Saturday June 3, 2023. Rotary Stadium, Abbotsford.
The British Columbia Schools Rugby championship, an extravaganza featuring multiple teams from all over the province, nears conclusion. Boys and Girls, 7s and 15s, various tiers. Some 1900 athletes in total. Hundreds of games, from early morning to dusk. The fields an ever-changing riot of colour and frenetic activity.
Our team bus snakes through the crowded parking lot. A careless quarterfinal loss three days ago, which knocks us out of medal contention, still rankles. Nonetheless, the players hoot and holler, happy to at least finish the competition with a narrow win. Happy to celebrate what, overall, has been a reasonable season. Happy to head for home.
I sit alone near the front, on the left side of the aisle as always. Try to ignore the noise behind me. On the verge of retirement, I process the fact that this is my last provincial tournament. One I first played in as an impressionable young boy of sixteen back in 1974. One at which I refereed on numerous occasions. One I have coached at for more than three decades.
Countless memories whirl around my brain, a kaleidoscope of images and thoughts. Nearly a half century of wonderful performances, of thrilling finishes, of heartbreaking defeats. Of heroes, villains, comebacks, and collapses. Of twists and turns, of victors and the vanquished. All compete for pride of place.
Along the way, “my” school, our school, SMUS, is fortunate to win a number of titles.
One in particular stands out above the rest.
Flash back to June 2007. The provincial tournament winds to a finish. The feature game, this time held at the University of BC’s Thunderbird Stadium on a glorious spring afternoon, pits upstart SMUS against favoured St. Georges. The red clad Vancouver Independent cruises through its side of the draw, thanks to a powerful pack and a dazzling set of backs.
The contest is fierce from the outset, no quarter sought or given. Against the odds, SMUS stays in touch throughout a taut and keenly contested first period. Then, a second half try, very much against the run of play, allied to some effective scrambling defence, sees us grab a perhaps unforeseen 18-12 lead with just minutes remaining.
I watch proceedings from my usual spot. Directly behind the posts, at the back of the end zone. We pack a scrum just fifteen meters from the opposition goal line. I know that one more score of any kind will almost certainly seal the game.
The two forward packs crash together. We hook the ball cleanly. Our No. 8 carries powerfully to his right. Breaks a tackle, sets up a ruck. I will our flyhalf to drop into the pocket and set up for a drop goal.
He does just that. Sweetly struck, the ball tumbles end over end, tracing a perfect arc as it bisects the posts. I do not necessarily believe in serendipity, but, given the ball then lands directly in my arms, the successful kick and the three vital extra points seem more than just a happy accident.
A minute later, the final whistle sounds. The players embrace, hugging each other until it hurts. Euphoria. Tears aplenty, as eyes glisten, my own especially. I love this group of young men, whose passion, courage, and performance on a special day come together in perfect harmony.
Eventually, trophy and banner presentations complete, the SMUS players and coaches gather underneath the stadium scoreboard. Cameras flash. And it is then, as I take in all the beaming faces and mega watt smiles, that it hits me.
I think back on a dear friend and colleague, not with us, having died suddenly and unexpectedly eighteen months earlier. Not only a brilliant and creative teacher, but an outstanding athlete and rugby player. A clever and crafty left winger, he stars, initially at high school, then at club, provincial, and finally national level.
He is Chuck Shergold.
Humble, self-effacing, optimistic, devoted, positive, and witty, in every way he is as fine a person as anyone could hope to meet. And it is he who first introduces so many members of this championship 2007 SMUS team to the sport of rugby. Nurtures and develops them through their formative school years, demonstrating how to play the game properly and well. Always setting exacting standards but equally a pillar of support.
If anyone deserves to watch this game, it is him.
Still, if athletic success is founded largely on teamwork, competitive spirit, sound basic skills, fitness, and clarity of thought and action, maybe, just maybe, on certain special occasions, signs, symbols, or an outside presence, also play a role.
And so, my mind again roams back to the middle of December 2005 and the tragic news of Chuck’s passing.
Then recall a powerful and moving memorial service, held one week later, attended by his family and over a thousand other friends and admirers. In the twelfth month. On the twenty-first day.
I snap out of my reverie. The scoreboard looms above me. But I do not need to look back over my shoulder. The 12-21 number pattern confirms what, deep down, I already know. That a special force is watching over us.