Rugby is back being played on pitches across the Lower Mainland – when the weather co-operates, of course – and with the sport’s return comes heightened expectations and new goals for Bayside Sharks’ men’s rugby program.
The goal? A swift return to the premier division – a spot the South Surrey-based club has not been since it was relegated down a notch to Div. 1 back in 2013.
“Absolutely, our goal is 100 per cent to get back there,” said Bayside’s men’s rugby director Andy Blackburn.
The Sharks’ program hit the field this fall with a handful of new players, but also an all-new coaching staff, led by former South African professional player Rudi Brits, who joined Bayside this summer.
“We started this process to get him over here about three years ago, and he was all set to come (last year) but then COVID struck, so that delayed things,” explained Blackburn.
Brits played professionally for 16 years in South Africa, England and France, but he’s not the only new face on the sideline that boasts an impressive rugby resume. Also joining the staff is Jesse MacKail, who will serve as a player-coach after the last few seasons as strictly a player, and two former Bayside junior players, Nick Collett and Matt Gallagher, who both played locally at the high-school level, at Southridge School and Semiahmoo Secondary, respectively.
“It’s a high-level group – an experienced group, but with some young guys, too, who’ve returned to give back to the program,” Blackburn said.
With that foursome in charge, the Sharks’ top team is winless so far this season at 0-5, but the team isn’t playing against traditional first-division competition as they normally would in the fall. Instead, the team is in a newly created league, the Coastal Cup, where they play against premier-league quality regional teams, with rosters made up of a few top players loaned from various clubs
There are no playoffs, with Blackburn explaining that it’s “a bunch of friendlies” until the new year. In the second half, which begins in January, Bayside will play in a Div. 1 loop that is made up of the premier-league club reserve teams, plus a few traditional first-division teams such as Langley and Abbotsford.
Blackburn – who noted he’s been clamouring for such a league setup for awhile – said Bayside chose to join the new league because it gives the Sharks the best road back to the traditional premier league. The BC Rugby Union ditched the promotion/relegation system in the meantime – now all teams have to do to play in the premier division is to have a desire to play there, as well as enough players to field two teams, a top squad and a reserve roster that has players talented enough to fill in with the top team when necessary.
“It’s been exciting to be back… we’ve pushed ourselves into a higher level and it’s allowed us to really test ourselves,” he said.
Though they have lost all five games so far, Blackburn said “it’s a great start.”
“We’ve lost all five but we only lost them by small margins. We’re over the moon, really, because it’s told us where we’re at. It’s told us that we’re lacking a bit of depth at some positions and we’re lacking in experience playing at that level. But every game, we’ve gotten better.
“There’s a gap – but it’s not big, and it can be bridged.”
The second half of the season – which is traditionally when games are tougher and teams better because many players take the fall session off – may end up being easier for the Sharks than the first, Blackburn suggested, because right now, they’re playing against premier-division players; after Christmas, they’ll be playing against reserves.
On the flip side, the Sharks’ second-division club – the development team, as Blackburn explained – are off to a roaring start, having won three of four games. The team’s only loss came in the first week of the schedule, and was only by one point.
In a year or so, Blackburn hoped both teams, plus a few reinforcements here or there, would be able to combine to form a group talented and deep enough to play full-time at the premier level, but deciding when to make the jump can be tricky.
“A lot of clubs have taken the leap (too soon), and you pay the price for that – you end up getting thrashed, and then your base of players erodes and you’re back to square one,” he said.
“We have the quality of players, we have the coaching staff, we just don’t have that depth yet for a second team. But fingers crossed – with this new coaching staff, our new clubhouse (set to open in the new year) and a lot of people raring to play rugby again, we might be in a pretty good position this time next year to take that next step.”