By: Mark Janzen
Moments after Josiah Morra hung up the phone following a 40-minute interview, he sent a quick text message:
“Another thing about me is that I’m not good with interviews (h)aha.”
In reality, he was great. He was candid and keen, and emanated a genuine humility in each of his answers.
Yet, the 20-year-old from the Toronto area, entering his third year with Rugby Canada’s men’s sevens program, was convinced there was room for improvement.
“I know I could give better answers,” he suggests in a subsequent text.
In reality, he was sincere and real. Even in this brief communication with someone he’s never met before, it was simply a case of Josiah being Josiah.
“…is it alright if I could see the article before you release it?” Morra texts two days later. Not because he wants to check to see if it makes him look good. Nah. “…in case I could fix (up) whatever I said last week or add a bit more info to it.”
Honestly, it seemed he was just trying to help. It’s kind of what makes Josiah – the eldest of five children born to Liberty and Tony Morra – the type of guy everyone wants to see succeed. Anyone who meets the guy, or even talks to him on the phone, roots for him. With a bright future in the game, the young winger, whose most recent international foray saw him compete with Canada at the 2018 World Rugby Under 20 Trophy in Romania, is also the type of person who has the current fourth-highest scoring player in World Rugby Sevens Series history gushing:
“Jo is one of the most well-liked guys on the team,” says Canadian star Nathan Hirayama.
“He’s a very positive guy to have around. His improvement and how much he’s grown as a player and a person over the last couple of years has been huge. He just seems like he’s come into his own – and every time he plays, he seems to be improving.”
Canadian men’s sevens coach Damian McGrath put it even simpler.
“I love Josiah. He’s a great kid and a great player.”
Two months after moving across the country in the fall of 2016 – from Scarborough, Ontario to Langford, B.C. – Morra made his debut on the series in Cape Town. Coming in as a second half substitute against France on the second day of competition, Morra dotted down his first-ever try. Perhaps in a most fitting fashion, it was Canadian sevens legend John Moonlight, having done the work to get under the posts, literally handing the ball to Morra for the 18-year-old to touch it down.
In the tunnel after that contest, Moonlight suggested to Morra it was in fact the youngster who had sparked the try with a move early in the play’s progression and was therefore deserving of the accolades. Morra’s not entirely convinced he had such an influence, but, nonetheless, it was a moment he’ll never forget.
“He could have scored that try, but he just handed me the ball,” Morra says. “It was a good feeling to have one of the top players in Ontario and Canada do something for me like that. Honestly, that move just showed me how rugby is more than a sport. It just showed (John’s) character and how he puts his teammates first.”
A little over a year later, in Singapore, Morra was the 13th man on the roster that saw Canada win its first-ever cup title on the World Series. Standing on the pitch after the cup final – a contest in which Canada beat the USA 26-19 – Morra took a photo with the cup and Hirayama. It was an image that was both many years of hard work in the making for the 5-foot-10 Morra, but also a unique moment of déjà vu.
Sometimes Morra’s mother, Liberty, would get questions from her friends or neighbours. The questions would be along the lines of, “What’s up with Josiah? He okay?”
They’d see him by himself on a field near the family’s Scarborough home. There he’d be, kicking the ball high in the air and chasing after it. He’d catch it and then go back the other way. Kick it and then catch it. Having picked up the game in Grade 9, he had become obsessed.
“He just wanted to be on the field all the time,” Liberty says. “He fell in love with it in high school and he never turned back.”
To questioning on-lookers, they needn’t worry. Morra was just fine.
Growing up, he had played all the sports – hockey and track and cross-country and basketball and even Muay Thai boxing – but there was something about rugby that trumped them all.
“A lot of my friends were playing rugby and every time I went to rugby training sessions, it was just a lot more fun than basketball practices,” Morra says.
He soon showed promise and, with his athleticism (something Hirayama says allows Morra to “do these freakish things on the field”), he soon set himself apart on the rugby pitch. Playing high school rugby – first with Brebeuf College and then, in Grade 12, with Blessed Cardinal Newman – on top of his club rugby with Toronto Saracens RFC, he started to get noticed. Then, with financial help from the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation (TIRF), which gave him the ability to play within the Rugby Ontario ranks and further extend his opportunities, his career started to flourish.
“If TIRF didn’t help me out, I probably just wouldn’t have taken rugby as seriously as I did,” Morra says. “I probably would have just been playing local club rugby.”
