A coaching career stretches into its 40th year. A mixture of rugby and basketball, mostly at the high school level. Add in various university, club and representative fixtures and the total reaches somewhere north of 2500 games. Many more wins than losses, though plenty of both. Inevitably, there are high and lows, pressure and tension, joy and heartbreak. Yet, for a large part of my life, I enjoy the best seat in the house. Watch dominating performances, fantastic finishes and sterling comebacks. Observe, up close, superb athletes strut their stuff.
Still, while the people involved over the years remain relatively fresh in my mind, specific contests, even the championship seasons, dim with the passing of time. The vast majority of these are now almost an irrelevance.
However, in the same way a grizzled detective cannot quite ever let go of a particular unsolved case, I do have one game I will never forget. To this day, the ending sticks in my craw.
Victoria. May 2013. The SMUS 1st XV, fresh off capturing the coveted “Boot” vs cross town rival Oak Bay, readies for the upcoming provincial AA rugby tournament.
I love this group of young men. They are talented, but, in their own way, over achievers. Smart, funny, supportive, tenacious, competitive, coachable, they do everything together. Soccer, basketball, rugby and more. Thoroughly enjoying what a high school athletic experience can and should be.
Even though we enter the BCs as a #3 seed, we are very much a long shot to win. On our side of the draw, at the semi-final stage, a physical, powerful, well drilled Collingwood side stands in the way.
We prepare accordingly. Any type of arm wrestle or close quarter slog will make life difficult. We need a bold, adventurous approach. Run from everywhere, use our speed and find space. Move the ball back and forth across the field.
The game begins, and, as if in a dream, we execute to perfection. The midfield flummoxes Collingwood’s rush defence, mixing inside balls with long floated passes over the top to unmarked wingers. Our halfbacks perform bravely in the face of enormous pressure. A gutsy pack of badly undersized forwards, held together by glue, tape and will power, gets barreled regularly at the scrum and the breakdown but never shirks its tasks. Time and time again the players fly fearlessly into the danger zones.
On a beggar’s ration of possession, we conjure up three wonderful tries. Convert them all, add a penalty goal. Tackle heroically. With eleven minutes to play, we lead 24-13.
Then comes a pivotal moment. At a ruck near the Collingwood 22-meter line, our scrum half spies an unguarded blind side. He sells an outrageous dummy, then scoots untouched up the left touchline. Not a defender in sight. I watch in rapture as, with just steps to go, he prepares to touch down for what surely will be a game deciding tally. The body language of the retreating opposition players suggests they know they are beaten.
Then, the whistle blows. For whatever reason, the referee brings play to a sudden halt, signals a scrum to Collingwood back on the 22.
The momentum shift is tangible, our opponents gifted a new lease of life. With the SMUS forwards almost out on their feet, the Cavaliers up the ante. Playing with great force, with renewed belief and composure, they continue a punishing frontal assault. Finally, they smash their way across the try line. 24-20 after the extras.
Less than two minutes now remain. The large Rotary Stadium crowd is at a fever pitch. The clock takes forever to wind down, but finally ticks into the red. Collingwood secures the ball just inside the SMUS half. Our defensive line bends ominously but does not break. Looks to force a knock on or claim a turnover. Still, after a seemingly endless number of phases, the opposition #8 gets away, trucks up the sideline. The game appears lost. Yet, somehow, our diminutive fly half, giving away close to 100 pounds in weight, flies across and hammers the ball carrier into touch at the corner flag.
Time for one last lineout.
We are prepared. We have a special option saved just for a moment like this, a formation Collingwood has not seen. Their players are disoriented and uncertain of who and where to mark up. Two stand in clearly illegal positions.
No matter. The throw is spot on, the lift and catch are perfect. We secure the ball.
Then horror. The plan calls first for a lineout drive, and only then a back pass for a clearing kick. Our fullback, possessor of a siege gun right boot, awaits.
Alas, the forwards release the ball early to the scrum half. An exhausted and inexperienced SMUS player, not involved in the actual lineout, finds himself trapped in the passing lane. The ball deflects off him, skitters sideways, loose in the try zone. An alert Collingwood flanker, though palpably offside, pounces quickly for the go ahead score.
I am gobsmacked. First, a perfectly good try is disallowed. Now, the game winning score is allowed, despite any number of opposition infractions going undetected.
The conversion is a formality. 27-24 Collingwood. For SMUS, crushing disappointment.
I shake hands with the opposing coaches, both long time friends. They offer their sympathy, sportingly accept their good fortune.
I search out the referee to inquire about the non-award of our fourth try. The one which would have almost certainly sealed the game. His explanation is less than convincing.
The SMUS players are distraught, even though they have every right to be proud of their ambition, grit, and resilience. My attempts to console them meet with little success.
I retreat to a wooden bench high in the corner of the grandstand. Seek to quell the bile in my throat and the acid in my gut. Collingwood plays well, but, on the day, we play better. We deserve to win. Two critical refereeing errors, in my mind at least, are major factors in the result.
I want desperately to vent. Want someone, anyone, to sit close with me, talk to me about our game plan, our performance. To confirm the skill and courage shown by the players. To curse Lady Luck. To commiserate. To join me in castigating the referee, even though, deep in my heart, I know that to blame officials is only a reflection of one's own inadequacies.
And so, I sit alone. Bitterness and frustration eventually give way to a gloomy sadness. With a sporting truism driven home.
Namely, that while victory has many parents, defeat is an orphan.