TORONTO — The Rugby World Cup has brought back plenty of memories for Mike Sheppard. Like playing the All Blacks at the 2019 tournament in Japan.
Only a select few Canadians get to face the haka.
Sheppard had to wait for his chance. He was just weeks from his 30th birthday when he made his international debut. Some 10 1/2 months later, he was on the field at Oita Stadium watching New Zealand's traditional pre-game challenge.
"My dad just sent me the video the other day, because I guess it came up on his Instagram or something like that," said Sheppard. "I can see the back of my bald head staring at them along with the rest of the Canadian boys.
"I think back to it and I was so happy. Because I also wasn't starting that game so I really didn't have to have pre-match jitters just yet, because I knew I would be coming on in the second half. So I was really able to just take it in and be in that moment … I just couldn't believe where I was at the time."
Sheppard, who started Canada's opening 48-7 loss against Italy at flanker, came on in the 61st minute. New Zealand, which went on to finish third at the tournament, blanked the Canadians 63-0.
Six days later Sheppard came on in the 56th minute of the 66-7 loss to South Africa, exiting 19 minutes later for a head injury assessment after taking a shot to the head.
The 34-year-old forward, who recently announced his retirement, ticked off a lot of boxes during his playing career.
"There's so many things I wanted to do when I was younger," Sheppard reminisced. "When I look at rugby and think about what else can I do, that list has shrunk dramatically. There's not much else a young man could have wanted out of any sport."
The six-foot-three 240-pounder, who played in both the second row and back row, debuted for Canada against Kenya at a last-ditch World Cup qualifying tournament in Marseille, France, in November 2018.
He scored a try that day and helped Canada qualify for Japan 2019 by going 3-0-0 at the repechage tournament.
"To score for your country, that's one more box that got ticked," said Sheppard.
Sheppard who took up the sport at 13 because Bramalea Secondary School did not have a football team, said he had been thinking about his life after rugby for the last two years.
"The decision wasn't as difficult as I thought it was going to be, because I had a long run," he said in an interview. "I had a great time playing rugby. It just got to a point for me that I wanted to get out with a good mind and good body. It really just came down to that, for me"
He was largely healthy up to the end, barring a finger with "just a few bone chips floating around."
Sheppard, a native of Brampton, Ont., who now calls Stoney Creek home, retires with 11 Canada caps.
At club level, he was the fifth player ever signed by the Toronto Arrows and captained his local club. He retires as the franchise leader in appearances (59), carries (424), and dominant tackles (30). His 10 tries lead all forwards in club history.
“From Day 1, Shep has been the heart and soul of this club … The Toronto Arrows are a stronger organization for him having been here,” Tim Matthews, the Arrows vice-president and GM said, in paying tribute to Sheppard upon his retirement.
Known simply as Shep to most, Sheppard put his body on the line regularly for both the Arrows and Canada.
Sheppard scored a milestone try against the Los Angeles Giltinis in February 2022 in Langford, B.C. — the Arrows' first try on Canadian soil in 985 days due to the pandemic, which forced cancellation of the 2020 season and the team to relocate to Atlanta for the 2021 campaign.
Sheppard could usually be found after the game with a Tall Boy encased in his generous-sized hand, the reward for a hard day at the office.
"Probably his favourite part of the game," former Arrows teammate Ben LeSage said with affection.
"Shep's an incredible human being," added LeSage, who won the MLR title last season with the New England Free Jacks.
"He's a huge personality and drives a lot of the social scene and the banter," he added. "He's beloved by everyone on the team — staff and players. He's the first to joke around and have a laugh when it's time to, but also as much of a gamer as anyone. And you know when he steps onto the field, he puts his body on the line and lays it (all) out."
LeSage was also part of the 2019 Canada World Cup team and took pleasure in sharing the experience with Sheppard, given his age and years of toiling on the Canadian club circuit.
"It couldn't have happened to a better dude or a nicer guy," said LeSage.
Sheppard got to share his decision to retire with Bill Webb before the Arrows president and co-founder died of prostate cancer at the age of 59.
"I called Bill just to express all the gratitude," said an emotional Sheppard. "Because the last six years of my rugby career would not have been possible without him and the Arrows … Bill Webb, he did everything or me. I could never repay that man for that."
Sheppard credits the Arrows, who joined Major League Rugby in 2019, for giving him a rugby home — and allowing him a platform to show his skills in advance of the World Cup.
"I just happened to be playing good rugby at the time and so I was able to play nationally, which honestly at 29 years old I had given up that dream," he said. "So a lot of luck went into it and I'm very happy that I was able to take advantage of those opportunities in the game."
Prior to joining the Arrows, Sheppard was a longtime member of the Ontario Blues. He also played for the McMaster Marauders as well as the Brampton Beavers and Stoney Creek Camels.
Sheppard has started working for Shared Services West, a Burlington-based not-for-profit services organization. His job will be at the Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital, working with its logistics team.
He had previous logistics experience in a job with ColdHaus Direct, a Brampton-based craft beer distributor.
Sheppard spent the last two years coaching the Humber College rugby team but has put that on hold with his retirement and new job. He hopes to get back to coaching in the future at the collegiate or club level as well as the Arrows academy.
Sheppard says he is "cautiously optimistic" about the future of Canadian rugby, pointing to the number of Canadian players who are using MLR as a springboard to play overseas out of season.
"They're playing rugby year-round. Before there weren't a lot of Canadians doing that," he said.
And he notes the 23rd-ranked Canadians competed with No. 15 Tonga in the first of two matches in August before falling 28-3 to the World Cup-bound Pacific Islanders.
"They had a lot of opportunities that they just missed … It's moments like that that give me a lot of hope and a lot of optimism for the future. It's just going to take some time."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 25, 2023
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press