Earl Marriott’s Rhys McMartin keeps a firm grip on the ball as he’s tackled by a pair of Oak Bay defenders during a game last week.

Earl Marriott’s Rhys McMartin keeps a firm grip on the ball as he’s tackled by a pair of Oak Bay defenders during a game last week.

Rugby changes don’t alter outlook for Earl Marriott side

‘We still want a banner every year’ says Marriott senior boys rugby coach Adam Roberts.

This year’s high-school rugby season “has been a bit of a weird one” for the Earl Marriott Mariners, according to senior boys coach Adam Roberts.

And it has the potential to get stranger yet – or different, at least – by the time provincial championships kick off in late May.

The South Surrey team – which sits No. 5 in B.C. AAA rankings – has cruised through much of its regular-season schedule so far, but due mostly to scheduling issues, hasn’t yet tested itself against the level of non-conference competition as in previous seasons.

“We have so many league games, we had to cancel (an exhibition game) against St. George’s,” explained Roberts. “And we played Port Moody in a league game, and won 79-0 with our seconds in the lineup.

“The kids are still having fun, and enjoying the game. I just don’t know that it’s been ideal for our team’s development.”

Making this season even stranger is the fact that one of the team’s traditional rivals, the Semiahmoo Totems, are not fielding a senior boys team this season. Their absence means the Sandcastle Cup – the prize for winning the annual springtime grudge match between the two schools – will be uncontested, and stay at EMS another year.

Another team in the zone, South Delta, also moved to a lower division, leaving EMS and others with odd gaps in their schedule.

“It’s too bad, it’s upsetting because rugby can be such a volatile sport (at the high-school level), but hopefully they come back,” Roberts said.

On the flip side, however, Elgin Park – ranked 10th in the province – has moved up to AAA’s first tier, and will present the Mariners will one of their better challenges of the season when the two teams square off later this month.

Playoffs will be different this year, too, after the BC Secondary Schools Rugby Union agreed to add a 4A division to this year’s provincial tournament, which will run May 25-28 at Abbotsford’s Rotary Stadium.

The winners of four regions in AAA – Vancouver Island North, Vancouver Island South, Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland – will be boosted into a four-team 4A tournament for playoffs.

The reason for the switch was to address a longtime problem with competitive balance at the boys AAA level. For more than a decade, the AAA provincial tournament has been dominated by two schools – Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake, and Vancouver’s St. George’s, which plays in the Lower Mainland zone.

One has to go back to 2002 to find the last time a team other than those two won a B.C. title.

“It’s a good idea, for the betterment of rugby,” said Roberts, who said he’s been a longtime proponent of such an idea.

“Now, you’ve got a lot of teams who will have a better chance at that AAA title. Before, you knew one of those two schools was going to win – the finals were (anti-climactic).”

For a team like Robert’s Mariners, however, it means a Fraser Valley championship brings with it a strange reward – a date with the big dogs in the 4A division.

That said, Roberts didn’t think any top Fraser Valley squads would ‘tank’ the regional tournament in order to stay in AAA provincials.

“Of the programs that could win (Valleys), I can’t see any of them doing that. They won’t,” he said. “For us, we still want to win a Fraser Valley banner every year. I’ve been here for 10 years, and we’ve won six of them, and by the time my time at Marriott is up, I want to have a lot more.

“And finishing anywhere in that top tier, when you really look at it, it means you’ve had a better season than whoever wins at AAA. That 4A division is super prestigious.”

If EMS, or any team, is to win the Fraser Valleys, they’ll likely have to go through the defending champion Yale Lions from Abbotsford.

The Lions defeated EMS for the title last year, ending a string of titles for the Mariners that ran from 2009 until 2014.

“They’re a very good team again this year, and we have a great rivalry with them. Those games are a lot of fun,” Roberts said.

Roberts said his young players haven’t paid much attention to the new provincial format, nor does he think they’re overly concerned about it.

“Kids just want to play. They’ll play anyone at anytime, and go out there and enjoy the sport and try to win. They don’t care about this stuff,” Roberts said.