Receiving the ball near halfway, the blue #12 cuts inside. Bumps off one would-be tackler, but then gets crunched, unceremoniously dumped to the ground.
Undeterred, he bounces immediately to his feet. Recovers the ball. Slithers through a seemingly non-existent gap and breaks into the open.
Seconds later, jersey untucked, he roars into the opposition quarter. Slides a delicious grub kick along the turf. Readies to chase hard as the ball bobs invitingly near the try line. A brilliant solo score appears imminent, sabotaged only by a defender who scrags him down illegally.
A shrill blast from the referee’s whistle confirms an infraction. A subsequent penalty kick bisects the posts, taking the score to 25-17 in favour of the hosts. A mere nine minutes remain in the game. Impossibly, improbably, a massive upset is on the cards.
The sequence above is just part of a recent rugby union contest known simply as “The Boot.” In its 25-year existence, this so named annual 1st XV clash between Victoria high school rivals SMUS and Oak Bay invariably excites and entertains. Throws up no end of memorable games.
May 9, 2023, proves to be no exception.
The conditions are glorious. The playing surface, firm, and with grass cropped close, resembles a billiard table. Perfect white lines, blue SMUS corner flags and post pads, complete an idyllic picture. The sun dominates a cloudless, azure sky, beating down as hundreds of spectators ring the field to take in the action.
Despite the game’s “local derby” billing, Oak Bay is an overwhelming favourite to win comfortably and so retain the Boot. Physically huge, immensely powerful, well drilled, the black and green clad Barbarians offer serious scoring threats all through their lineup. Everything points to the equivalent of a heavyweight vs middleweight bout.
Yet, as ever, sport throws up the unexpected.
Right from the start, SMUS digs in. Though starved of possession, the players put bodies on the line in a gritty, courageous display. Tackle. Get up. Tackle again. Get up. Tackle again. Limit the damage to two bulldozer type scores. Pinch one in return, out wide on the wing, after snaffling up a loose ball. Half time arrives. Oak Bay 12, SMUS 7.
Then comes twenty minutes of pure magic. While the visitors do register another tally via a series of brutal, close-range drives, SMUS counterpunches effectively at every opportunity. Two wonderful tries, both against the run of play and both converted, in addition to two penalty goals, confirm an unlikely eight-point home advantage as the game enters the last quarter.
I pace back and forth in my traditional spot behind the goal posts. Try very hard not to look at my watch. Because this will only reinforce what I already know after four decades of coaching. Namely, for a team trailing in a game, the clock seems to move at warp speed. Yet, when a team tries to husband or manage a lead, the seconds tick away agonizingly slowly. As if stuck in treacle.
Inexorably, methodically, Oak Bay turns the screws. No sense of panic, just a renewed series of frontal assaults. Wave after wave of ball carriers crash forward, gain precious yardage. Inevitably, cracks begin to appear in the SMUS defensive wall. Fingers desperately plug holes in the dyke. Yet, as one hole is filled, others pop open. A try under the posts yields seven points and reduces the lead to one.
Little errors by the home side compound the problems. A misjudged restart, a slight knock on. A lineout throw eludes straining fingers, a kick skews sideways. All combine to cede vital territory. All the while heaping on pressure as the game reaches a fever pitch.
Nonetheless, the dour, dogged home resistance lasts until the very final minute. Literally out on their feet, defenders still hurl themselves over and over and over again into tackles, rucks, and mauls. Flirt with the offside line. Scrap and scramble. Anything to force a turnover. But it is not to be. Remorselessly, like a tank punching through enemy infantry, Oak Bay reaches pay dirt one last time. 29-25, as the final whistle blows.
I gather my thoughts. My disappointment is palpable, the last-minute defeat bile in my throat and acid in my gut. It would have been a victory for the ages. Part of me wants to vent, to seek reasons or excuses as to why we fail to hang on.
Yet, almost immediately, as the two teams gather round for the traditional Boot presentation, I regain a proper sense of perspective. Acknowledge the relentless efforts of the Oak Bay team, deserved winners on the day.
Even more, I pay tribute to the gallantry, impressive resilience, and raw courage of the SMUS side. "My" side, a side which gives one of the gutsiest displays of any team I have ever worked with. And so, any gloom or dismay with the actual end result soon fades away. Instead, my heart swells with pride.
Eventually, I turn to leave. In my mind, the celebrated 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman, walks with me. He too lauds the team’s bravery and determination.
And that being the case, reminds me I should “keep my face always towards the sunshine, so any shadows will fall behind.”