Winning can take a lot out of you.
Just ask members of the Bayside Sharks rugby club.
The Semiahmoo Peninsula senior men’s squad won a B.C. Div. 1 championship last spring, which was the culmination of months and months of work – from training to travelling, to the games themselves. In the days after that final game – a 34-29 victory over Abbotsford – and after the celebrating had subsided, a handful of the team’s longtime veterans decided that a break from the pitch was in order, and chose to sit out the first half of the 2019/20 season.
“Some guys had injuries, and a lot of guys had just played hard for many seasons and were taking a well-earned break,” said Andy Blackburn, Bayside’s head coach and director of men’s rugby.
“It’s just a grind. I don’t believe it’s even necessarily the physicality of the actual games, but it’s the grind of training twice a week, and playing on weekends, over an eight- or nine-month period. It does start to encroach on other parts of the guys’ social lives.
“I think mentally, for our players and staff and everybody, winning a Div. 1 title was kind of the peak – that was our Everest, so to speak, and after that, some guys decided to take a break from mountaineering for awhile.”
The Sharks also lost their head coach from last spring, too, as young Englishman Sam Knights – whom Blackburn once told Peace Arch News was “probably the best coach I’ve ever coached within Canada” – moved on from the club and took a job coaching the national team of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a small South Caribbean nation.
Knights would have stayed on the Peninsula, Blackburn said, except his visa was about to expire.
“When we brought him over here, it was a two-year plan – we knew that,” Blackburn said. “And in Year 1, we made it to the finals and lost, and in Year 2, we obviously got back to the finals and won. So we knew it was a (short-term) gig, but we all put a lot of time and effort into it… and it paid dividends.”
Blackburn said he remains in “constant” communication with Knights, and would love to have him return to Canada and Bayside on a more permanent basis somewhere down the line.
The team – now led by Blackburn and his assistant coaches – returned to the rugby pitch last fall, with a slew of young players in place of the resting veterans. And while there were plenty of ups and downs during the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule, Blackburn said his group as a whole was better for it.
“We struggled with numbers, and we lost some games we wouldn’t have normally lost, but on the flip side, we had some younger guys become hardened very quickly to Div. 1 rugby,” Blackburn said.
“And now we have some of the stalwarts coming back, so it feels like we’re peaking again at the right time.”
The 2020 portion of the season has been much better for the Sharks in the Div. 1 standings, with the team occupying the fourth and final playoff spot through their Feb. 8 game. The team earned two big victories prior to that – 65-10 over Cowichan on Feb. 1 and 44-17 over Vancouver Rowing Club on Feb. 8, with Blackburn calling the former “the performance of the season.”
“It’s been a bit of a bipolar season so far,” he quipped.
Though happy to see some returning veterans trickling back into the program now after a few months away, Blackburn was effusive in his praise for the team’s newcomers, many of whom are former Bayside junior players who’ve recently returned to the fold.
“There’s a real influx of 18- to 23-year-old players coming back – guys I coached eight or nine years ago in our junior program,” Blackburn explained. “Now, they’re done university and have come back to play for their home club.
“We have arguably one of the best junior and mini rugby programs in B.C., but we sometimes suffer because… a lot of kids from here go to university (elsewhere), and because it’s expensive to live here, we don’t always get them back.
“Maybe they stay on the Island or they move downtown Vancouver and play for a team there. But we have had a few lads come back and that’s a very exciting thing for us.”
Among the young players who’ve not looked out of place with the senior squad, Blackburn said, are Ashton Stewart, who recently was named man-of-the-match after scoring two tries in a Div. 2 game; 18-year-old Finn Murphy; and 23-year-old Nick Law, who has stepped in as a starting prop for the first-division team and been “the revelation of the season for us.”
An added benefit of the young talent, Blackburn said, is that it’s provided a level of internal competition not often seen within the senior ranks. He points to Law as an example.
“I don’t think he even got to play Div. 1 at all last year, because we had six big, more-experienced front-rowers. But some of those guys have moved on, and Nick has taken the opportunity with both hands and been brilliant all season,” Blackburn said.
“Seeing these young guys play so well, it’s been noticed by some of the (veterans) who are watching from the sidelines. They’re coming back, but there’s a new pecking order now – maybe someone has taken their spot. So it’s really added to the competition, and I think that’s key because without that competition, it’s a lot harder to get guys to put in the hard yards on the training field and on game days.
“But these men, they respond well to that.”