Ontario hooker Barkwill looks to keep climbing rugby ladder at ARC tournament

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At 32, Ray Barkwill is the greybeard on the Canada 'A' entry at the IRB Americas Rugby Championship, which kicks off Friday in Langford, B.C.

But like many of his younger teammates, the hooker from Niagara Falls, Ont., is still pursuing his dream to represent Canada at test match level.

His age does not go unnoticed.

"I'm getting a little bit of flak because there's a lot of young boys here and I'm the oldest guy," Barkwill said cheerfully. "But I still look like the 25-year-old and there's a bunch of younger guys that look older than I do. ... Playing with the young boys makes me feel young."

With the tournament falling outside of the IRB's dates for international play, Canada and the U.S. are fielding domestic sides without calling on their overseas pros.

Uruguay, ranked 21st in the world, is sending its top team while Argentina has entered a third- or fourth-string side with the top-level Pumas just having completed play against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the Rugby Championship (formerly known as the Tri-Nations).

The Canadians open Friday against Uruguay after Argentina meets the Americans. The four teams play again Oct. 16 and 20.

Barkwill is one of 10 members of the Ontario Blues, who won the Canadian Rugby Championship, on the ARC team.

"Ray is a terrific team guy who has made it this far on intensity and a constant desire to get better," Mark Winokur, manager of the Ontario Blues and the Canadian ARC team, said in an email. "He plays with a hard edge and makes the guys around him better. The guys all have tons of respect for him."

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.

"I enjoyed the culture of rugby," Barkwill said. "I didn't think it would take me to where I am today, but I enjoyed it a lot."

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.

"I wanted adventure. And I always knew I wanted to try something different," he said.

His club played in the top regional league, winning the championship in 2011 with Barkwill kicking the ball out of touch to end the game.

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.

"When it happened I was pretty ecstatic ... I learned so much and enjoyed it," he said. "I played with some world-class players.

"It made me just an absolute better player, on top of playing in a great club division down there."

In addition to rugby, Barkwill also had a great experience living in Australia and says the travel opened his eyes.

"I'm sitting at home right now and all I want to do is travel again, and try a new place," he said.

Having said that, travel has also shown him what a special place Canada is, he added.

"It really is, I think, the best country in the world."

He returned to Canada in mid-July, joining the Blues on their Canadian Rugby Championship title march. His play there caught the eye of national team coach Kieran Crowley, in need of depth at hooker with the retirement of former skipper Pat Riordan.

"I'm not a massive man, but I'm not a small boy," said the five-foot-10, 220-pound Barkwill, who prides himself on his abrasive play on the field.

Barkwill's competition on the Canadian ARC team is Owen Parfrey.

Crowley also has Ryan Hamilton, a World Cup veteran who is returning from injury.

Barkwill's goal is keep moving up the national ladder, using the ARC to make his case for joining the full national team for its November tour to Britain.

The other day, his mother pulled out his high school yearbook to remind him that playing for Canada was his stated goal even back then.

"I'm not there yet but I'm pretty damn close," he said. "I think now is like the dog days — you just push harder.

"I think I've been the last one to bed every night because I'm watching video, I'm looking at my playbook and just going through everything.

"Putting in the extra work now, just so when I have the opportunity in the field that I'm 100 per cent ready to back myself."

Organizations: Ontario Blues, Canadian ARC, IRB Tri-Nations Brock University University of Western Australia

Geographic location: Canada, Ontario, Uruguay Argentina Australia Langford Niagara Falls U.S. New Zealand South Africa Britain

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