Thunderbirds kickoff 2015 with Wightman Boot title defence

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VICTORIA, BC – The CDI Premier League table leaders UBC Thunderbirds (6-1) will head to Victoria this Friday to open their 2015 campaign against the no.2 UVic Vikes (5-1-1). The two sides will square off in round two of the storied Wightman Boot, an annual home-and-home series between Western Canada’s elite men’s university rugby programs.

MATCH DETAILS – WIGHTMAN BOOT:
Fri. January 16, 2015
UBC Thunderbirds  at UVic Vikes (Centennial Stadium, Victoria) 2:00pm
UVic Norsement at UBC Braves (Wallace Field) 12:30pm

After 17 straight years of UVic lifting the trophy, UBC went 2-0 in 2014 to hoist the coveted bronzed boot once worn by the late UBC Coach Brian Wightman. 2015 has been a year of backing up their string of impressive 2014 accomplishments that also saw them take the World Cup against Cal as well as winning the Okanagan Spring Brewery League to earn promotion back to the province’s top flight for the 2014-15 season.

Heading into this weekend’s clash, UBC holds an 11-point advantage after dispatching the Vikes 30-19 on home soil back on October 25th. Round one featured high-octane offences but it was UBC’s forwards that won the day, winning key battles in the trenches and dominating in the lineouts and set pieces. The first half saw ‘Birds lock Connor Hamilton crash over for two tries and Brock Staller tallied a try, conversion and a penalty for the 20-7 half time lead. James Thompson would get UBC’s fourth try after the break while Staller added another penalty and conversion for the 30-19 win.

The ‘Birds have since rolled to six victories, falling just once to Rounsefell Cup holders James Bay Athletic Association. UVic haven’t lost since October 25 and will be desperate to return the Boot to the Island.

With an 11-point lead, UBC head coach Rameses Langston says the job is far from done and preparations are well underway to face a tough UVic side on home soil.

“It’s never enough to just have a points advantage heading in. On any given day UVic can put up 50 points,” Langston said. “[Our lead] is not something we are going to acknowledge because you have to head into this games as if you were down by 30. With the urgency UVic plays with and the guys they have in their program, we need to be ready.”

The two sides boast plenty of national and provincial team caliber athletes. Staller and UVic sophomore Giuseppe du Toit are tied for top scorer in the Premier table with 63 points. du Toit’s boot has been lethal with 11 penalties and 15 conversions in six games. Staller has proven he can score from anywhere on the field with four tries, five penalties and 14 conversions.

Each matchup will be crucial and Langston is well aware of the threats that UVic’s flyers pose if given room to run.

“They’re a strong 15 across the field and have key substitutes that are able to influence the game,” Langston added. “Guys like Pat Kay and Justin Douglas, if they’re available, are ones that you have to know where they are at all times. Giusseppe, Lucas Hammond and Ollie Nott are all great players. They are literally an all-star team that we need to be ready for.”

UBC’s squad has its own list of all-star talent, and the recent recruits continue to push the veterans for starting positions.

“The young guys have been brilliant and we’re very happy with their progress,” Langston added. “The reality of coaching a university program is that sometimes you will have 17 year olds playing men’s level rugby. We had a few new players in the mix last year and now this year the young guys have really added depth to our team. It’s paying dividends.”

Key recruits for this season include scrum half Cole Keffer, Theo Sauder, and Phil Berna who is currently on tour with the Canadian Maple Leafs development team. BC U18 grad Nakai Penny of Penticton has made a big impact, as have rookies Nick Allen and James Carson. Cali Martinez is also quickly moving up the ranks, having suited up in the front row for UBC in their 2014 season finale against Burnaby Lake RC.

Both squads have enjoyed some well-deserved recovery time over the winter break and will be looking to quickly shake off the rust on Friday afternoon. When asked about this week’s approach for the Boot rematch and how strong his forwards were last time, Langston remained tight-lipped about the game plan.

“All good and effective rugby teams have great forwards and that’s important as a lot of the smaller battles are won and lost there. The expectation is for our forwards to dictate and do a great job for us up front,” Langston said. “But that’s not the only thing this team can do. We’re never the same team twice.”

The UBC Braves and UVic Norsemen will kick off the day’s schedule at Wallace Field on Friday at 12:30pm in a match that will count towards the First Division Ceili’s Cup League standings. The attention will then shift to the main event at Centennial Stadium at 2:00pm for round two of the Boot series.

About the Wightman Boot
More commonly known as “The Boot”, the home-and-home series played between the province’s top university rugby programs will be in its 44th edition this year. The annual competition was named after the late Brian Wightman, who was at the helm of the Thunderbirds from 1964-1967. The trophy for the annual competition features Wightman’s boot, which was stolen and bronzed by his players. The “Boot Game” has featured the Vikes and Thunderbirds every year since 1970 with the exception of the 1978-79 season when UBC hosted Stanford. The Vikes won 17 straight titles until conceding the Boot to the Birds in 2014.

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