London Scottish (England), Vancouver; Tyler Ardron, Ontario Blues, Lakefield, Ont.; Chauncey O’Toole, Brigand Ravens, Belleisle, N.B.; Aaron Carpenter (capt.), Plymouth Albion (England), Brantford, Ont.; Phil Mack, UVic Vikes, Victoria; Connor Braid, Pacific Tyee, Victoria; Taylor Paris, Glasgow Warriors (Scotland), Barrie, Ont.; Phil Mackenzie, London Welsh (England), Oakville, Ont.; Ciaran Hearn, The Rock, Conception Bay, N.L.; Jeff Hassler, Prairie Wolf Pack, Okotoks, Alta.; James Pritchard, Bedford Blues (England), Parkes, Australia.

Replacements: Andrew Tiedemann, FC Auch Gers (France), St. Albert, Altas.; Ray Barkwill, Ontario Blues, Niagara Falls, Ont.; Doug Wooldridge, Ontario Blues, Lindsay, Ont.; Brett Beukeboom, Plymouth Albion (England), Lindsay, Ont.; John Moonlight, Pacific Tyee, Pickering, Ont.; Eric Wilson, Meraloma RC, Vancouver; Nathan Hirayama, UVic Vikes, Vancouver; Sean Duke, UVic Vikes, Victoria.

Maori All Blacks

Bronson Murray, Quentin Macdonald, Ben May, Jason Eaton, Romana Graham, Shane Christie, Tanerau Latimer (capt.), Elliot Dixon, Frae Wilson, Willie Ripia, Andre Taylor, Tim Bateman, Charlie Ngatai, Kurt Baker, Trent Renata.

Replacements: Hika Elliot, Jacob Ellison, Ben Afeaki, Jarrad Hoeata, Nick Crosswell, Jamieson Gibson-Park, Jackson Willison, Declan O'Donnell.