VANCOUVER — The history books tab the 1925 New Zealand All-Blacks with the much-deserved moniker The Invincibles.
And when they toured through Canada that year, they donated, as a gesture of respect for the quality of play they had seen in this country, a trophy of sorts for local schoolboy rugby that is famously known as the New Zealand Shield.
Over the years, the shield has not only become one of B.C.’s most enduring symbols of high school sports excellence, it has become emblematic of the Lower Mainland’s top-tiered high school boys rugby championship.
Yet if the high school game in B.C., at its top tier, has been plagued by an Invincibles-type atmosphere in recent years, the upcoming 2018 B.C. Quad A Final Four arrives ready to contradict that notion with a depth of drama and storylines not too many may have predicted.
“There has been extreme parity between four teams this season,” said St. George’s Saints head coach Mike Stiles after his Vancouver-based all-boys school beat North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Eagles by an outlier-like 43-16 count in the latest New Zealand Shield clash played under toasty conditions at Stanley Park’s historic Brockton Oval pitch.
Since the turn of the century, St. George’s has won the shield 10 times, while Carson Graham, the clear leader in overall titles, has claimed it the other nine years.
Stiles, of course, is speaking about the Shawnigan Lake Stags, the Oak Bay Barbarians, his Saints and Carson Graham.
That foursome will comprise the semifinal round of the provincial tourney’s highest-tiered competition at the BCSSRU championships which begins a four-day run Wednesday at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium.
The big lightning bolt in all of the happenings?
Shawnigan Lake, which had gone 4-0 in Premier League play with a points for-and-against differential of plus-141, was upset 20-15 in the AAAA Vancouver Island final on Wednesday at UVic’s Wallace Field by the Barbs.
That score, plus Saints comfortable win over Carson Graham resulted in the precise seedings that both Stiles and Carson Graham head coach Ryan Kerluck predicted in the post-game on Thursday.
And that is: Oak Bay is the No. 1 seed for provincials, followed by No. 2 Shawnigan Lake, No. 3 St. George’s and No. 4 Carson Graham.
That means Oak Bay faces Carson Graham in one B.C. semifinal, while Shawnigan Lake will clash with St. George’s in the other.
Earl Marriott of Surrey, the fifth team to play a Premier League schedule this season, went 0-4 and dropped down to Triple A where it defeated South Delta 29-25 in Tuesday’s Fraser Valley AAA title tilt at Rotary.
“Honestly, the Premier League has been a really good thing this year,” said Kerluck following his team’s loss in the New Zealand Shield. “Three of the teams (Saints, Eagles, Barbarians) finished 2-2, so we all know we can knock each other off.”
That sentiment couldn’t have been any more true Thursday.
In an early-April Premier League test in Vancouver, Carson Graham claimed a 22-17 win at Saints.
On Thursday, St. George’s turned the tables to win its sixth straight New Zealand Shield title, blowing open a 17-9 halftime lead with a barrage of four straight tries from Sam Sirlin, Jason Forbes, Dillon Hamilton and Max Brittingham.
Filip Preda scored Carson Graham’s only try in the late going to round out the scoring.
“It means a lot,” admitted Stiles of retaining the shield for another year, “but Carson Graham is a very strong team, and if not for a couple of bounces, it could have gone the other way.”
Matt Terry, Shane Miller and Connor Palmer all scored first half tries for the Saints, while Thomas Kirkwood booted four converts on the day.
Ryan Leskiw booted three penalties to account for the Eagles’ first nine points.
“I don’t think we played our game today,” admitted Kerluck, whose side this season beat Saints and Earl Marriott in the Premier League, with losses coming against Oak Bay (40-22) and Shawnigan Lake (28-7).
“I thought we needed to work a lot harder, especially in the overall battles, whether in the line-outs or in the rucks,” continued Kerluck. “We’ve just got to keep our heads up and know we can do it, and show up ready to play at the provincials.”
On the other side, Stiles pointed to a quality effort in mid-April against Aussie touring side Hale out of Perth, as a key juncture of the campaign.
“We’ve played pretty well ever since,” said Stiles. “We still made mistakes today, but we’re in a good state. One of the biggest reasons is that the guys have begun to believe in themselves. They are trusting one another and learning to work off the ball a lot more than they were before.
“Another reason is just that we’ve become more organized, knowing what we are doing in certain parts of the field, and knowing how to react to other team’s strategies and tactics.”
St. George’s two league wins came over Earl Marriott and Oak Bay (33-19), with its losses coming at the hands of Shawnigan Lake (36-12) and Carson Graham.
Oak Bay defeated Earl Marriott and Carson Graham, while losing to Saints and Shawnigan Lake (33-12).
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