By Keaton Hills
Ninety minutes before Stittsville’s Conor Keys and his New England Free Jacks were set to take the field for their Major League Rugby championship game, NBA Legend Shaquille O’Neal took to the stage to perform as DJ Diesel.
The Super Bowl-style hoopla was one sign that rugby is beginning to grow in North America, and Shaq’s pregame concert served as a warmup act to the main attraction – the Free Jacks’ dramatic 25-24 victory over the San Diego Legion on July 8 in suburban Chicago.
“I think everyone who gets exposed to rugby falls in love with it and enjoys going to the games and the MLR has done a great job in creating an atmosphere around the game as well,” Keys highlights. “For example, in New England there would be a beer festival going on, there were tailgates, kids’ programs and always games going on outside beforehand, and usually there was a concert going on before and after.”
The Barrhaven Scottish and Ottawa Ospreys product was first exposed to rugby by his father, who started playing after immigrating to Canada from the UK. Keys’ dad took him to his first game at the 2006 Churchill Cup, which is when he decided to sign up to play himself.
Keys also played for the Sacred Heart Catholic High School Huskies and eventually the Eastern Ontario Rugby Union team, despite not making the cut in his initial attempt. He went on to play for the Canada’s under-20 national team and the University of Victoria Vikes. The second-row lock player earned his first professional contract with an English club, the Rotherham Titans.
A year later, Keys represented Canada at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan and then he began playing in the MLR for the North American pro league’s third season. He competed for Atlanta his first three years – the first of which was cut short due to COVID-19. Keys was traded from Atlanta to New England this season, which launched his unforgettable campaign.
“In New England, I was given an opportunity to play every weekend. In Atlanta I was playing off the bench quite a lot, which I was thankful for at the time,” notes Keys, who celebrated his 27th birthday the day after winning the championship.
Keys was happy to move to New England not only to get more playing time but to be closer to family and because he always wanted to live in Boston.
His team went 14-2 to easily win the eastern conference regular season crown. Only 15-1 San Diego posted a better record than New England, and once both sides won their conference final, it setup a showdown in the grand final that did not disappoint.
The lead changed four times before the Free Jacks finally scored the winning try with under four minutes to play to prevail 25-24.
Keys started the game and helped hold back San Diego’s final attack to give New England its first MLR title. He says team leadership was key for the Free Jacks to be able to thrive in the pressure-filled moments when they trailed late in the contest.
“We had really good leaders on the team and a few of the leaders basically made sure that we didn’t shy away,” Keys underlines. “We knew our opportunity was gonna come and when it came, it was important that we weren’t trying to do too much.”
With his pro season now complete, Keys will soon be back playing for Team Canada this summer. Keys has appeared for Canada 29 times since his international debut in 2017, including the 2019 Men’s Rugby World Cup, where Canada was winless.
The Canadian men failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup for the first time ever, but Keys will wear the maple leaf for a pair of matches in Tonga on Aug. 10 and 15. University of Victoria player Gabe Casey of Ottawa has also been named to Team Canada for the series.
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