A Horse's Ass
Late May 1993. The final practice of the term comes to an end, a slick 45 minute session without a single dropped pass or mental error. The set piece work is accurate, kicks on point, strike moves, full of pace, misdirection and dummy runners, perfectly timed. All the players are fizzing, cannot wait for the British Columbia Secondary Schools Boys Rugby championship to begin.
The team, skilled, confident and deep, is a joy to coach. An unbeaten season is a very real possibility, in the eyes of many pundits a certainty. Twelve decisive wins already in the vault. A provincial AAA title will be a third in succession for SMUS.
UBC plays host. Sixteen teams, four groups of four, playoff rounds to follow. We are the prohibitive favourite, and, with the tournament’s #1 ranking, have the honour of playing our first match at the university's prestigious Thunderbird Stadium.
We arrive in plenty of time for the morning kickoff. The pre-game run is clean and sharp, everything pointing to a crisp Day 1 performance. In contrast, our opponents, Port Moody from the Lower Mainland, straggle in late. In mismatched shorts and socks, they warm up by passing the ball around a big circle as different players take turns chasing madly on the outside. One would be forgiven for thinking the difference in class between the two teams could not have been more stark.
Despite the early start time, a decent crowd gathers. Spectators across the province have come to enjoy our bold and adventurous style, with its emphasis on width, slick passing and relentless support play. They look forward to a feast of running rugby.
The game begins. Alas, things go strangely awry. We are like an acting troupe that, on the heels of outstanding dress rehearsals, then unexpectedly fluffs its lines on opening night. Error after error allow Moody to gain a foothold and an early 7-0 lead. We lift enough to draw level by halftime, but the general malaise continues after the break. A raft of penalties cede territory to the Blues, who oblige with a well worked, trick lineout try.
12-7 down. Stung into action, we sweep downfield, finally execute the way we can. Our fullback crosses in the right corner, runs around near the posts. The easy conversion nudges us ahead, 14-12. I breathe a sigh of relief, knowing we have dodged a bullet.
If only. One last passage of play remains. We kick long, well down the field. Though the clock is in the red, the Moody centre punts the ball back. Our winger fields it cleanly near the touchline, me barking in his ear to just hoof it high into the stands.
However, years of habit, of attacking from everywhere, are not easily broken. He hurls the ball infield. Not the best pass in the world, but not the worst either. Whatever the case, the intended receiver fumbles. One of our forwards, racing back to join the counterattack, scoops up the knock-on in an illegal position.
If the referee, throughout much of the game, has shown a somewhat wobbly appreciation of the laws, he gets this offside decision absolutely correct. The Moody goalkicker, one of several excellent performers in the team, arrows the ensuing penalty between the posts.
15-14 Port Moody! It is a shocking upset, bottom seed defeating top seed. The news spreads like wildfire through the tournament complex.
The rest of the competition is a blur. Given the event format, we still have a chance to top our group, but, as things play out, we enter the final pool game knowing our fate. Dreams of completing a three-peat are nothing but dust in the wind. Sad and glum, we then watch Oak Bay, our local rivals from Victoria, go on to capture the title. The fact we thrashed them 38-9 only ten days before is of little consolation.
A week goes by. We are back home. As I do at the conclusion of every season, I reflect on what went well, what was a struggle. Look back on the highlights and strengths, and on the areas requiring improvement.
I pride myself on preparation, and so the provincial disappointment rankles. Among other mistakes, I am guilty of not scouting Port Moody thoroughly enough, and of underrating their coach, a blunt Yorkshireman whose teams always reflect his grit and stubborn nature. Certain selection gambles backfire, as do not checking the credentials and foibles of the referee, a new face to me, more closely.
At the year end 1st XV dinner, I hand out various awards. In a closing speech, I spout the usual rhetoric, lauding the players for their efforts and focusing on the many accomplishments and fine play. All the while reiterating that one loss, albeit ill timed and costly, should in no way define the season. Yet, the rather mute applause indicates that this IS exactly how the boys define it.
The captain, an understated character and a highly underrated performer, has the final word. He too thanks the team, then turns to me. He hands over a beautifully wrapped box.
I open it. Inside is an engraved trophy. The script, black lettering on a silver plate, reads
1993 SMUS Rugby
Mounted on the base is a horse’s ass.
I manage a grin, must accept the not so subtle dig with a wry smile.
Later, I walk home, again forced to acknowledge my entirely avoidable errors and careless miscalculations. The words of Alexandre Dumas-fils, the 19th century author and novelist, flood my mind.
“The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.”