With Major League Rugby in full swing, we spoke to the captain of Rugby ATL, Matt Heaton. The franchise did exceptionally well to reach the final last year, eventually losing to an LA Giltinis side containing Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, and D.T.H van der Merwe. The ambition of Rugby ATL clearly hasn’t faded for 2022: “This season we’re hungry! We exceeded everyone’s expectations last season because we stuck to our methods and didn’t make a big splash. This season we know, what it took last year. We’re energized and excited to take it a step further”. Early results look promising for Heaton’s side, with ATL winning their first two games against Old Glory DC and NOLA Gold.
From Darlington to the World Cup
Like his franchise Rugby ATL, Heaton has risen to American rugby prominence through hard graft. In 2015, the flanker traveled to England to gain experience in the semi-professional national leagues. It’s proven a huge learning curve for Heaton: ” I played for various clubs in the national leagues in the UK to gain some game experience. The best way to learn about a game is to play! I had a blast and attribute a lot of my international success to the experience I got playing for teams like Darlington Mowden Park and Otley”.
Just months before facing the All Blacks and Springboks with Canada at the World Cup, Heaton was playing for Darlington in the English third division. But the ATL captain has a fairly tranquil mindset: “Rugby is the same game at all levels, the details and pace just increase as you play a higher standard”.
Perhaps it is this mindful approach that helped Heaton to be so resilient at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. In his Rugby World Cup debut, Heaton knocked on a pass that could have resulted in a try, losing 63-0 to the All Blacks. It was a brutal welcoming to the tournament.
Yet Heaton dusted himself to have a solid tournament individually, with 11 carries, 3 defenders beaten, and 39 tackles throughout the competition. He scored a try in Canada’s fixture against Rugby World Champions South Africa. No doubt, his pals at Darlington’s clubhouse in Country Durham would have been proud.
Rugby ATL captain Matt Heaton
A busy life off the pitch
The stresses and tribulations of professional rugby haven’t hindered Heaton’s hobbies off the pitch. In fact, he likes to know “a bit of everything”.
“I’m a huge coffee snob; I love my espresso. I read a lot of books. I’m into tech, health and nutrition, crypto currency’s and NFT’s”.
The new-found time during the pandemic allowed Heaton to achieve one of his lifelong ambitions of growing his own vegetable garden: “I grew up on a dairy farm and my mother and grandfather both had gardens. When covid shut Canada down last year, I wanted to do something I wouldn’t normally have time to do”.
On his Instagram post displaying his journey, he wrote: ” I spent a lot of time in the garden with my grandfather growing up but I didn’t appreciate what I was learning until I got a little older. Opa made sure to tell me where the old garden was and what soil would be better for my plants”.
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Tough times for Canadian Rugby
Rugby ATL may have racked up victories in the MLR, but there was less success with Heaton’s national team. Canada lost to underdogs Chile in the Rugby World Cup qualifying play-offs. It means for the first time ever, Canada failed to qualify for the tournament. It illustrates the struggles Canada have had since reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in 1991.
“It’s pretty common knowledge that Canadian rugby has been slipping since the ‘glory days’. The game has changed and we unfortunately have a lot of difficulties as a union developing the game”.
“I felt we were finally starting to turn things around; however, we didn’t get the preparation we needed for the Chile qualifiers and unfortunately couldn’t make it happen”.
Heaton optimistic about Rugby ATL, the MLR, and Canada
It becomes quite clear that Heaton has a positive outlook for rugby. His thoughts on the MLR echo the excited murmurs that are ever-present about the league: “The MLR is unique because of its potential. Rugby has never been done like this in the US and the MLR has a lot of really good talent. The on-field product is exciting. It’s bringing the American flair to a European game”.
The theme of positivity also comes through with his ambitious goals for his rugby career: “I’d like to win the MLR shield with Rugby ATL. I believe we have the right team and culture here that we can do great things. I’d also like to leave the Canadian jersey in a good spot and qualify for the next World Cup”.
It’s perhaps that last goal that will prove so vital for Canadian fans. Despite the struggles of Canadian rugby in recent years, Heaton’s positivity shines through once more: “Canadians are resilient people and everyone is looking to improve the standing of Rugby Canada and put some pride back in the jersey”.
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