Bayside Sharks’ Spencer Thorpe stiff-arms a would-be Abbotsford Rugby Club tackler during a Div. 1 men’s playoff game last Saturday. (Don Wright photo)

Bayside Sharks’ Spencer Thorpe stiff-arms a would-be Abbotsford Rugby Club tackler during a Div. 1 men’s playoff game last Saturday. (Don Wright photo)

‘Underdog’ Bayside Sharks prepare for rugby semifinals

Bayside’s men’s rugby team ended a five-year playoff drought with an upset win over Abbotsford.

The last time that the Bayside Sharks’ top men’s rugby club qualified for the playoffs, current head coach Peter Clifford was on the pitch as a player.

For many longtime Sharks such as Clifford, that game – a 36-24 loss to the Vancouver Rowing Club in the 2012 Div. 1 championship game – has at times felt further in the just five years, as the men’s program in recent years has moved through a rebuilding process which began 2013, when the Semiahmoo Peninsula rugby team was relegated from the B.C. premier circuit to the first division.

But the half-decade post-season drought came to an end last Saturday, when the Sharks – who snuck into the first division’s final playoff spot largely on account of bonus points accumulated throughout the regular season – made the most of their return, upsetting No. 1-ranked Abbotsford by a 47-25 score.

Abbotsford had spent the fall schedule playing at the premier level, and by Clifford’s estimatation, the Sharks’ hadn’t beat the Valley squad “for five or six years, at least.”

“It was fantastic. They beat us by five points (in the regular season) and we were massive underdogs,” Clifford told Peace Arch News.

“This is a team that played premier in the first half and were leading (Div. 1) standings all spring, but we just came out and blitzed them pretty good in the first half and they couldn’t recover.”

Now, the Sharks will look to serve as giant killers yet again when they travel to Nanaimo Saturday morning for a semifinal tilt against the Nanaimo Hornets, one of the Vancouver Island league’s top clubs.

Trevor Nelson opened the scoring for the Sharks, with his try capping a series that began with an Abby turnover and continued with a “long, punishing run” by Cali Martinez before the trio of Logan Smith, Alex Ferguson and Zach Koitka chewed up yardage before getting the ball to Neslon in the corner. Ferguson converted the try to give the team an early 7-0 lead.

Not long afer the Sharks opened the scoring, the Abbotsford crew began rouding into form, eventually scoring an unconverted try to bring the score to within two points.

Bayside responded quickly, however, with Spencer Thorpe rumbling across the line for a major score – again, converted by Ferguson – to boost the Sharks’ lead to 14-5.

In the later stages of the first half, Abbotsford scored a penalty kick and Thorpe added his second try of the half to give the Peninsula team a 24-8 halftime lead.

The offensive outburst continued in the second half – for both clubs – as the team’s traded scoring opportunities and points, highlighted by a surprise drop-goal from Ferguson. Later in the half, Abbotsford began to pull the score closer, eventually bridging the gap to 35-25.

The comeback, Bayside president and team member Kaj Briscoe said, left many supporters “finding their hearts in their throats.”

Clifford said such a momentum shift might have sunk his team in previous seasons, but that was not the case Saturday. Instead, Bayside scored two more late tries to seal the win.

“The whole atmosphere of the team is different,” the coach explained. “A few years ago, there were a lot of people getting angry at each other on the pitch, yelling at each other – just kind of falling apart if we’d get a try against us.

“Now, it’s the complete opposite. When Abbotsford starting coming back at us, we just went right back at them.”

Clifford said a renewed commitment to success – from both players and the coaching staff – has also played a part in the team’s resurgence this season. The team played at a .500 level during the regular season, he noted, but training participation had more than doubled compared to last season.

“It’s taken more of a commitment, but it’s been massive. At the start of last year, I think we were only getting six to 12 guys out at training, and now, I think the lowest number I’ve had is 25,” he said.

“We have a different approach to playing this year. Instead of just showing up and playing, now we meet before the game, I have a presentation I give to the guys. We’re just trying to treat it more professional. A little bit more strategy, a little bit more pre-game (work).”

Reflecting back on his playing career – and specifically, that 2012 championship game – Clifford said last weekend’s playoff win reinvigorated him, and he hoped it would spur his team to more postseason success.

“I’ve come off the bench to play five or 10 minutes a number of times this season – just to help out when we’re short players,” he said. “But Saturday the first time I really wished I was out there.”

Looking ahead to semifinals, Clifford said he expected a challenge just as daunting as the one his side faced last time out.

“They’re a good club with a lot of supporters. We’re going into the unknown… going into the lion’s den,” he said.

“It’s going to be hostile, and they’re big boys over there. I’ve watched a lot of footage of them to prepare, and they’re big and relentless… so it’s going to be a struggle.

“What I don’t want is for the guys to get complacent and think, ‘Oh, we beat one of the best teams so this next one should be a breeze.

“We’re underdogs in this one, too.”

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