Stittsville’s Conor Keys to headline Canada’s rugby team against Spain

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Over the past few days, Canada’s National Men’s Rugby Team has moved into TD Place.

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On the field, the players engaged in soccer with players from Atletico Ottawa, educating each other on some of the finer points of their respective sports.

Inside the arena, they tried their hand at hoop with the Ottawa BlackJacks.

This is to make them as comfortable as possible when they step onto the pitch themselves for Sunday afternoon’s clash against the Spanish national team.

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Through it all, they benefited from some of their own keys to the city — namely Conor Keys of Stittsville — which served as a tour guide of sorts.

Keys, who has been on the national team for seven years, is eager to showcase himself and the sport on a big home stage.

“It’s huge,” said Keys, who turns 26e birthday Saturday. “I am delighted with this weekend. I played four years ago (against Russia) at Twin Elm Rugby Park and that was really cool for me because that’s where I grew up playing, about 10 minutes from home.

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“But it’s a different setting here at TD Place, especially given how sports have exploded onto the scene. I’m really excited to play downtown, in front of my family and friends who live here now and can come to the game.

Rugby allowed Keys to travel the world. He played in New Zealand and England. For the past three years he has been in Atlanta, playing Major League Rugby.

Yet despite some family history in the sport – his father, Robert, played university rugby in Scotland – Keys didn’t learn the game until later in childhood.

The story has a family circle of life.

“Mum and dad moved here from Scotland and my older sister was born there,” he said.

“I was the first Canadian, so the first thing they did was get me into hockey. Basically, they asked the neighbors, ‘how do you get my son to be Canadian?’ and they wanted to embrace Canadian culture as much as they could. The thought was if you have a newborn son, he’s going to play hockey. And I loved that.

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Keys, a big Senators fan, played mostly with the Stittsville Rams and had a few stints with the Ottawa Valley Titans and Silver Seven, before switching gears at age 16.

“I was never going to do the show or anything, but it was something I wanted to see if I could pursue a college career. And then rugby came knocking

and I had to make a decision between the two and ended up opting for rugby.

It was a sport that slowly grew on him. After his dad invited him to watch one of his club league games, Keys wanted to try it himself, if only, at first, to serve as a summer all-round training for hockey.

“My father didn’t impose anything like that on me,” he said. “He just took me to see if I would like him. When you’re a 12-year-old boy, you watch men fight each other. You can kind of understand that through hockey, with the physique and all that.

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Indeed, at 6-6 and 265 pounds, Keys is an imposing figure on the court.

“I can use my body and the speed of the game is there too,” he said of the appeal of the game. “And then most of the time it’s just the stuff off the pitch that keeps you . Rugby can be a very tough sport, both mentally and physically, so when you have a good group of guys like us with the Canadian team and in Atlanta, it makes things a lot more fun.

Canada, currently ranked 21st in the world, will be hard against 15e classified Spain.

As well as introducing the city to his teammates, Keys also serves as a salesman, confident that casual sports fans will be impressed with what rugby has to offer.

“It’s an entertaining sport to watch, even if you don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

“The basics of the game are quite simple. You pass the ball back, you run forward. Of all the people I’ve brought to a game, no one has ever told me they didn’t like it. What’s not to love about 30 guys on the court fighting against each other and giving their all and pushing their bodies to the limit? And then it’s a fun atmosphere at rugby games, usually lots of booze, with lots of other fun happenings going on.

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Twitter.com/Citizenkwarren

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