Champagne flowed for the Capilano Rugby Club’s elite men’s team Saturday after an epic championship victory that was clinched by a player who is not even old enough to drink.
With time winding down in the second half of the Rounsefell Cup, the provincial championship final of the Canadian Direct Insurance B.C. Rugby Premier League, Capilano was clinging to a three-point lead over James Bay when Carson Graham Grade 12 student Nathan Yanagiya charged into club history. Taking a pass on the left side of the pitch, Yanagiya chipped the ball past one defender, sprinted by to scoop up his own kick, muscled past one more James Bay defender and waltzed over the line to put the Caps up eight with little time left on the clock. The play sent the very partisan Klahanie Park crowd — so big and boisterous on the hottest day of the year that they drank the club dry of beer before halftime — into a frenzy, chants of “He’s in high school!” echoing across the grounds.
“For him to have that composure,” said Capilano head coach Tom Larisch, “to catch the ball under pressure, chip kick it perfectly to the right location so it bounces up in the air, and then not just catch the ball but actually catch it and then send off Dan Harlow — who is a high level player, played Canada sevens and stuff — to make Dan look like he was the 15- or 16-year-old and score the try. I think the crowd said it best with about 1,000 people chanting.”
James Bay made it interesting with a late try of their own but the final whistle blew soon after, giving Capilano a 22-21 victory and their first premier league title since back-to-back Rounsefell Cup wins in 2004-05.
“Unbelievable. That’s all I have to say, unbelievable,” was all Yanagiya could muster after the match, describing what it felt like to score the championship winning points in only his third game at the premier league level.
James Bay, first-place finishers in league play, opened the scoring in the match with a penalty kick from Canadian national team player Connor Braid. A try from Ron Johnston, converted by Chris Robinson, made it 7-3 Capilano and the teams then traded penalty kicks to make it 10-6 at halftime.
James Bay took their second lead of the game early in the second half when speedy international sevens player Jeff Hassler raced in for a try to make it 11-10 for the Island team. Capilano responded with a nifty solo effort from Nate Rees, catching James Bay off-guard with a quick kick and busting through tackles to touch down for a tough try. Another Braid penalty made it 17-14, setting the stage for Yanagiya’s heroic dash.
“You can’t say enough about him,” Capilano captain Charlie Jones said of Yanagiya, a standout rugby player, wrestler, and football player at Carson Graham. “He stepped in when we had a guy that couldn’t play and ever since he played he’s been seamless. Today we wouldn’t expect more of him than to play his part but he did that and much, much more. A very bright future for him.”
Hassler scored his second try of the day to make it 22-21 but that was as close as James Bay got. What could be better than a championship won in a one-point thriller?
“A 30-point win would be better,” Jones said with a laugh as his team assembled for a beer-and-blood-soaked team photo. “We made it hard on ourselves but at the end of the day we stayed playing as a team which we knew was what was going to do it for us. One point, 30 points, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Jones praised James Bay for giving his team all they could handle.
“They brought a lot more than we expected,” said Jones. “They were fighting right to the end and we maybe even got a bit lucky there, the ball bounced our way a couple of times.”
The win capped off a remarkable turnaround for the Capilano men. One year ago they were competing for — and eventually winning — the B.C. Rugby Tier 2 championship after being relegated from premier league play following a string of embarrassing losses. The relegation led to a massive culture change at the club with players called upon to make a much stronger commitment to the club and to each other.
“Coach Tom Larisch made a big change in the culture around the club — from there everything started snowballing and now we’re here,” said Jones. “We had a bunch of guys who weren’t committed, weren’t playing for each other. Now every time someone puts on the Capilano jersey they do it to play for everyone on the team and the club and this whole community.”
While the culture change got the whole club pulling towards a common goal, Larisch said he urged his players to enjoy Saturday’s final on a personal level.
“That was my message to them before the game — you’ve done everything all year for the club, today do something for yourself,” he said. “Seize this opportunity. And they did and they’ll have a lifetime memory.”
The Capilano team was made up of a winning blend of wise old veterans and powerful new talent, said Larisch.
“It’s been a long couple of years here but all of it is worth it now,” he said. “It’s awesome. I think it’s the start of something special for a few years to come. I think we’re going to be in the hunt continually now. We have a really good solid base of young guys, a lot of them played in that game. I think it was just a great way for some of our older guys to pass the torch on. They can go out happy because they’ve given everything to the club and they’ve got us back on the map. These young guys have been a part of it and know what it takes now and they can carry it forward to the next decade.”
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