By Don Davies
Rugby was far from being a high profile sport in North America 50 years ago. In Kimberley it was hockey and soccer that dominated the sports headlines, so when Peter Moody introduced the game to his Grade 8 students at McKim, it provided the catalyst for growth of rugby in the Kootenays.
When Pete left McKim in 1967 to further his studies, I was recruited from Australia to fill his teaching position. Little did I expect to be coaching and playing the sport that I was most passionate about. My initial coaching experience occurred fresh out of teacher’s college when I was appointed to Granville Boys High School in Sydney. The major emphasis there was on soccer.But I was playing 1st grade rugby with Paramatta at the time and was determined to introduce rugby to the school sports calendar.
I enlisted help from Bryan Palmer, coach of the Australian Wallabies national team, who generously volunteered his time with the high school boys. The school had only a paved blacktop playground so tackling practices were held on the lawn of the church manse across the road. The boys were quick to learn and in their very first game defeated the visitors 20 – 0.
Now in Kimberley as Pete Moody’s replacement, I soon realized there was keen interest at McKim and Selkirk to keep rugby alive. The likes of Brian McKenzie, Randy Marchi, Bruce Reed, George Cox, Jamie Neve, brothers Ray and Dario Nonis, and several others convinced me that rugby had a good future here. It didn’t take much persuading to get a full complement of students out for scheduled practices. Before we knew it, the team expanded into a broad-based community enterprise with ex-players and wannabees from all walks of life coming out to play.
For the high school boys, it was a great outlet for channelling pent-up energy and testosterone-fuelled bodies in an acceptable manner. For many of the adults, it was an opportunity to reconnect with a sport they had played in the old country: England, where rugby originated, or Australia and New Zealand, where immigrant Brits introduced the sport.
The team adopted the name Barbarians, purchased a set of black jerseys in emulation of the legendary New Zealand All Blacks, and set about to form a somewhat ad hoc league called the Kootenay Rugby Union. Matches were scheduled with Invermere, Trail, Nelson and Lethbridge, all of which were showing a growing interest in the game.
The culminating event of each season was a tournament, hosted by Invermere, to which we also invited teams from Kelowna, Calgary and Washington State University. The main focus that determined the tournament winner was not the actual win-loss record but the performance of team skits during the post-game entertainment.
Rugby is a game that is played hard with little protective equipment. Surviving without a few bruises, bleeding parts or even broken bones could be an indication you were shying away from the action. The after-game celebrations, though, win or lose, is a time to socialize that invariably includes a raucous renditioning of rugby songs. A local rugby player still at it in his senior years, long after his aching joints and reluctant body parts are telling him it’s time to quit, is Dr. Tim Comishin, who travels far and wide to satisfy his need to stay involved with the game.
Another stalwart of those early days was Ian Sinclair, a local doctor proficient in many sports, who could be counted on to give 110 per cent at every practice and game. Ian was also an invaluable resource when a team member was injured, opening his little black bag on the sideline to stitch an open wound or pop a dislocated shoulder into place. It was sad to learn he had passed away recently. Sean Sinclair, Ian’s son, now carries the rugby banner and coaches at Mount Baker Secondary.
There is a healthy interest nowadays in high school rugby with teams involved from Kimberley, Nelson, Trail, Grand Forks, Castlegar and Cranbrook. At the senior level, the Kootenay Rugby Union is alive and well with Cranbrook’s Rocky Mountain Rogues, the Elk Valley Bulls and Nelson’s Grizzlies playing a short May-June season. The Kootenay teams, all from single-team clubs, are eligible to play in the Saratoga Cup held each September in Penticton. The Rogues have been contenders for the past five seasons, and the Elk Valley Bulls were provincial champions in 2013 and again in 2014. A more recent development is the growth of women’s rugby, Canada’s team being a strong contender internationally. I’m told there is widespread interest in forming a girls’ team at Selkirk. The introduction of seven-a-side rugby in the Olympics is bound to gain a new fan base with the fast, open action of the game. Coming this September, the World Cup of Rugby will be broadcast worldwide from locations in England and Wales.