Fall 1974. Only 46 years ago. Yet, various memories from my senior year in high school remain vivid.
The old pavilion has seen better days. The walls are rough and stained, the wood floor uneven. A window in the corner has been smashed, shards of glass held by brown packing tape. The 1st XV gather in a circle, linked tightly. For some, a quiet confidence, others, nerves jangling, less sure. Charlie, our captain, gives final instructions. The excitement builds and the tension grows.
Outside, pumped up students, having just completed their own games and still proudly sporting their gold jerseys, form a human tunnel. They join in the Viking style thunderclap, stamping, shouting and crashing hands together in an increasingly frantic rhythm.
Finally, the dam of emotion can hold no longer. The players explode from the pavilion, negotiate several rickety stairs down to field level, sprint through the lines of rabid supporters, then burst on to the main pitch.
This pre-game ritual is not new to me. In fact, for a decade I have been part of it, part of similar BC Independent Schools (ISA) rugby afternoons, either participating as a highly impressionable youngster or after playing at junior level. Shawnigan is our school. Today, as the 1st XV fly half, I have a responsibility to perform well. To orchestrate the attack and kick the goals.
In one sense, I have already spent thousands of hours preparing. Growing up on the school campus, I watch countless games. I know the field and its surroundings intimately. The late autumn colours, yellow, burnt orange and red. The towering fir trees, and when they will block the sun. The ramshackle perimeter fence, chipped and peeling. Every blade of grass. Every soft spot, every line and every angle.
Today, there is much at stake. St. George's, from Vancouver, is the opponent. Stylish in red jerseys, white shorts and white socks, the squad brings plenty of swagger, fresh off winning the provincial fall tournament. A big, abrasive forward pack and an array of polished backs clearly plan to add the ISA cup to their trophy case.
Still, we remain confident. Though somewhat undersized, we are well prepared. DHL, my father and our coach, has long emphasized fitness and execution of core skills. An ambitious, up tempo game plan suits our personnel. He wants us to have a crack, to attack from everywhere as the situation allows.
I collect the brand new, leather Gilbert from the referee. Compared to the worn, heavy balls we use for practice, it is light to the touch. It is easy to handle. And it travels considerable distances when kicked, always holding its line.
The whistle goes. Saints are as good as advertised, putting us immediately on the back foot. Their star centre opens the scoring early, slicing through a narrow gap to dot down. 6-0 after he adds the extras.
From there the game rages back and forth. No quarter sought or given. We put together some neat passages of play, but the visitors scramble well. We do manage two penalty kicks but then concede another try on the stroke of halftime. Down 10-6.
While a third penalty immediately after intermission draws us to within a single point, St. George's then ramps up the pressure. Slots a three pointer of its own, then adds a third tally to lead 17-9 with ten minutes remaining.
Lessons from my father swirl in my mind. To stay calm, to read play and analyze options, to communicate, to execute properly the kicks necessary to turn the Saints’ aggressive defence.
Finally, a breakthrough. A long diagonal finds open space. Bounces kindly. Our speedy right winger fastens on to the ball, crosses out wide, runs around near the posts. The try narrows the deficit to four points. 17-13 with the conversion still to come.
And I botch it. Just flat out miss the sitter. I am furious with myself. Now we still need another try just to draw level. With then a convert to win.
Two minutes left. Though hemmed in our end, we slip a tackle, pop a pass. Cross midfield, secure quick rucked ball. The short side is momentarily unguarded. Our scrum half scuttles up the touchline, draws the last man, releases the fullback. The noise reaches a crescendo as he dives over the try line, next to the corner flag. 17-17.
I step up to take the deciding kick. The clamor is replaced by a deathly hush. I have a chance to win the match, for our team, for my teammates, for the school.
In my subconscious, I hear my father’s voice. Stick to routine. Block out distractions. Two deep breaths. Be steady and on balance. Four steps back, three steps forward.
Thunk. I make a solid strike. With the trees a backdrop, the ball rides the October chill, then tumbles end over end towards the right hand goalpost. I twist my body, more in hope than expectation, beg the ball to turn ever so slightly. But it refuses my exhortations, slipping inches wide of the upright.
Then comes drama. The referee admonishes the Saints' players. Unbeknownst to me, several have shouted loudly as they race from the goal line to pressure the conversion. I am to attempt the kick again.
Now I feel real stress. I have failed twice in a row. A third consecutive miss will be particularly crushing.
I again go through my routine. Make decent enough contact, though the ball, losing some velocity, settles on the same line as before. I despair.
Then, a miracle. At the very last moment, the new Gilbert, the ball that never varies in flight, that always holds its course, improbably decides to duck left. It crawls over the cross bar as the touch judge flags go up. 19-17 Shawnigan. Final score, and pandemonium as our fans invade the field.
A long time has passed since that memorable afternoon. The fence and a number of the trees are gone. The field is gone, now a state of the art artificial turf. And the pavilion is gone, replaced by a swanky new building.
My father is gone as well. Still, his words of wisdom, his summary of the retaken kick, won’t leave me anytime soon.
“Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good" he tells me.