What’s in Front of Them?
The Brentwood Senior Boys Rugby Program staged a simulated game of rugby on Saturday, May 29 in glorious sunshine. Little was expected in the intra-squad match, which pitted upstart Grade 11s against the veteran Grade 12s and involved no tackling or contested set pieces. But the match turned out to be one of the most memorable rugby games ever played on Gillespie Field.
The idea came from Director of Rugby Shane Thompson, who was looking for a way to channel the competitive fires of his players amid a global pandemic which had cancelled all rugby for the last two seasons. Earlier this month, he split the group in two and told them to start preparing. He led the Grade 12 group and tasked his Assistant, Mr Clay Panga, with preparing the 11s. From there, they staged their independent practices, developed scrum and lineout plays, and established specific defensive and attacking structures.
Earlier in the week, hearing about the looming game, Mr Liam Sullivan ordered a Red-and-Black Day, and when it was announced at Assembly you could feel the anticipation building.
So on this particular Saturday in late May, looking out at the manicured green fields, precision laid lines, white tents, and electrified scoreboards, you would be reminded of many such afternoons when we had hosted Shawnigan or St George’s. But it was just us.
One of Mr T’s favorite coaching lines is “play what’s in front of you.” It stems from a long career playing Sevens, where scripted plays are discarded for off-the-cuff creativity and reaction to circumstance. This was in his mind when, just before game time, he presented jerseys to his game-day seniors, in their last ever game for Brentwood. In a twist of profound cruelty, where two complete seasons had been wiped, it wasn’t just their last game; it was their only game.
It was with this energy that play kicked off, Cooper J hoisting a drop kick high into the Mill Bay sunshine. And we were off. The 12s gathered and started building phases, both teams feeling each other out. They moved the ball crisply, obviously in good form from months of handling drills, and built pressure at the fringes. The 11s defended well too, communicating clearly and filling their roles efficiently, but eventually the 12s invaded close to the line, then flung the ball wide to Will Gibbs who plunged over for the try by the fire hydrant. Santino Gulino had an attempt to convert from the chalk of the touchline, but he tried a bit too hard and caught it thin, pushing it left.
From the kickoff, the 11s, led by tireless Captain Cannon F, started finding their rhythm. They capitalised off some impatient kicking by the 12s which allowed them to build pressure deep into opposition territory. Unfortunately, some miscued passes dashed their hopes of a try and the 12s were able to clear. By the midway mark of the first half, a few trends were clear: first, the defensive structure of both teams was sound and tries would need to be earned. Second, with competitive juices boiling, touches became pushes and pushes became shoves, and the referee, thinking this was going to be a regular touch game, was quickly losing control.
So much was the intensity and quality of the match that when the 12s were given a penalty on their opponents 22, their Captain Jack Naper-Ganley asked his kicker to attempt a goal. Such a decision was a tip of the hat to their opposition, and the 11s seemed to know it. While Santino was successful with the goal, pushing the score to 8-0, there was a tiny shift in momentum to the youngsters. Momentum crystallized into the actions of Captain Cannon, who soared after the kickoff, bravely gathering it for his team who then punched through several phases before getting the ball to Jacob H who, lean and mean, scythed through to score his team’s first points. The kicker missed the extras and it was 8-5 at halftime.
The second half started like the first, with steady play in both directions, some miscued kicks and 30 players giving it their all. Particularly impressive for the 11s was Trekker J, who at flyhalf hit the line flat and put defenders onto their heels, opening up space around him.
The game reached a lull halfway through the second half, with fatigue causing several unforced errors. The game needed something, and that something was Grade 11 Alec D.
The 12s were mounting a predictable attack to the left hand side, deep into opposition 22, and their centre floated a presumptuous pass, which was read beautifully - like a Melhuish Speech - by towering lock Alec D, who took off downfield. Everyone expected him to fade quickly while the chasing backs devoured him, but he kept accelerating. It took sprinter Santino covering across from the opposite wing to finally reel him in inches from the goal line, but it was too late, the dam was fully breached and it took only a few wide passes for the 11s to find Tait S in space who dived over for the try. The kicker missed the convert but the 11s had their tails in the air. They were up 10-8 with three minutes to play.
But the 12s, their last game on home soil, would not let the story end like this. They regained possession from an immense restart in which Jack Rogers leaped high into the air to gather a kick and give his team a chance. A few quick hit ups later, they slung the ball wide but the 11s were equally determined and snuffed out the chance. Eventually, they established some field position in front of the posts and scrum-half and captain Jack NG, dropping back into the pocket, called for someone to get him the ball. A slow, teetering pass found his way to him, but by that time, three hulking 11s were bearing down. Playing what’s in front of him, he fended the first and took five steps to his right, then planted his left foot and hooked his body back to the left, drop kicking the ball clean through the upright to win the game 11-10.
With the final whistle, the 12s erupted. They had played what’s in front of them for the last two seasons. They trained via Zoom, with pool noodles and ripper flags. They had hit the gym instead of each other. They had stayed positive, even when they had plenty of reasons to sulk. But on this day, they hadn’t just played what’s in front of them. They had played.
Mr Phil Smith, Referee, Allard Assistant Houseparent, Fulltime Father of Five