In their first-ever international rugby-league tournament, Canada’s U19 side finished just outside the medal table.
But they certainly turned some heads along the way.
Playing in the the two-day Commonwealth Championships in Glasgow – the event acted as a precursor to the Commonwealth Games set for later this month – Canada began the nine-a-side rugby tournament with a big upset, defeating rugby powerhouse England, then followed up later that day with another win, 24-16 over South Africa.
The Canadian side – which had eight Peninsula players on its roster – began the tournament with a 24-4 win over England that Canadian head coach Andy Blackburn, also a South Surrey resident, called “an amazing shock.”
“It was incredible. Papers all over the world were writing about us – we were the talk of the tournament,” he said.
Considering the Canadians’ relative newness to the sport – this version of rugby has only been played in B.C. for a few years – Blackburn and his troops had planned to use the tournament as something of a learning experience. Prior to leaving for Scotland, Blackburn referred to playing England as “getting thrown into the proverbial deep end.”
“Our goal here is to look ahead. What we achieve this year, hopefully we can build on in the year’s to come,” Blackburn told Peace Arch News last month.
“The success story with this is literally just the ability to put a team together… But the second level of success will be determined by how much we improve. It’s going to be a hell of an experience, but a big, daunting task.”
The locals on the roster were Earl Marriott Secondary’s Cali Martinez and Nick Wright, Semiahmoo’s Matt Gallagher, Elgin Park’s Christian Haldane, Southridge’s Drew Coles, Tim Stephens and Nick Collett, and Langley resident Gino Paolella, who plays for the Bayside Sharks.
In addition to Blackburn, South Surrey’s Mike Jamieson and Don Wright served as assistant coach and manager, respectively.
Rugby league differs from rugby-union play in that there are no scrums or line outs, and is similar to football in that each team has six attempts to move down the field and score. After the sixth attempt, the team with possession is forced to kick the ball away.
After opening with back-to-back victories, Canada was bounced from championship contention after a 26-6 loss to Papua New Guinea; the game was Canada’s third of the day.
Then, on Day 2, Canada lost a semifinal tilt to Australia, 20-0, finishing in fourth.
The Aussie side was essentially a professional outfit, Blackburn explained, as most members of the team play for the Sydney Roosters in Australia’s pro circuit.
Later that same day, the Canadians lost 20-8 to Wales, despite leading early. Canada held a slim 8-4 lead at halftime, before the Welsh side battled back to earn the win.
“We just ran out of gas by the end of the second day,” Blackburn explained.
The tournament was won by Papua New Guinea, which defeated Australia.
Blackburn figures the fourth-place finish – out of eight teams – will open new doors of competition for his team. While in Glasgow, he was approached by other countries to set up tournaments and tours next year.
“It was just unbelievable. I’ve been saying for years that Canada was made for this game, but this was just beyond our wildest dreams,” Blackburn said.