Written By: Mark Janzen
Last year, when Canadian star forward Tyler Ardron inked a two-year contract with the Chiefs, he became the first Canadian to ever sign a contract with a New Zealand-based Super Rugby side.
Since then, the six-foot-four product of Lakefield, Ontario did it all – from finding a regular role with the Chiefs, to learning and performing a haka, to finishing his economics degree, to hunting deer, to teaching his team yoga, to learning how to play the guitar.
Now, with the first week of Mitre 10 Cup action in the books and the second week upon us, Ædelhard caught up with Ardron to see what life has been like living and playing amongst the Kiwis.
Between Bay of Plenty training sessions, the 27-year-old, who will be one of Canada’s central figures at the World Cup Repechage in November, took a call while having a quick lunch.
So, what’s the last year been like in New Zealand?
“It’s been amazing. It was another step up in intensity (compared) to even Europe. All the boys buy in, which I think is something New Zealand has over the other rugby countries. They have this ‘work hard, play hard’ culture. You get to have fun, but when you’re working... I was working harder than I ever have before. It was really enjoyable, because you get to see all the things you work for pay off.
“They always say, “Do the mahi, get the treats,’ which is like, do the work and your treat could be anything. Let’s say you train really hard for a week of preseason, then you’ll get to go out on the beers with the boys on the weekend…that’s a treat. Or, you train really hard for three months of preseason and you win your first four league games and that’s the treat. They’ve really built that in.”
What was it like for you being a Canadian playing in New Zealand?
“It was different for the first month or so, but once I started playing – and I was fortunate that I had a few good games at the beginning of the season – they kind of forgot I was Canadian. They make fun of my accent, but that’s about it. I was just one of the boys after that.”
Did you have to prove yourself a bit?
“Yeah for sure. I think some of the guys didn’t know I was on a full contract. They thought I was there on a trial or something. They don’t really get foreigners here to play Super Rugby in New Zealand, so I definitely had to prove myself and just show them that I can play at that level.”
Within the team context, what is one of the biggest differences you saw when you went to New Zealand?
“Everything is driven by the players. The coaches are kind of just there to facilitate. Having everything be player-led means when it goes right or wrong on the weekend, the players are accountable for everything. A coach might set a drill up, but once he’s done that, there’s not much talking from him. The leadership group will drive everything.”
Specifically with the Chiefs, what did you have to adapt to when you arrived?
“With the Chiefs, we want to attack from everywhere. You have to be ready for anything, especially playing with Damian McKenzie. If he sees the smallest gap, he’s gone and you have to be there to support him. You have to be ready to play all the time. Also, our game plan was the simplest thing I’ve ever heard. Anyone could come in and learn our game plan in half an hour because it came down to working on skills. All the players were so skilled at what they did that we didn’t have to have any elaborate plays. We just did the simple things really well.”
What sort of traditions did you experience with the Chiefs?
“We would sing every morning to start our days. We had three songs that we could sing on different mornings and one was in Maori, one was in English and one was in Fijian.”
And you also had to learn and perform a haka. What was that like?
“Studying the haka was the hardest part because you had to get the words and the actions. That was a lot of study time. You just work with the other new guys (to the team). It’d be like dance choreography time. Liam Messam (who is the most capped player in Chiefs history) was one of the guys who drove it hard. We had to know it. We’d do off the cuff at practices some days to make sure no one had forgotten it.”
What was your experience like playing lock for most of the season?
“With the Chiefs, playing lock is awesome because they don’t care what position you play, they just care how you play. It’d probably look weird to most people who were viewing our games but as a second row, I was still holding the width and trying to beat defenders out in the 15-metre channels. I’m not the best guy at just putting my head down and crashing the ball up and they realized that, so they’re like, ‘Well, that’s not where we’re going to put you then.’”
With the mandatory professional development in play in New Zealand, what have you been up to off the pitch?
“There’s a half a day per week where you have to do some sort of professional development outside of rugby, which is mandated by the New Zealand Players Association. I got my degree (in economics from McMaster University) done for the first little bit. Then I did some construction work, I did a toastmasters course, and now I’m getting guitar lessons with some of the boys.”
In your spare time, what kept you busy in New Zealand?
“When I had a bit of a concussion, I had some time away from the game and that was in the middle of duck hunting season, so I was out hunting on the farms pretty much every day. I’ve (also) been doing a bunch of fishing, getting out to the rivers. After the Super Rugby season, I got down to the South Island and did some hunting out there. My freezer is pretty stocked up with deer, so I might have to take a bit of break.
“I had to take a bit of break [from hunting] when I was (playing) in Wales (with Ospreys) because there’s not much [to hunt] there, but I’m back in my comfort zone again.”
And you’re also a yoga instructor?
“I don’t really do it for money, but I did do my training and I am qualified, so yeah, I am a yoga teacher. I did a bunch of sessions with the boys and they love it. I’m just starting to do some work with lululemon over here, so I’m going to start doing some teaching at their studios.
“It’s kind of new, but it’s something the (boys) really like. They know they should stretch more and going to a yoga class is a forced hour of stretching. The yoga part and the mindfulness part is definitely new to them, but they pick up the physical side pretty quickly.”
How does it help you as a rugby player?
“I don’t think it helps performance-wise, but I think it helps with longevity. I’ve been pretty fortunate to stay out of the way of any soft tissue injuries and I think it has a lot to do with yoga.”
Okay, now about Canada. The repechage is around the corner. What are your thoughts?
“We’re in a bit of tough spot. We’re not performing very well and we’re not getting a depth of new players in, so we kind of just have to rely on the guys we have and hopefully this centralization program they have can upscale the boys and we can have some good performances.
“I think they’re doing the best with what they have. They don’t get to play rugby every weekend and most of them aren’t making enough money to make it their career. I think we need to hope that the focus is there to get to the World Cup and then we reevaluate after.”
How much do you think Major League Rugby will help? Did you follow the MLR?
“Definitely. I watch a lot of Seattle because of the Canadian influence there. That’ll be huge. I don’t know what the level would be comparable to overseas, but they’re playing a game every week, which is the main thing and that’s what we need.”
You talked about a player-led environment in New Zealand…perhaps not dissimilar to how Seattle operated this year, with Phil Mack as a player-coach?
“Yeah, it works. The players are the ones who play the game, so they should be the ones leading it. The All Blacks seem to do all right with it.”
Indeed, they do and Ardron has now witnessed the New Zealand rugby machine firsthand.
Ardron, who has another year on his Chiefs contract, will compete in the Mitre 10 Cup campaign (with hopes of helping Bay of Plenty to promotion) before getting set to represent Canada in the World Cup Repechage in November. Following that, he will return to compete in the Super Rugby season and, if Canada qualifies, ultimately, the World Cup in Japan in the fall of 2019.