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Written by Brock Smith
It took nearly 15 years, but Al Charron’s long-standing Canadian appearances record finally fell.
After earning his 77th cap against Romania at Ellerslie Park in Edmonton on June 17, Aaron Carpenter overtook his fellow Ontarian, who had held the record since his retirement from international rugby in 2003.
Carpenter’s road to becoming Canada’s all-time test caps leader has led him down a long and winding path; his impressive 13-year national team career has featured dozens of tours and tournaments - including three Rugby World Cups - and is peppered with remarkable individual achievements, including standing fourth on Canada’s all-time tries list with 17 tallies, more than any other forward who has ever suited up for Canada.
For all the marquee stops along the way for the 34-year-old, Carpenter’s long journey started back in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario.
“My brother actually introduced me to rugby back when I was 12 or 13, when he started playing for Brantford Harlequins the year before I went to high school,” said Carpenter.
“I came out and watched him a few times, and it didn’t take long before I joined in. I fell in love with rugby right away.”
Photographer: Cam McArthur
Many years in the Harlequins junior program helped to nurture the young rugby standout, refining the burgeoning forward’s skills as he racked up multiple provincial championships as a high schooler at Brantford Collegiate Institute, and then as a student-athlete at McMaster University.
At only 20 years old, Carpenter helped lead the Harlequins to a McCormick Cup championship in 2003, ending the club’s 21-year provincial men’s title drought.
“That was the be-all and end-all at the time, winning the McCormick Cup. It was the pathway to me getting a shot at making the national team. It was the start of it all,” he recalls.
“There were national team scouts in Ontario watching those games, and I was lucky they noticed this young kid playing well against men.”
Eighteen months later, Carpenter made his national team debut in a 30-26 victory over the United States in Tokyo. Three years after that, he signed his first professional contract with Coventry Rugby Club, becoming the first Harlequin to make the leap from the amateur game to the professional circuit.
Now, with almost a decade of professional rugby experience under his belt, Canada’s most-capped man hasn’t forgotten his roots. Brantford Harlequins will always hold a special place in his heart; it’s where it all came together.
“It’s friends. It’s family. It’s camaraderie. It’s rugby. This club has meant everything to my family. My parents still live just five minutes away from the club. My mom is even still the treasurer for the club,” he chuckles.
“I still have tons of friends at the club that I made when I started there 20 years ago, and I make new ones every time I’m back home.”
Despite carving out a celebrated nine-year professional career overseas - Carpenter currently plays in England for the second-tier Doncaster Knights - he tries to visit his hometown club at least once a year. Notably, during the RFU Championship off-season in the summer of 2015, Carpenter even played for the Harlequins in two Marshall Premiership matches as part of his preparations for the 2015 World Cup.
Unsurprisingly, Carpenter’s visits to the club draw big crowds, but the ever-modest forward shakes off any notion that he’s achieved a celebrity status at homecoming events.
“Two summers ago, I was playing for the ‘Quins on their Family Day, and after the match, instead of a cool-down, I ended up signing about a thousand signatures,” he laughs. “People were shouting ‘I can’t believe it’s you!’ and I just kept responding, ‘I’m just one of the guys!’ They were loving having me back, and I was loving being back.
Photographer: Cam McArthur
“Rugby has enriched my life, and coming home always helps me appreciate my career in a new light. Coming up through the club has taught me some important lessons about the value of a strong community and friendship, which separates our sport from any other.”
Now entering what may be the twilight of his career, Carpenter doesn’t shy away from sharing what he’s learned over the years.
Case in point: just a few days prior to becoming Canada’s record-holder, Carpenter led a jersey presentation for the national under-20 men’s team ahead of their World Rugby U20 Trophy qualifier. During the presentation, he imparted some advice to Canada’s next generation of rugby stars.
“I told the under-20s that if they’re going to reach the next level, they’ve got to forge their own paths. Nothing will be handed to them, and everything must be earned, especially here in Canada. In order to reach their goals, they’ll need family and friends looking out for them. But they won’t have to look far to find a support group - you’ll find that in Canadian club rugby, no matter where you go across this country.
“Things may get tough, but if you stay involved in the game in some way - as a player, a coach, or a volunteer - club rugby will take care of you, and in return, you’ll have friends for life. That’s a huge part of rugby for me; the culture, and everything that it stands for.”