Bayside Sharks’ flanker Mark Holt is sandwiched between a pair of United Rugby Club defenders during a men’s first-division game Saturday in South Surrey. Below

Bayside rugby coach preaches patience on pitch

Peter Clifford aims to boost Bayside Sharks men’s program back to former heights.

In the quest to return the Bayside Sharks men’s rugby program to the premier-league heights of seasons past, coach Peter Clifford is preaching not just just patience, but a new playing style.

The 27-year-old – who coaches both the club’s first-division and under-23 teams – is aiming to introduce to the team a more freewheeling “go with the flow” style of rugby similar to the one he grew up with in England, where he played professionally before moving to Canada.

“We want to use our fitness and play with a lot of pace,” he told Peace Arch News Monday, two days after his undermanned first-division squad lost a home tilt to United Rugby Club at South Surrey Athletic Park.

Through the first three weeks of the season, the Sharks are 2-1, with wins over Langley and Richmond.

Even training sessions are different from what local rugby players may be used to, Clifford said, adding that he has made a conscious effort to avoid practices based on what he called “American football” philosophies.

“A lot of practices are drill-based, with cones and a lot of people standing around, but I want them based on play, where everyone is moving (and involved),” he said.

“Even if we’re trying to (work on) something specific, we try to do it in a (game situation).”

Clifford’s philosophy shouldn’t be completely foreign to Bayside players – the former pro coached the men’s team two years ago, before returning for the 2016/17 season. Prior to taking the coaching reins, he was a key member of the Sharks’ top men’s team when the side played at the premier level, and was often among the circuit’s leading scorers.

At 27, he’s younger than most coaches – not to mention players – but said he chose to hang up his cleats when he couldn’t continue to play at the level he was accustomed to.

Clifford grew up playing the sport, and joined the English professional ranks at 16. He spent three years with Gloucester Rugby Club before a broken back suffered in a training session sent him to the sidelines for months.

“After that, when you’re gone that long, they kind of forget about you,” he said.

After a brief comeback attempt, Clifford said he instead chose to come to Canada, moving to the Semiahmoo Peninsula and joining Bayside after discovering the team on the Internet and deciding “that it looked like a nice play to live.”

Bayside – whose top men’s team hasn’t played at the premier level since being relegate to Div. 1 in 2013 – has gone through a slew of coaches in the last few seasons, but Clifford is determined to help grow the program.

The first step, he said, is to increase participation numbers; the team doesn’t have a second-division club this season, which makes it difficult for the first-division team to find replacement players when injuries hit.

“When we lost on Saturday, we were missing 10 players, because of injuries or guys who had other (commitments),” Clifford said. “It’s tough, but that’s amateur sports.”

A return to the B.C. premier ranks is “three years away, minimum,” Clifford predicted, but was confident the team was trending in the right direction and would only get better as the U23 players gain experience – though Clifford said they’re good enough to play in the men’s division right now.

“They’re young, and there’s a mindset that you can’t play with the older players, but in England, if you weren’t playing at the top level by the time you were 18, you probably weren’t going to, so they’ve just got to have the confidence that they can do it,” he said.

“For us, we have a lot of young guys coming up, but there hasn’t been that transitional generation to replace (former stars) like Adam Van Stavern and Pat Bickerton, who’ve retired… it will just take patience.”

Clifford admits there are challenges involved with coaching amateur rugby – he’s often left frantically calling and texting players in order to put full rosters together – but is excited for the future nevertheless.

“It’s hard work, I’m not going to lie, but there’s so much enthusiasm – from new people on the executive to players  – and everyone’s very happy.”

Bayside teams are off on a bye this weekend for Thanksgiving, and the first-division schedule resumes Oct. 15 when the Sharks head to Kelowna. The team’s next home game in South Surrey is set for Oct. 22 against the Brit Lions.

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