Canadian man mountain Jamie Cudmore aiming to reach new heights

He started, it turns out, as he meant to go on. The Millennium Stadium roof will be closed on Ireland and Canada on Saturday afternoon. But Jamie Cudmore will still seek out the shadows. That is where the second-row enforcer does his best work, where he sees clearest, where, in the yellow of Clermont Auvergne, he has had such a devastating impact on Irish hopes in the past.

The shadows, after all, are where it all commenced for Cudmore. It was in the cloak and shade of the giant Pacific pines of North Vancouver where one phase of his life ended and another began.

“Where our training pitches are located, it’s surrounded by trees, almost like a small rainforest that the club is stuck in the middle of,” Tim Murdy, then Capilano Rugby Club coach, soon mentor and still life-long friend tells the Irish Examiner of his first sighting of a teenage Cudmore in the late 90s.

“One afternoon prior to training, this huge, I mean just massive, shadow started moving through the trees and emerged out on to the field and there he was. Jamie Cudmore. It was funny because he was from a community about an hour away from the club called Squamish which is a big logging community and here we had our own Paul Bunyan arriving onto the rugby field.” The giant lumberjack of North American legend, tales of Bunyan’s journey and other-worldly physical feats in the forest were folklore, fiction. Cudmore’s journey — and his own physical feats on the field — however, is all fact, if not quite all pleasant.

The story of Cudmore’s younger years is dark. But it’s no secret. Never has been. The man himself has steadfastly confronted it like he confronts most things — head on. Cudmore isn’t big on running away, which, for a time, was part of the problem.

It’s a tale, like Bunyan’s, that has been told. But with the powerhouse lock about to embark on his fourth World Cup campaign in Saturday’s Pool D opener against Ireland in Cardiff, the reunion with Joe Schmidt, the renewal of hostilities with Paul O’Connell, all of the above, it’s a fitting junction to remind ourselves of the 37-year-old’s remarkable journey from there to here.

There was a juvenile detention centre where he rang in his 18th birthday. What would become Cudmore’s gift — his freakish physicality — was then his curse. He wasn’t far off the size he is now when still in secondary school and his skillset was put to use as a money collector for Squamish drug dealers. Soon after he came out of detention, reality finally dawned. But only after tragedy, quite literally, hit home.

A raucous New Year’s Eve party at the Cudmore family house in 1997 was getting out of hand when near neighbour Bob McIntosh came to ask for some quiet. He was beaten to death.

Cudmore wasn’t on the premises at the time. He had left. He soon decided he wasn’t coming back.

“I just decided, especially after that, that Squamish was kind of closing in on me. If I wanted to really get going with rugby I’d have to move to a bigger club and not kind of get sucked in to the same Friday, Saturday problems,” he reflected in the past. “When things could’ve gone really bad, rugby caught my interest ... brought me off the streets.” Running away was, for a change, Cudmore’s best option. That he ran in the direction of Capilano and Tim Murdy may just have been the single most important move of his life. Rugby brought redemption.

“He was at the stage in his life where he needed some direction,” recalls Murdy, who has coached Canadian national teams at all major underage grades. “We had a strong sense of community at Capilano. It’s something we’ve always nurtured. Jamie was very honest with me from the start. We had — and still do have — a very close bond.

“He was a tough guy and he had, for sure, not an ideal history. But my belief and the shared belief at Capilano is not to write young people off, to instead give a guy a chance to get back on track and start making the right choices.”

Give him a chance they did. In fact they gave him every chance. The club arranged a carpentry apprenticeship for Cudmore and also tied the strings for an exchange to their New Zealand sister club, East Coast Bays in Auckland, a time Cudmore still points to as one of the most telling in his rugby and life education.

“Ultimately it was all on Jamie,” says Murdy, now director of sport at Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island. “He made the choices himself and because he is so gifted athletically, he had the genetics to go along with those decisions, he was only going to excel. He had a rough start to life.

“He’s never forgotten that but he’s also never forgotten where he’s come from and where he’s come through along the way.” That way took Cudmore through Wales briefly but soon to France, where he is woven into the very fabric of the Massif Central, having been Clermont’s enforcer in chief for a decade now. The logger has put down roots.

He, wife Jennifer and family have a bar, a nightclub and their own wine, Sin Bin (the chardonnay is called Yellow Card, the pinot noir Red Card). But home is still a huge part of him — the cartoon bear that appears on the bottle labels is a nod to the mascot of Calipano, who boast four club members in Canada’s World Cup squad. Murdy just laments the fact that on a wider level, home doesn’t reciprocate. Rugby is so far down the pecking order in Canada’s packed sporting environment that Cudmore, is all but unknown here.

“People see him and they know he’s an athlete, they just don’t know what sport,” laughs Murdy of the man who in Vancouver, with plenty of ironic foresight, was christened Cuddles.

“They see his ears and they either think he’s a rugby player or an MMA fighter. You couldn’t call them wrong on either count because the truth is probably somewhere in the middle!” Threats lurk in a Rugby World Cup.

For instance, chopping your way to Jamie Cudmore’s core and counting the rings could be a dangerous exercise. It might lead you to assume that the time’s come for him to pull up stumps. But Murdy and co. say that’s far from the truth.

Come Saturday afternoon in Cardiff, Canada’s lumberjack lock will still be swinging. Ireland, O’Connell and the rest had better see the wood for the trees.

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