The Thanksgiving holiday weekend will have a distinct patriotic flavour for a pair of Surrey rugby players.
Gurvinder Kalar and Zion Afele will be winging their way east this week to Toronto where they will join the Canadian national rugby league team for an international test match against the English Lions. (A third Surrey player, Lincoln Whitaker-Bowman was a late addition to the Canadian team.)
"I know it's a cliché, but it's a big honour any time you get to represent your country," Kalar said. "I was somewhat surprised to be invited but I put in some good performances this summer. I was definitely happy to be invited and I'm looking forward to it."
For the Canadian players, the game of rugby league is still somewhat of a novelty. The dominant version of the sport is the 15man rugby union game. Rugby league is a variation that features 13 players to a team, a 10-metre gap between the lines at the beginning of each play. Teams move the ball upfield until they are stopped six times before they have to turn it over.
Kular, 25, grew up in Surrey playing the rugby union game with the Surrey Beavers. After graduating from Tamanawis Secondary, he spent a year playing in Australia. He currently plays with the Bayside Sharks premier side, but joined the Beavers' inaugural rugby league team this summer.
"I had been exposed to rugby league when I was in Australia so I knew what it was about," said Kular, who will be opening a gym - Anytime Fitness - at Scott Road and 64th
later this month.
"It was interesting for the first couple of games when I was trying to get used to it.
The biggest thing is the patterns of play and the set ups. The skills are all the same but the passing and the offloads for me are much different. Some of the things are hard to get used to, but once you get it in your head you get used to it."
Afele, 31, is much more of a rugby league veteran than many of his teammates. A true man of the world - his parents are Samoan, he was born in New Zealand, he grew up
in Australia, he played professional rugby in Europe before retiring and moving to Canada three years ago. ("Now I'm pretty confused about my nationality," he joked) - Afele played both rugby union and rugby league growing up Down Under.
When the Beavers who trained with him at Elevation Fitness in Panorama Ridge informed him about rugby league starting up in Canada, he was immediately interested.
"I called up my parents in Australia and told them to send me my boots and two weeks later they came in the mail and I was
back on the field," he said. "It feels good to be back in a team environment and that's something that I missed the most."
Afele added, "The Canadian guys have really adapted well to the rugby league rules; it's really quite impressive. What I hear the most is the forwards really love the space between the runs - they have more time with the ball, they can think, they can see options and they love that there is more space where they can run. In rugby union it's all crash, crash, crash but they can run more in rugby league."
With Afele and Kular in the lodge, the Surrey Beavers won the inaugural B.C. rugby league championship this summer and both men were chosen to play for the B.C. Bulldogs in games against the Utah Avalanche.
Last month, when the Canadian coaches announced their selections for the Oct. 7 test match against the English Lions, the Surrey lads were delighted to find their names on the list. Afele was riding on the SkyTrain when he got the news and he immediately created a scene.
"I started cheering really loud and everyone on the train was looking at me like, 'Uh, what's going on over there?'" he said with a laugh. "I yelled, 'Yeah,' and then I apologized because I forgot where I was.
They must have thought I was crazy. I had a big smile on my face that day and the whole weekend. It means a lot to me, especially because I hadn't played for three years before coming back."
Kular added, "A game like this will be a huge test. I'll get to see where I stand both physically and mentally against some of the best players in the world."