In 2016 the B.C. Secondary Schools Rugby Union created a new AAAA super tier that would consist of only the best four or five senior boys teams in the province battling for top bragging rights in what is most likely the toughest rugby region in the country.
North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Eagles have been in or near that elite group since its inception, but they’ve never really pushed their way to top of the heap. This season, however, the Eagles are in the thick of the fight.
Last Wednesday Carson Graham announced their intentions loud and clear with a 22-19 win over St. George’s School at Klahanie Park. The Saints were ranked No. 1 in the province coming into the match, having already scored a win over perennial private school powerhouse Shawnigan Lake, while the Eagles were ranked No. 3, with wins over Oak Bay, the defending AAAA champs, and Earl Marriott.
The win over St. George’s moved Carson Graham up to No. 1 in the rankings, a place that the Eagles have always been gunning for, said head coach Glen McKinnon. He credited Carson Graham athletic director Ryan Kerluck, a former player himself who has been heavily involved in the rugby program’s resurgence as a coach, with getting the Eagles back to their normally lofty perch.
“When Ryan took over we had a conversation and we were both of the same mindset,” said McKinnon. “Carson has got such a strong tradition of being a top-four team in the province almost every year. It started with Doug Barker back in the ’90s and then Tom Larisch kept it going through the 2000s. To kind of get back to that mountain top and get back to that consistent level of competing with these teams every year and getting the wins – it’s nice to be back.”
In last week’s matchup, St. George’s scored an early try, which gave McKinnon a small concern that the Saints were going to run away with it.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect out of the guys going into it,” he said. “Within about five minutes St. George’s scored a try and I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ But 10 minutes later we were right back in it and actually leading 7-5.”
Austin James, Iain McTavish and Ethan Smith scored tries for the Eagles to put them up by seven points with about 15 minutes to go. The Saints, however, came roaring back, tying the score 19-19.
Carson kept on pushing, forcing a late turnover and putting on enough pressure to earn a penalty in the dying moments. With less than two minutes to go Smith, the team’s captain, stepped up and nailed the kick, giving the Eagles the win.
“It’s exciting – the kids love it, it’s huge, they know what it means,” McKinnon said of beating the talented, tough and well-drilled Saints. “I knew we had a chance going in there, I knew we had a good team. It was nice to see the boys come together and play. … The boys kept hitting those guys hard and making them pay every time they ran the ball.”
Smith, playing the No. 9 position, is the team’s leader on the field, said McKinnon.
“He’s been electric all year for us,” he said. “As soon as I watched him on the field and watched those kids playing, I knew right away that this would be the best team I’ve coached for Carson.”
Austin James is another standout, following a strong family line that includes father Mike James, a former pro and national team player, and older brother Quentin, who is currently playing in France. Other standouts include bruising forwards Iain McTavish and Mahyar Hosseini and backs Graeme Marr and Tal Williams-Wood.
The Eagles are ranked No. 1 now, but McKinnon knows there is a long way to go before a champion is crowned. They’ll have to face the Saints at least once more, and before that rematch they’ve got other concerns, including Shawnigan Lake coming to town for a match this Friday starting at 4 p.m. at Klahanie. McKinnon is hoping his team realizes its full potential when it’s all said and done.
“I think we can win it all,” he said. “The boys, they’ve got to stay focused and finish the job. Last year it was kind of the same thing – they won their first game and then they beat Saints over at their place, and I think they kind of rested and they thought they were better than they were at that point. They didn’t finish the job, they didn’t keep working hard. I actually questioned them on it this year, told them they better not relax. We’ve got to start working twice as hard.”