Veteran Canada hooker Ray Barkwill retires due to medical reasons - InfoNews

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Veteran Canada hooker Ray Barkwill retires due to medical reasons

Canada's Ray Barkwill, left, is tackled by Italy's Marco Fuser, right, during first half summer series rugby action in Toronto on Sunday, June 26, 2016. Veteran Canada hooker Ray Barkwill, who had hoped to make a second Rugby World Cup appearance this fall at age 39, has announced his retirement due to medical reasons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
April 04, 2019 - 10:18 AM

Ray Barkwill always wanted to play rugby for Canada, marking it down as a goal in his high school yearbook.

But the hard-nosed hooker from Niagara Falls, Ont., had to wait until he was 32 to win his first cap.

Barkwill, 38, has been a constant ever since. Coach Kingsley Jones estimates that of the 61 or 62 Canada matches since Barkwill's debut, the hooker played in 55 of them.

"It just reflects on his attitude never to give the other guy another chance," Jones said. "Because once he got that jersey, he didn't want to give it up."

He still doesn't.

But doctors have convinced him it's time to retire in the wake of a brachial plexus injury — a nerve condition — sustained at the Rugby World Cup qualifying tournament last November in France.

Barkwill has not played since and says doctors have told him it is too dangerous to keep playing rugby. As a result, he announced his retirement Thursday.

"Every time I put on the Canadian jersey I get emotional and I can say that I never took it for granted," Barkwill said in a statement issued by Rugby Canada. "I hope that I have left the jersey in a better place than when I first received it."

In the wake of the November injury, Barkwill noticed he was having issues putting his left hand in his pocket and holding things. That led to MRIs, CAT scans and a series of meetings with doctors and specialists.

All had the same message.

"The potential of having paralysis in my arm was just like through the roof, to be honest," Barkwill said in an interview.

He says from his shoulder down, the arm "feels different ... It feels like it's a little slower." He can pass a rugby ball but struggles to cut his nails with a nail-clipper.

The good news is doctors say his arm will get better.

"It's going to take some time ... Unfortunately it's not enough time to probably recover and come back and play rugby at my ripe age," he said.

"Honestly the biggest thing (in retirement) is not hanging out with my friends every day," he added. "And doing a job I truly was always wanting to do since I was a kid."

Barkwill, who now makes his home in Langford, B.C., made his test debut against Samoa in Colwyn Bay, Wales, on Nov 9, 2011. He leaves with 56 caps, including 44 starts, and five tries to his credit.

He played four games at the 2015 World Cup, starting three of them. He has also served as Canada captain.

"It's disappointing news on a team level," said Jones. "He's a great leader for the guys. He's a great example to everybody that comes into the environment — never give up your dream."

Barkwill says waiting for the opportunity to play test rugby made him appreciate it more, knowing his window was smaller than many others.

"Obviously I played with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, always have," he said.

Barkwill's retirement leaves Eric Howard, Benoit Piffero, Jordan Olsen, Howard Quattrin and Lindsey Stevens in the mix at hooker.

Listed at five foot 10 and 227 pounds, Barkwill sacrificed his body on the rugby field.

"I'm not a massive man, but I'm not a small boy," he once said.

A former accomplished baseball player, Barkwill started rugby in high school, switching to the Niagara Wasps RFC in the summer. He was a hooker from Day 1, encouraged early on by his high school coach, a former hooker himself.

He entered Brock University at 25, after having gone to trade school for a course in refrigeration. He continued his rugby career at Brock — working overnight shifts full time in tandem.

Barkwill's plan was always to look for bigger rugby challenges. That took him to regional teams like the Niagara Thunder and Ontario Blues. It also sent him Down Under.

In 2010, Barkwill went to the University of Western Australia to take a teaching course and to play for the rugby club affiliated with the school. His play earned him first a spot on a regional all-star team and then an invitation to join the Western Force 'A' team, the reserve side for the Super Rugby team.

Returning to Canada, he joined the Ontario Blues and his play caught the eye of then-Canada coach Kieran Crowley.

After helping the Seattle Seawolves win the inaugural Major League Rugby championship last year with a 23-19 win over the Glendale Raptors, he accepted an offer last November to combine playing with serving as the team's forwards coach.

But the deal fell through, leaving him out in the cold.

Barkwill lived in Seattle during the 2018 season, while his partner, Canadian women's captain Laura Russell, attended to her responsibilities in Langford. The two commuted to see each other when they could.

"It was a challenge but there's a reason why we're a pretty good dynamic couple," he said. "She's more than understanding and gives me more of a leash than anything, to be honest."

Barkwill helped Jones during the recent Americas Rugby Championship and has been working with the Canadian youth teams as well as the forwards at the University of Victoria under head coach Doug Tate.

A school teacher away from rugby — he works as a supply teacher for the Sooke School Board — Barkwill says coaching feels like second nature to him.

Jones hopes Barkwill will remain in rugby "because he has a lot to offer."

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

News from © The Canadian Press, 2019
The Canadian Press

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