Indeed, his aim always had a target much higher than that.
“My goal was to play for Canada,” he says.
Following his high school graduation in 2015, he worked for an electrical company (beyond rugby, he has wanted to become an electrician) while diving deeper into the rugby scene; playing whenever, wherever, and for whomever he could.
Then, in the fall of 2016, his Upright Rugby Rogues side won the Q-META Cup in Brantford, Ontario. His style of play caught the eye of Rugby Canada. Two weeks later, he got an email inviting him to come to Langford to join the sevens program as a carded athlete.
His mom didn’t believe him at first. Then he showed her the email. Then, as mothers do, she mulled over the idea.
“He couldn’t even cook,” Liberty recalls. “He was 18 years old.”
At the same time, she and Tony wanted to encourage Josiah’s dreams. Culinary skills could be learned. Morra was going to go.
Now, two years later, not only is he on the cusp of breaking in as a regular with Canada’s sevens outfit, he’s also developed his talents in the kitchen. “My roommates taught me how to cook,” he says. “My best (now) would probably be making salmon with veggies and rice.” (In a classic Morra moment of honesty, he goes on to admit to buying frozen vegetables because he doesn’t feel like cutting up the vegetables himself).
On the pitch, his career trajectory has him pushing for playing time on the circuit.
Coming off a summer in which he played with the Ontario Blues, the Ontario (now Toronto) Arrows, and Canada’s U20 side – not to mention various sevens stints – Morra, who played in just two matches on the circuit last year, is knocking at the door, hoping the season-opening tournament in Dubai is his launching pad.
“He’s worked hard for two years,” McGrath says. “He’s been a bit-part player but he’s built up to this point and he’s ready to go this year.”
However, Morra’s far from presumptuous.
“I want to make an impact for sure, but I’m just waiting until Damian thinks I’m ready,” Morra says. “There are a lot of good players on the team. I’m going to take every moment I have this year and whatever happens, happens. I just want the best for the team.”
In the summer of 2013, a 15-year-old Morra and a few friends went to a meet and greet with Canada’s 15s team, who was in Toronto for a World Cup qualifying match with the USA Eagles. For the first time, Morra met Hirayama. That night, he tweeted at his rugby-playing hero. Hirayama responded, suggesting Morra should come down to the pitch following the game the next day. With Canada beating the USA 13-11 to secure a spot in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, a face-painted Morra took him up on the offer. Hirayama gave him his socks and his shorts and they took a picture together. Morra wore those socks and shorts and dreamed of one day donning the Maple Leaf.
“I used to watch his highlights,” Morra says. “I told him he was one of my favourite players.”
Three years later, he joined Hirayama.
Six months after that, they snapped another on-field celebratory photo…as teammates.
“To actually have the opportunity to play with a guy like Nathan and get on the same pitch as him (is kind of surreal).”
So, the question seemed obvious: “Do you kind of model your game after Hirayama a bit?”
“In some regards, for sure. The things I model after Natey is his leadership, determination, and just how much of a great team player he is with his teammates.”
That being said, Morra is still his own player.
“I find that everyone is unique in their own way when they’re on the field. I find that about myself as well. It’s what makes the team more exciting for the fans or anyone else who’s watching. So, I like to have my own style on the field.”
And how would you describe that?
He pauses for a few seconds – no doubt thinking about how to phrase his answer without exhibiting even a modicum of arrogance:
“I’d say I’m really aggressive on the field. I always look for work and I always want to be available on the pitch.”
Both Hirayama and McGrath go a few steps further and both, entirely unsolicited, use the exact same phrase.
“He just brings a little bit of an ‘x’ factor,” McGrath says. “He’s quick, he’s strong and he’s very elusive. He plays the game at 100 per cent. We take it for granted because he’s been with us for two years, but he’s a young player who Canada can be excited about.”
Hirayama almost echoes the same sentiment. “He’s a very coordinated guy. He has this ‘x’ factor. He moves laterally really well and he’s just really elusive. He comes in every day and he works hard and he’s keen to learn, and he’s a great teammate.”
When Morra takes to the pitch, he’s scrawls three things on his adorning tape. A happy face (play the game respectfully and enjoy it), a cross (an homage to his faith), and “the6” (a nod to his home and his family).
Even with a sharpie and tape, he’s just being himself.
He’s just being Josiah Morra.