It’s rare that a rugby team that has played in eight consecutive Fraser Valley championship games would enter a ninth as an underdog, but that’s the situation the Earl Marriott Mariners senior boys team finds itself in as it gets set for a gold-medal tilt this week.
On Thursday evening at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium, the Mariners – winners of six of those previous eight Valley title tilts, including four over Yale – will square off on the pitch against the rival Yale Lions for the banner. And despite the Mariner’s long run of success, EMS head coach Adam Roberts told Peace Arch News Monday he expected Yale to give his group its toughest test of the season to date.
Earlier this spring, the Mariners lost a high-scoring regular-season home game to Yale, 50-26.
“It seems like every year we play them in the final, but this year, they beat us in the regular season pretty good, so we’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up this week,” Roberts said. “Other years, when you’ve had a lot of success early in the season, it’s easier to go into a game like this feeling really confident. But this group hasn’t quite had that yet, so we’ve got a bit of that underdog mentality this time.
“We just had to really go at it hard in practice this week, to get ourselves ready to go.”
The Mariners advanced to their ninth Valley final after winning a semifinal game last Thursday at home, 24-7 over another Abbotsford squad, the W.J. Mouat Redhawks.
Heavy rain pelted the field during the majority of the contest, which Roberts said helped keep the score lower than it maybe otherwise would have been.
“That rain was just incredible – a torrential downpour – and it kept the game close, but I feel like if we’re playing on a nice, dry, sunny day, our offence can really put up points and run with anyone,” he said.
“It’s just a question of getting dialed in, so we’ll see how it goes (this week), but I’m very optmistic about what we can do.”
While a strong offence will be important if EMS hopes to keep pace with the potent Lions’ attack, Roberts said his team’s continued improvement on the defensive side of the ball will be the key.
Against the Redhawks, the only points the Mariners gave up came on one play – an 80-metre run in which the Abby ball-carrier “just outran everybody,” Roberts said.
“But other than that, they just couldn’t crack our defence – we played really strong. That’s something we’ve worked alot on, because (earlier in the season), we struggled a little bit.”
Confidence, the longtime rugby coach added, will also play a role in whether Marriott is able to bring another rugby banner back to the South Surrey school.
“Our confidence now is kind of getting to the point where the guys are finally starting to believe in their own abilities. Last year, we had such a strong group of Grade 12 leaders, and the Grade 12s this year have just taken a little bit longer to kind of assert themselves and play with some confidence,” he said,
“But they’re starting to now, so hopefully that can translate into a win on Thursday. It’s going to be a tough, uphill battle, but I think if we can come out strong and kind of catch them off-guard, we’ll be good.”
Though the lopsided loss to the Lions earlier this season is still fresh in their collective memory, Roberts expected his team will be as prepared for the upcoming rematch as they’ve been for any game yet.
“These kids play with a lot of pride, and they know the history (of success at Fraser Valleys),” he said. “They know all about what has come before them, so they want to make sure they step up to the plate and kind of leave their mark on the program, too.”
While the winner of Thursday’s matchup will win a banner, the winner will also earn a less-than-ideal trip into the quad-A provincial championships, where they’ll face off against powerhouse programs like multiple-time B.C. champion Shawnigan Lake, who dominated the triple-A level for so long that the new four-team quad-A provincial tournament was created, with the remaining teams playing in the larger-field triple-A B.C. championships.
Last year, EMS beat Yale in the Fraser Valley final, and got the boost to quad-A, while Yale ran the table at the triple-A level en route to a B.C. championship.
“The winner goes up, so pick your poison,” Roberts said. “But that’s still what we want. It’s where we strive to be every year, right in the mix with the top four or five teams in the province. Right now, we’re knocking on that door, we’re pretty close.”