April 6, 2016. 4:54 pm
Courtesy of the Province - Howard Tsumara
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VANCOUVER — B.C. boys high school rugby has finally addressed the elephant in the room.
Look back at its provincial tournament results over the past decade-plus at its highest triple-A tier, and two schools have dominated the proceedings to such an extent that its annual title tilt had become the most anti-climactic event on the entire B.C. championship schedule.
For the last 12 years, either Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake Stags or Vancouver’s St. George’s Saints have played in the championship final, each normally bulldozing its opposition in earlier rounds en route to the showcase game.
Four times in the past six seasons they have played each other in the final, and it’s been seven years and counting since one of the pair wasn’t crowned the champion.
In fact you have to go back 14 years, to 2002, to find the last time neither team was represented in B.C.’s highest-tiered schoolboy championship game.
“I think it’s so important that every year the championship be fresh and alive and vibrant,” said St Michaels University School’s Ian Hyde-Lay, one of the province’s longest-tenured head coaches, “and to have that, a tournament needs uncertainty, unpredictability and competitive balance. When that is taken away, it loses its buzz.”
To that end, the B.C. Secondary School Rugby Union has implemented a series of changes this season it hopes will not only restore the balance, but allow more athletes to compete for titles while also raising the profile of its sport around the province.
At the top of the pyramid?
A new four-team quad-A tier, created exclusively for the provincial tournament, which this season runs May 25-28 at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium.
B.C. high school rugby competes with two tiers — double-A and triple-A — and that will still be the case during the regular season and through the zone championships.
However at the triple-A level, its Vancouver Island north and south champions, as well as the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland champions, will effectively advance to the provincial tournament’s semifinal round where they will comprise a quad-A Final Four semifinal round.
If you were to use the B.C. Triple A rankings as your guide, you could imagine that group to include No. 1 Shawnigan Lake (North Island), No. 2 St. George’s (Lower Mainland), No. 3 Oak Bay (South Island) and No. 4 Yale (Lower Mainland).
First and foremost, the new structure elminates the seeded 16-team opening round bracket in which the top seed has met the lowest seed in the first round to disastrous results.
The spectre of an opening-round upset may exist in some high school sports like basketball. But not in rugby.
Last season, en route to winning its sixth title in seven years, No. 1 seed Shawnigan topped No. 16 G.P. Vanier of Courtenay 112-0 in the first round. No. 2 St. George’s, which has played in four of the last six finals, beat No. 15 Kelowna 76-12.
“In the same way you wouldn’t want a basketball game ending 100-0, rugby can be even worse because of the humilation and chance of injury,” said BCSSRU commisioner Walter van Halst, who along with association president Stephen Rowell initiated the changes. “Now, we’ll avoid the first-round blowouts. We want every kid to have a chance to play rugby, and have a realistic opportunity to have something to play for.”
The big key here was for the established programs from southern Vancouver Island like Victoria’s Oak Bay, and Fraser Valley powers like Yale of Abbotsford and Surrey’s Earl Marriott, to buy into the concept, knowing that if they won their zones, their chances of winning a provincial title at quad-A would be drastically tougher than if they were zone final losers who would plug into the triple-A draw as instant B.C title favourites.
“That argument was brought up, but it’s super lame if someone doesn’t want to win a Fraser Valley banner,” said Earl Marriott head coach Adam Roberts. “The top teams that would compete at quad-A are secure programs. They have all been stalwarts over the last 10 years and they will be fine.”
Beyond the introduction of the quad-A tier, even more changes have occured.
Both triple- and double-A teams will each compete for resepctive Tier 1 and Tier 2 B.C. titles.
Based on zone finishes, provincial rankings and an ambitious slate of cross-zone showcase tests known as the Stadium Series, the 16 teams qualifying for the triple- and double-A B.C. tournament fields will be ranked 1-16. The top eight will compete for the Tier 1 title, the bottom eight for the Tier 2 title.
Add in the quad-A title and that means that a total of five provincial senior varsity titles will now be on the line for 36 teams.
“This comes out of the seven-aside format where teams play for cup, plate, bowl and shield titles,” said van Halst. “If on the last day of the tournament you’re banged up, things haven’t gone quite the way you hoped and you realize you’re not winning the grand prize, you still have the dignity to play for something against teams of like ability.”
The biggest plus?
The B.C. triple-A tournament will be a parity-filled, wide-open affair.
“Teams won’t be cannon fodder anymore,” said Hyde-Lay. “No one knows who is winning that one.”
As well, B.C. high school rugby will add a junior varsity (Grade 10) crown to its championship day menu. Four zone winners will meet in a provincial semifinal May 21, with the winners advancing to the final May 28 at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium.