St. George's players Matteo Mitchell (left) and Grant Madu (right) congratulate teammate Thomas Kirkwood after he scored the game's opening try vs. Shawnigan Lake during Stadium Series action Friday at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)
Feature High School Rugby

Stadium Series 2019 ‘Battle Royale’ edition: Palmer’s extra-time try lifts St. George’s Saints to dramatic comeback victory over Shawnigan Lake’s Stags

BURNABY — When last we left one of the best rivalries in all of B.C. high school sports, the contrast between that old cliche of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat was about as pronounced as you will find.

We’re speaking of course, about the events of May 30 of last year, in the semifinals of the B.C. senior boys Quad-A rugby championships at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium.

Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake Stags had opened by building a 21-0 lead over their arch rivals, the St. George’s Saints, but then seemed powerless as the Vancouver school rallied to claim a 24-21 lead later in the second half.

The Stags, however, still had enough to score two unanswered tries and win 31-24, booking yet another trip to the B.C. final.

To the Saints credit, perspective was their second-best quality Friday afternoon following a dramatic victory over Shawnigan Lake in the opening round of the Stadium Series at Burnaby’s Swangard Stadium.

Their No. 1 strength was their resiliency, and when you put the two together in a such a time-honoured rivalry game, you can most definitely count the 2019 B.C. high school boys rugby campaign as officially underway.

St. George’s Connor Palmer scores the winning try versus Shawnigan Lake in extra time during opening day Stadium Series action April 5, 2019 at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

Scrum half Connor Palmer scored the winning try as the game clock turned to extra time, and St. George’s left the field with a 15-13 victory.

“It was just a simple 2-on-1 and (Palmer) made the decision to keep it because their winger was on our winger,” explained Saints’ head coach Mike Stiles. “(Last year’s semifinal) may have been on their minds a little bit, but I think our guys are just worried about their season right now.

“It’s still only April 5, and it’s a good start for us, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. The main thing is that we didn’t give up and I am so proud of them for that.”

St. George’s and Shawnigan Lake renewed their tremendous rivalry Friday at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of 2019. All Rights Reserved)

After a turnover filled first half in which St. George’s led 3-0, Thomas Kirkwood recovered a Shawnigan turnover with 23 minutes remaining in the match, and over the course of a dynamic 22-metre run, put on a pair of brilliant fakes, including one in which he planted his lead foot and proceeded to freeze two Stags at the touch line.

Kirkwood’s own conversion made it 10-0.

Shawnigan Lake, in a complete flip of last spring’s provincial semifinal, however, scored 13 straight points to go up 13-10 with three minutes remaining on the game clock.

Jamin Hodgkins booted a penalty, converted a powerful run to touch by fullback Leo Montgomery, then kicked a go ahead penalty with just under three minutes remaining.

“Our team rallied well,” admitted Saints’ captain Ethan Jaques, who last season as a Grade 11 scored one of the tries in St. George’s aborted comeback rally in the B.C. semifinal, “but it’s the Saints-Shawnigan rivalry. We’re always fired up for it.”

Shawnigan Lake, which last season was upset in the provincial final by Oak Bay after having won three straight B.C. titles and eight of the previous nine, tipped its collective hat to Saints’ effort.

“We’ll have to look at it on video but they took the opportunity very well,” Stags’ co-coach Andrew Doyle said of Palmer’s game-winning try. “He came down the blindside and I think there was a missed tackle that created space. He went over and executed very well.”

Doyle felt that aside from the dramatic late try surrendered by his team, that the Stags had recovered nicely from a tough first half.

“I think we played better in the second half,” Doyle said. “We made less mistakes. We must have coughed it up 10 times in the first half, due to the weather and the pressure Saints put on us, but it’s always a close game with Saints. There have been just a few points separating us the past number of years. It’s always close and today no was no exception to that.”

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