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Canada's Josh Larsen travels the world, find rugby home with New England Free Jacks

Born on Vancouver Island and raised in Fiji, the Cook Islands and New Zealand, Josh Larsen now calls suburban Boston home as a member of the New England Free Jacks.

Born on Vancouver Island and raised in Fiji, the Cook Islands and New Zealand, Josh Larsen now calls suburban Boston home as a member of the New England Free Jacks.

But the six-foot-five, 249-pound lock forward proudly wears the Maple Leaf internationally. And Larsen, the lone Canadian among the Free Jacks, will be among friends Saturday when the Toronto Arrows visit in Major League Rugby play.

"I've got some buddies on that team," said the 27-year-old Larsen. "I'm really excited to get stuck in. It's going to be a great match."

Both teams are 4-5-0 with Toronto fifth in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Free Jacks.

New England is coming off away losses to Rugby ATL (33-18) and Rugby United New York (29-19). Toronto, which had a bye last weekend, snapped a two-game losing streak with a 19-10 win over the Houston SaberCats last time out.

Saturday's match marks the first of five straight at home for New England, with fans now allowed in.

"We're in a good position, but there's lot of work to do," said Larsen.

Major League Rugby is a family affair for the Larsens. Older brother Travis plays in the back row for the San Diego Legion. The brothers played together for Austin in 2019.

Their father is a New Zealander, who fell in love with a Canadian on his travels. They got married and started a family in Parksville, B.C., with their dad playing rugby for the Nanaimo Hornets.

Josh was five when the family headed to New Zealand. His father was in hotel management so the family spent three years in Fiji and the Cook Islands along the way.

His father now lives in the north of New Zealand. His mother passed away when Josh was younger.

Rugby was always part of Josh's life with his first international duty for Canada at the IRB Junior World Trophy. After attending the University of Otago, he played two years for Northland and one for Otago in New Zealand's Mitre 10 competition.

Canada coach Kingsley Jones gave Larsen his first senior cap against Georgia in November 2017.

In 2019, Larsen opted to return to North America to be closer to Canada — and start his MLS career in Austin. It proved to be a good move, even if the team went 0-16-0. He got to play with his brother and also met his girlfriend, who is now with him in New England.

Larsen made headlines at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Coming on in the 12th minute against South Africa as an injury replacement, he was red-carded in the 36th minute for a shoulder charge to the neck of prop Thomas du Toit at a ruck. The eventual champion Springboks went on to win 66-7 and Larsen drew worldwide kudos for his sportsmanship in going into the South Africa locker-room afterwards to apologize and wish the Springboks well the rest of the tournament

"I did my best to turn it into a bit of a positive by just doing the right thing, the Canadian way, making sure (du Toit) was all right," he said. "That's rugby. I didn't have any intent to hurt the guy."

Larsen received a standing ovation from the South African party — and had a can of beer thrust into his hand. He says he still hears it from friends that he handed the beer back to Springbok forward Duane Vermeulen rather than sucking it back.

"I was pretty down in the dumps," he recalled. "And the last thing I thought about was chugging a beer. I still get stick to this day (from friends) if it pops up online somewhere."

At least Larsen is in good company as the fourth Canadian to be sent off in the history of the Rugby World Cup. Captain Gareth Rees and Rod Snow were ejected after a fight-filled loss to South Africa in 1995. Flanker Dan Baugh was red-carded at the 1999 tournament for stamping in a game against Namibia.

Red card aside — and an ensuing three-game ban — Larsen has fond memories of the World Cup, especially given his father was able to travel to Japan to watch.

"I loved it …  we got to experience it together, which is really cool," he said.

"It was just a great experience," he added. "For me it was the highlight of my rugby career to date, for sure."

Larsen started in Canada's opening 48-7 loss to Italy and came on in the 45th minute of the 63-0 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks. The New Zealand game was even more special given Larsen had grown up playing with All Blacks centre Jack Goodhue from the under-nine to under-11 levels.

"My dad and his dad are really good mates back in New Zealand. They live 15 minutes away (from each other)."


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press