HAMILTON — All Tadgh Leader wanted was a second chance to impact his first-ever game with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Irish-born former rugby player -- whose first name is pronounced like Tiger without the r -- made a 35-yard field goal on the game's final play to give Hamilton an improbable 25-23 win over the Montreal Alouettes in the opening CFL exhibition game for both teams. Leader's kick came after his 33-yard punt earlier in the final quarter.
Leader's heroics came after rookie Davis Alexander staked Montreal to a 23-22 lead. After scoring on a one-yard TD run at 14:45, Alexander hit Krishawn Hogan on the two-point convert.
Hamilton returned the ensuing kickoff to its 41-yard line. With 10 seconds remaining, Montreal's Robert Hayes Jr. was flagged for pass interference on an incompletion, giving the Ticats possession at the Alouettes' 28-yard line with three seconds to play.
After making the kick, Leader was mobbed on the field by teammates.
"I've never been in that situation before," Leader said. "That was just my 10th game of football ever so I haven't had that opportunity.
"It was pretty surreal when I looked up and saw the ball was flying straight and within a few seconds all the lads just engulfing me. A nice welcoming to the team."
The six-foot-two, 205-pound Leader, a native of Galway, Ireland, 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 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.
Leader, Canadian Michael Domagala and American Seth Small all made field goals for Hamilton. Leader knew after Small's 48-yard field goal at 12:20 of the fourth gave the Ticats a 22-15 lead he'd be next if another field goal was attempted.
Leader said his short punt was the result of trying to do too much.
"I really wanted to blast that punt and sometimes when you get a little overeager that happens so it was a good learning moment for me," he said. "But at that point I was just thinking, 'I hope I get another opportunity to influence the game in some way,' and you can't ask for a better way than a game winner."
Jalen Morton's 10-yard run put Hamilton ahead 16-15 at 7:01 of the third but the sophomore quarterback was stopped short trying to run in the two-point convert. Domagala's 49-yard field goal at 11:57 boosted the Ticats' lead to 19-15 at Tim Hortons Field.
"Hey, it's going to be a battle and they all know that," Hamilton head coach Orlondo Steinauer said of the club's kicking competition. "We have a lot of practices in-between and then we're going to play another game.
"I hope the decision is extremely tough because that'll mean they'll have done a great job."
While Hamilton converted all four field-goal tries, Ticats punters struggled. Incumbent Joel Whitford, an Australian, averaged 33.3 yards on his three attempts while fellow global kicker Blake Hayes punted twice for 54 yards (27-yard average).
"I don't think we punted the ball exceptionally well ... but obviously we were able to put the ball through the posts field goal-wise and that was important," Steinauer said.
Morton, the third of four Hamilton quarterbacks to play, finished five-of-eight passing for 52 yards while rushing for a team-high 52 yards on four carries.
Former Alouette Matt Shiltz had Hamilton's other touchdown. Domagala also booted a convert while Small made two field goals.
Reggie White Jr. scored Montreal's other touchdown. David Cote added three field goals.
Hamilton opened the contest with many of its starters -- notably quarterback Dane Evans, left guard Brandon Revenberg, defensive lineman Dylan Wynn and linebackers Simoni Lawrence and Jovan Santos-Knox. But their stay was short-lived as the Ticats began substituting in the second quarter.
Evans was four-of-five passing for 46 yards before giving way to Shiltz in the second quarter.
Veteran Trevor Harris started at quarterback for Montreal as No. 1 Vernon Adams Jr. was among the many Alouettes starters who didn't dress. Harris led the offence on two scoring drives (touchdown, field goal) while completing nine-of-12 passes for 124 yards and a TD before giving way to Dominique Davis.
Davis was 11-of-13 passing for 95 yards before being replaced by Ben Holmes in the third.
Cote's 37-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter gave Montreal a 15-10 halftime lead. Davis marched the Alouettes 44 yards on seven plays while completing all five passes he threw for 54 yards.
Cote also connected from 31 yards out at 11:53. It came after Small's 39-yard boot at 3:31 gave the Ticats a 10-9 advantage.
Harris found White Jr. on a four-yard TD strike at 4:05, capping an eight-play, 84-yard drive to start the game. Cote's convert attempt was blocked.
Cote connected from 32 yards out at 11:44 but Shiltz's one-yard run at 13:59 cut Montreal's lead to 9-7 at 13:59. Shiltz was three-of-four passing for 20 yards while rushing four times for 33 yards during his stint.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2022.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press