Collingwood Cavaliers' seniors Tyler Preston (left) and Graeme Neill-Klein each lost their Grade 11 seasons to shoulder surgery, but finished their senior seasons as leaders on a B.C. championship-winning team. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Rugby

A Sunday Read: Rubbing shoulders with adversity helps Collingwood’s rugby brothers Neill-Klein and Preston fashion a dream ending

ABBOTSFORD — You can never mask elation, yet to see it emerge from the deepest of places in a moment of celebration is to better understand why the best things in life are worth fighting for.

That much was pretty plain to see over the weekend as two true rugby brothers discovered what they had always suspected… that perseverance to a cause and to a passion will always, in the biggest picture of all, have a pay-off beyond price tags.

Last season, a pair of Collingwood Cavaliers senior boys rugby players — Graeme Neill-Klein and Tyler Preston — lost what basically amounted to their entire Grade 11 campaigns, confounding the odds by suffering season-ending injuries to their respective right shoulders on the field of play within just over a week of each other.

Yet on Friday night at Rotary Stadium, with the scars of their demanding rehabilitation stints still fresh in body and mind, they had become leaders like never before, helping the Cavaliers to a most decisive 34-0 win over Victoria’s St. Michael’s University Blue Jags en route to repeating as B.C. senior varisty boys Double-A Tier 1 champions.

The victory gave the West Vancouver school its first repeat B.C. title since it won three straight from 2001-03.

“This feels amazing because all through last season, we were able to carry each other,” Neill-Klein said of the tough days. “We have been friends and on the same team since we were in Grade 3.”

The sport has built a storied history at Collingwood, and as a longtime caretaker of that tradition, Cavs’ rugby guru and current co-coach David Speirs has watched his Class of 2019 group earn a special place within that pecking order.

Over these past two championship seasons, the Cavs have gone a perfect 21-0 against B.C. competition, and 24-4 overall, with all four losses coming at the hands of Australian competition.

When asked about the effort it took to repeat as champs in such dominant fashion against a SMUS program which boasts its own deep pedigree of successes, all Speirs could talk about was what is gained through the process of embracing everything a demanding high school sports program asks of its student-athletes.

Unwittingly, he wound up addressing the heart of today’s story.

“We had a lot of players who got to play last year, and who got to gain valuable minutes, so this year they were ready to step up,” he said.

“It’s about guys like our captain Tyler (Preston) and Graeme (Neill-Kline),” he continued in the same breath. “Those two guys, they were so desperate to play, and they both came back from major surgeries. Today, they were the seniors, and we got great leadership from all of our Grade 12s. It all just filtered down to the rest of the team.”

Trying to elude the grasp of a pair of SMUS Blue Jags, Collingwood’s Tyler Preston (with ball) completed his long journey back from a devastating shoulder injury by winning a B.C. title in the final game of his high school career. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

While unpredictability reigned supreme over the Quad-A and Triple-A tiers all season, such was not the case at Double-A’s top tier.

It was Collingwood and then the rest of the field, and that trend was evident from the moment Friday afternoon’s title tilt began.

Cavs’ prop Kirk Fuller established forward supremacy in the early going, picking off a ruck for a try and a 5-0 lead.

Lucas Okano, the speedy No. 9 added a try converted by Neill-Klein for a 10-0 lead. Later, Neill-Klein’s penalty goal fell through for a 13-0 lead.

Right before the half, it was Neill-Klein again, this time scoring under the posts and adding the convert for a 20-0 halftime lead.

In the second half, Neill-Kline added another try and once again helped his cause with the convert for a 27-0 lead.

Linus Hartner added a try of his own, and after Neill-Kline closed out the scoring with a conversion, the countdown to a repeat title was underway.

As far as team captain Preston was concerned, the prospect of making his own return this season was strictly down to the effort he was willing to put in to give his right shoulder the best chance for a full recovery. He didn’t rest a second.

In the 2018 season’s earliest stages, during a victory over Mill Bay’s Brentwood College in round one of the Stadium Series at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium, he suffered “a grade four AC joint sprain.”

If it sounds severe, you’re right. Once your sprain hits the fours, you’re looking at the potential of extensive ligament, muscle and joint damage.

Preston pretty much needed to get surgery the very next day.

“It was a bummer being on the sidelines the whole season,” he explained Friday, the depth of his recovery seeming even more incredible amidst a backdrop of hugs and congratulations from his teammates. “I ended up being out for 11 months. But we’re a real brotherhood here.”

What was going through his head exactly a year ago, at the very moment his Cavaliers’ teammates were coming off the field as newly-minted B.C. champs?

“Well, every day I was thinking about this moment today,” he said, bringing the time-space continuum right back to the present. “Even though it was a whole year off, I was in the gym every single day with all of my friends.

“I had a mentality that I was going to get back even stronger than before,” he says, speaking to the physical side of his recovery, “but it ended up strengthening me mentally as well.”

Graeme Neill-Klein (with ball) of the Collingwood Cavaliers in action earlier this month at the Lower Mainland New Zealand Shield AA final at Brockton Oval. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Neill-Klein wants you to know that his injury was not as severe as Preston’s, and that opening line lets you know just how tight these two childhood friends really are.

“My shoulder got broken and dislocated against these guys back in Victoria last year at their homecoming game,” Neill-Klein says of suffering his injury in the provincial capital at SMUS during their annual homecoming game, which just happened to fall on his May 5th birthday.

“I rehabbed it all summer and I was finally allowed to play against contact in January,” he continues. “I have been wearing a brace most of the year, but I took it off today so I could get the most out of myself in this game. Sometimes it’s hard to breathe with it on and I wanted to be able to give it my all in the most important games.”

Whether their injuries were coincidental or fated, random or related, they have served to not only bring two friends even closer together, but to give their championship moment a depth of meaning which will endure a lifetime.

“We’re brothers,” Tyler Preston said of he and Graeme Neill-Klein, “so we stuck it out together.”

Listening to that, it seems like the gold was actually the gravy.

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