VANCOUVER — Ray Dear and George Voros had an experience nearly 42 years ago which was impactful enough that last Thursday afternoon, each had found reason to be leaning up against the fencing surrounding one side of the pitch at Stanley Park’s Brockton Oval.
It was the occasion of the 2018 Lower Mainland senior boys rugby championships, and the two men, each in their late 50s, had long ago themselves played in the schoolboy test known as the New Zealand Shield.
Yet upon arriving for the programme’s opening Double-A championship final, the former high school teammates made a most inspiring discovery.
“We’re grads,” said Dear. “We always come out to watch the New Zealand Shield. But we didn’t know that Tupper was playing until we got here.”
It was just that kind of afternoon.
The Sir Charles Tupper Tigers had not played in a New Zealand Shield championship final since the coveted contest’s landmark 50th birthday, back in 1975.
That season, with rugby still being contested as a fall high school sport, the East Vancouver school — with captain Dear and Voros among its roster — beat its cross-city counterparts, the Magee Lions.
In the generation-plus which has passed since 1975, as the demographics of the city have undergone drastic change, the Sir Charles Tupper Tigers rugby program remains one step ahead of the Dodo, enduring as East Vancouver’s last remaining boys high school rugby program.
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES
For Dear, Voros and the rest of the Tupper faithful, there was no Cinderella story to be told.
West Vancouver’s Collingwood Cavaliers, one of the province’s very best sides regardless of tier, were fully-deserving 50-10 winners over the Tigers.
Yet it wasn’t hard to understand the degree to which everyone has embraced their surprising ascent this season when Collingwood co-coach Tom Larisch offered his appreciation for their level aloud to all of those gathered for the post-game trophy presentations.
No, the Tigers do not play at Tier 1’s top flight where the likes of St. George’s and Carson Graham roam the B.C. rugby earth.
Yet their mere presence in the title game, which greased the skids to the start of the B.C. championships in Abbotsford on Wednesday, is a sign that the rest of the schools in their East Vancouver neighbourhood have a chance to sow the same kind of seed.
“It’s been a long time coming, getting to a New Zealand Shield final,” admits Tupper head coach Joe Lee, who along with co-coach Auton Lum, has guided the fortunes of Tupper rugby for the past 15 seasons, including the past nine as head coaches.
“The big thing is, we’re the last rugby program in East Vancouver. There’s no one else playing, which is quite a shame. When I first started here, there used to be an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference.”
Despite a century-plus of tradition within the game emanating from Vancouver and its time-honoured clubs, high school rugby within the city limits has dwindled to the point of near-extinction.
“The Eastern Conference used to be us, Windermere, Killarney, Britannia. Now, in Vancouver, it’s us, Kitsilano, Lord Byng and Point Grey. We’re down to four teams in the city and so it’s kind of dying.”
“JUST LIKE A MOVIE”
It was a huge moment.
In the Lower Mainland semifinals, pitted against the rugby culture of West Vancouver’s Rockridge Ravens, Tupper’s Grade 10 stand-off Kiya Vivier-Miller, perhaps the Tigers’ most accomplished player, stepped up and nailed a 40-metre penalty in overtime to give his team a 13-10 walk-off win.
“It was a pretty surreal scene,” said Lee. “There were about 15 guys on the sidelines, all linking arms, just like a movie. They all ran onto the field cheering.”
Ask Lee about this 2018 season, which hits its final week Wednesday with a 4 p.m. provincial tourney opener against Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Grizzlies, and the alum of both Alpha Secondary and the Burnaby Lake RFC can only shake his head and offer a most timely comparable as he speaks to the merits of team play.
“Of all the teams that Auton and I have had as coaches, I actually didn’t think this one would be the best,” began Lee of a team that has already been plugged into the B.C. tourney’s top eight, guaranteeing an improvement on the current regime’s previous B/C. tournament-high ninth-place finish.
Well, if you’re planning on watching the start of the Stanley Cup finals tonight, the coach offers this comparison.
“It’s our personnel,” Lee continued. “I told the boys last week that I kind of feel like we’re the Vegas Golden Knights of our league because we don’t have one guy that is the stud, the superstar, you know? They are maybe not the best-ever bunch of athletes, but they are the best in the sense of being a team.”
And that’s why on Thursday, in the face of an extremely talented Collingwood team, they still celebrated their own efforts, including a first-half try by Grade 11 prop Ben Holtz, and never let their level of play dip despite what the final scoreboard may have said.
“This group knows how to communicate,” added Lee. “In our 15 years this is the team that has best jelled. We have three or four genuine leaders. We don’t havce prima donnas and we don’t have ego.”
A PART OF THE HEALTHY HEART
Just a few short seasons ago, no sport in the B.C. high school ranks had a tougher battle for inclusivity among its member schools than rugby.
Yet its leadership has taken a very tough situation and found the answers, ones which not only allow the powerhouse Quad A tier to prepare for a dramatic Final Four o Wednesday, but for the AAA and AA tiers to also get their due on the big stage at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium complex.
And it is stories like the rise of Sir Charles Tupper, from its endangered foundation in East Vancouver to the New Zealand Shield final, which gives vitality to every level of the ladder.
“You can never look at the destination,” said Lee. “You just try to do everything the right way. We hold the kids to a pretty high standard, and not just on the field.
“We want them to learn communication, we want them to get their homework done, and to do all of the little things that help make you a good person first, and then a good rugby player.”
East Vancouver may be down to its last high school boys rugby team, but if the Tupper Tigers just keep doing what they’re doing, you get the feeling that the numbers might just start going the other way for a change.
With its showcase weekend ready to begin, you get the feeling that they’ve already started a movement.
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