Call them the giant killers.
On Friday at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium, the Earl Marriott Mariners junior boys rugby team won its first-ever provincial title, shocking everyone at the park but perhaps themselves with a 40-36 victory over the powerhouse Shawnigan Lake Stags.
Shawnigan – a Vancouver Island private school that has arguably the country’s best rugby program – had won junior boys provincials each year since an official tournament was created four years ago.
“It was an epic win,” said Earl Marriott junior coach Bryn Johnson. “I think, for those (Shawnigan juniors), it was probably the first time they’ve ever lost a game in their Shawnigan Lake careers.
“I wasn’t surprised we won – I thought it was going to be a 50/50 contest all along, but I do think it surprised the rest of the people there.”
Marriott jumped all over their Island foes in the early stages of the title tilt, and found themselves up 14-0 midway through the first half, before the Stags stormed back to tie the game, and eventually take a 19-14 lead at halftime. However, rather than wilt against their high-powered – not to mention highly ranked – opponents, EMS returned fire, and kept putting points on the board until the lead was restored.
With just two minutes left in regulation time, the Mariners led 40-26, and though Shawnigan scored two late tries – one came on the final play of injury time – the clock ticked down before they could get any closer than four points.
“(At halftime), I wasn’t too worried because we’ve definitely been strong in the second half all year,” Johnson said. “From that point on, we just clawed away at it.”
Marriott got tries from a handful of different players, but Johnson pointed out that Takota McMullin played a key part in the victory thanks to his kicking skills.
“I don’t know how many (conversions) he ended up making, but he made a lot, and when you only win by four points, you can argue that that was the key to the game,” Johnson explained.
Dax Searle was Earl Marriott’s appointment to the Commissioner’s XV – rugby’s version of a post-tournament all-star squad.
Searle played most of the tournament at his usual flanker position, but when injuries against Shawnigan Lake necessitated some roster adjustments, he shifted to outside centre, where Johnson said he was perhaps even more dangerous.
“He was just a nightmare for Shawnigan after (the position switch), because he was out there running in open space,” he said.
“Dax was just an absolute machine. He was running hard, tackling hard – he was all over the field.”
For the rest of the provincial weekend – the triple-A senior boys bracket wrapped up a day later, on Saturday – Johnson said his crew was the “talk of the tournament” after defeating a team that, until Friday, had been unbeatable.
Earl Marriott’s senior boys, meanwhile, also placed on the podium in Abby, finishing third. A day after a tough loss to the Robert Bateman Timberwolves in semifinals, the Mariners rebounded to defeat West Vancouver 45-21 in the bronze-medal game.
Despite the semifinal loss, head coach Adam Roberts said he was proud of the way his team responded against West Van. He also gave full marks to Bateman for their performance in the 23-5 game.
“We ran into a hot team, and they were just the better team on the day,” Roberts said. “Full credit to them – they just gave us fits all game.”
Marriott was ranked No. 1 heading into provincials – they beat the eventual provincial champion South Delta Sun Devils in Fraser Valley finals last month – but Roberts said his team “punched about their weight” all season long. EMS spent the regular season in quad-A, taking their lumps against teams like Shawnigan Lake and Oak Bay before dropping back to triple-A in the playoffs.
Both Roberts and Johnson said the first- and third-place finishes combined for a great weekend for the school.
“It’s huge for the rugby program,” Roberts said. “For the juniors to beat Shawnigan… it takes a special group to knock them off.”