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Ticats kicker Leader was part of U.S. rugby win over Canada in 2019

Tadgh Leader is seen kicking a football in an undated handout photo. He has yet to suit up for a CFL regular-season game but new Hamilton Tiger-Cats punter Tadgh Leader does have prior experience with Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Hamilton Tiger-Cats, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

He's yet to play in the CFL, but Hamilton Tiger-Cats kicker Tadhg Leader does have a history with Canada.

In March 2019, Leader played for the U.S. national men's rugby team that rallied to beat Canada 30-25 in Seattle. The Galway, Ireland, native added the conversion on the Americans' game-winning try.

"I remember we were in Seattle and it was freezing," Leader said via telephone from Marbella, Spain, where he's training. "Canada was winning with a minute remaining and thankfully we scored a try that put us ahead.

"I got to kick the conversion to put the cherry on top, which was a cool moment with fans chanting and everyone being excited because we'd scored. The Canadian guys less so, but it was a nice memory for me at least."

Leader -- whose first name is pronounced like Tiger without the 'r' -- qualified for the U.S. team because he'd lived there for at least three years. Leader said the rule has since been changed to five years.

Leader signed with Hamilton after making four-of-six field goals, six-of-seven converts and sporting a 42.1-yard punting average last year with the Aviators of The Spring League. He also played for Poland's Wroclaw Panthers of the European League of Football.

But rugby was originally the six-foot-two, 205-pound Leader's sport of choice. He was in Major League Rugby with the San Diego Legion (2018) and New England Free Jacks (2018-2021) while also having a loan spell with the New Orleans Gold (2019).

He also spent three years with Ireland's Connacht Rugby program and played with Italy's Rugby Badia ASD. Leader suited up for Ireland's under-19 national team before representing the U.S.

In 2015, while recovering from shoulder surgery, Leader received a rugby scholarship to Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., where he obtained a sports management degree. While there, he also played for the St. Louis Royals, a local side.

Leader's primary rugby position was fly half, although he also played inside centre. But learning the on-field nuances of a different game hasn't been Leader's only challenge.

"The fly half in rugby is your quarterback," he said. "I was the fly half and captain with teams I played for so I was highly, highly, highly involved in everything and got used to that world.

"Then I come to football, I sit on the sidelines, drink water and wait for people to call me. That hasn't been easy, to be honest. I was used to having over 100 involvements and now I have maybe five or six. It's recognizing that and being able to flip the switch when it's go-time. It's something I'm learning but I have much more to do."

Leader, who acts as his own agent, never imagined switching sports in August 2020 when he first kicked a football.

"I love kicking, genuinely there were no other ideas in my head," he said. "I ended up doing more because I enjoyed it.

"I thought I was just OK but people who kind of knew the sport saw me and said, 'Hey, you're actually doing very good.'"

So Leader hooked up with former NFL kicker John Carney, who runs a kicking camp in San Diego.

"John's a good Irishman, he kind of took me under his wing and mentored me like he has so many NFL and CFL kickers," Leader said. "At this stage I retired from rugby, which was a big step because that had been my job and I was making myself unemployed to chase a sport I'd never actually played."

Before the '21 CFL season, Leader rubbed shoulders with then Saskatchewan Roughriders punter Jon Ryan in San Diego. Leader said Ryan, a Regina native who won a Super Bowl with Seattle in 2014, offered encouragement.

"He was wondering how I was getting the ball to go where it was while punting with slightly different mechanics," Leader said. "He actually said he thought that would be very beneficial in the CFL, which was big because he's someone I highly respect."

Punters traditionally kick a football with the tips pointed horizontally, whereas rugby players do so with the tips more north-south. Leader said he can do both effectively but prefers the rugby style when ball placement is crucial.

"You wouldn't get as much hang time (as horizontal punt) but it can be much more accurate," he said. "You can get more distance and hang time with the spiral but I think it can be more inconsistent.

"Guys generally use (rugby style) the further up the field they get when they don't need to blast it and want to be nice and accurate. It's something I've grown up with it and I'm excited to use it in a new format."

In football, Leader also had to adjust to kicking a ball that was significantly smaller than a traditional rugby ball, which he says presents a much larger kicking sweet spot. The adjustment will continue as CFL footballs are slightly bigger than American ones.

Leader expects to return to Ireland early next week and hopes a shipment of footballs from Hamilton awaits him. Before settling in Spain, Leader spent January training in the Canary Islands to skip the rain and wind in his native land.

"I know it will be necessary to kick in those conditions, especially on the back end of the CFL season," he said. "But for now, knowing each day what you're going to get weather-wise makes life a little easier."

Leader also hopes to display his rugby skills in the open field.

"I think with the (CFL) field being so wide, you see many returners get upfield," he said. "I'm hoping with my rugby background that might create opportunities to kind of show kickers and punters can tackle also.

"I know, be careful what you ask for . . . if and when the time comes, it'll be interesting. Even the act of tackling . . . although it looks similar to rugby, it's still different because you have a shell on your head and pads on so it all takes getting used to."

Leader will compete to do all three kicking jobs with Hamilton. Last year, American Tyler Bertolet and Canadian Michael Domagala split kickoff/field goals while Australian Joel Whitford punted.

"They're giving me an opportunity to do all three," he said. "It's up to me what I do with that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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