Written by: Mark Janzen
There George Barton stood, playing in his first ever men’s match, staring at his center-playing counterpart.
That day, the product of Duncan, B.C., just a few months beyond his graduation from Shawnigan Lake School, was playing against the ASM Clermont Auvergne senior side and tasked with taking on Jonathan Davies – the Welsh veteran, who earlier in the year was named MVP of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
The preseason contest was an interclub match between ASM Clermont Auvergne – a top-level club that competes in France’s prestigious Top 14 competition – and their academy, which Barton had joined in the fall of 2015. Barton’s first shot at Davies came five minutes into the match.
“I remember thinking ‘I can’t let this guy go through me’,” recalls the now 19-year-old captain of Canada’s U20 squad. “I can’t let him go through me on my first tackle.”
He put every muscle of his sturdy 6-foot frame into the tackle and he took Davies down. For a moment. The international star popped back up. “Nice hit,” he told Barton, informally welcoming him to the world of professional rugby.
It was something of an arrival. But it also came with a reality check. “It was like getting hit by a bus,” Barton says.
Now, just days from leading Canada into the U20 World Rugby Trophy 2017 in Uruguay, Barton recalls the story. It was a surreal moment, but at the same time, if Barton continues on his fast-tracked trajectory, these moments might not seem so foreign in the near future.
Since graduating from Shawnigan Lake School in 2015, Barton has put two years in the Clermont academy on his résumé and, as of this spring, has become a capped player with Canada’s senior men’s team.
“He’s always had a one-track mind toward playing for Canada and playing professionally,” says Canada’s men’s U20 coach Jeff Williams, who was also Barton’s coach at Shawnigan Lake. “Pretty much from day one, he’s trained to be the best player on the field. He had the same approach when he was 13 years old, and still trains and plays that way.”
He’s the type of center who has the tools to be one of Canada’s stars of the future.
“George is an unstoppable force,” says Matt Beukeboom, who is both his U20 teammate and former teammate at Shawnigan Lake. “He’s built like a front-row, but he has the speed of a back. He’s a great leader and a lot of the guys look up to him.”
If you’re driving north from Victoria, it takes about an hour on Highway 1 to get to the Cowichan Rugby Club. A couple of turns through Duncan will land you on Lakes Road, which will bring you to a T-junction, where you’ll take a right. Less than half a kilometer down Herd Road is the home of “The Piggies.”
That’s where Barton fell in love with rugby.
Following in the footsteps of his dad Bruce, and his older brother Randall, George spent his Saturdays running around the Cowichan Rugby Club.
“It was the weekend place for us to go,” the younger Barton says. “In a way, I was raised there.”
“Piggie Pride” is as strong as it comes and, while Barton hasn’t played for the club since moving on to Shawnigan Lake, his club days sparked the passion that burns in him every day.
“For me, it was all about how tight-knit the community was,” Barton says.
On Feb. 11, 2017, the Piggie club members and supporters were out in full force in Langford, B.C. for Canada’s senior men’s contest with Chile in the Americas Rugby Championship. One of theirs was on the verge of making his senior team debut.
In the 65th minute, Barton entered the game and, at just 19 years old, earned his first cap for Canada. One minute later, he scored his first try for Canada. Taking a short pass from veteran scrumhalf Phil Mack, Barton bulled over the line with speed and power, sending both the Piggie and Canadian fans into delirium.
“It was a dream come true,” Barton says. “Coming off the bench and scoring on my first touch of the ball, it’s stuff kids dream about growing up.”
A week later, he scored again against the USA, collecting a chip over the top and touching down – an example of Barton’s versatility.
“With his size, he can play the physical game,” Williams said. “But he’s not one-dimensional. He definitely has a lot of things in his arsenal that make him a very good player. And, for us, he really gets the guys going - and whatever he says, the guys buy into.”
For the better part of the last two years, Barton has been the baby-faced youngster in his training group. He was always the youngest player during his time with the Clermont academy. Then, with Canada’s senior team, he was once again competing alongside players many years his senior. Now, as the U20 side is set to embark upon their World Rugby Trophy campaign in Montevideo, he is the leader – the “veteran” with experience.
“He knows what to do in certain situations,” Williams says. “He’s been in those situations and learned from the senior players and that’s invaluable for our guys. George has had the honour playing with a lot of the guys like DTH (van der Merwe) and Tyler Ardron. So when George says, ‘this is how it is’ to our guys, it’s because DTH and Ardron, and Ray Barkwill said ‘this is how it is.’”
Barton’s challenge is to lead Canada’s U20 side to heights unseen in recent history. A title in this year’s World Rugby Trophy would promote Canada to the World Rugby Championship for the first time since the upper-echelon tournament went to a 12-team format in 2009.
It’s a tall task to be sure, but, then again, so was an on-rushing Davies.
“We think it’s a very winnable tournament,” says Barton. “We want to prove that the future of Canadian rugby is bright and there are a lot of players that really do have what it takes.”
Barton is one of them. And he’s prepared as any to help Canada make history.