The BC Bears put on a completely dominant performance on home soil with a 54-12 win over the Prairie Wolf Pack in Kelowna on Saturday evening, erasing a 32-point deficit and winning the Best of the West series 60-50 on aggregate. The match took place during the rest day of the U16 Western Canadian Championships, and players from all the teams relished the opportunity to take in top-level provincial rugby.
It was the visitors who struck first, as a fantastic run from Pela Sevunivalekau gave the Wolf Pack prime field position. The Prairie side worked the ball out from the ensuing ruck to Spencer Jones, who found a wide-open Kyle Morrison near the far touchline for the try. Cory Billen kicked the ensuing conversion to score his first points for the Wolf Pack in his debut match as the visitors went up 7-0 inside 7 minutes and piled onto their first-leg lead.
The Bears wasted no time responding, pressuring the Wolf Pack from the kickoff and forcing a panicked punt to quickly recover the ball. A quick chip kick got BC nearly to the try line before a desperation tackle, but the Bears worked the ball to Travis Larsen who punched it through for five, and Brock Staller kicked his first of many conversions to tie the match at 7 apiece.
The next ten minutes were spent almost entirely on the Wolf Pack half of the field as BC pressed tirelessly to try and chip away at the daunting lead amassed by their opponents in Red Deer. Anxious to stop the bleeding, the Prairie side committed three consecutive high tackle penalties, with the Bears taking full advantage to gain field position and get to the edge of the try-line once again. Reid Watkins dove underneath the posts to give the Bears their first lead of the match, and Staller made no mistake from straight on. A few minutes later, it was Staller himself dotting down after a beautiful move to get around the lone Pack defender and converting again to cut nearly halfway into the 32-point deficit, before the Wolf Pack gained back some ground as Thomas Isherwood offloaded to Cillian Ansbro at the corner flag for the final scoring play of the first half.
In Red Deer, the Bears played well in the first half before being overrun in the second, and just as scripted, the Bears came out flying in Kelowna to completely dominate the second half of play. Not three minutes after the restart, Jorden Sandover-Best weaved through three Prairie players to score a gorgeous try, and just a few minutes later, a lineout resulted in a fantastic run from Colby Mason, who offloaded to Staller for his second try of the match. The ensuing conversion gave the Bears a 35-12 lead on the night and reduced their aggregate deficit to just 9 points. A lapse in concentration ten minutes later gave the Bears a gap to run into and they further increased their lead.
With the momentum clearly in the host’s favour, the Bears sensed an opportunity to score again and take the lead on aggregate. BC pressured their opponents relentlessly, pinning them deep in their own half of the pitch for long stretches of play. In the 62nd minute, Giuseppe Du Toit managed to dive for the near side corner flag and stretch BC’s lead in the match to 33, and Staller converted to make it 35 and give the Bears a three-point lead on aggregate in the series. The Bears got a bit of insurance in the 68th as a missed Wolf Pack tackle left a huge gap for Blake Mahovic to run into and score. Staller delegated kicking duties to Du Toit for the last conversion attempt of the game, a straight shot that Du Toit had no trouble converting as BC took a 10-point lead on aggregate. The Wolf Pack pushed hard for an equalizer in the final 10 minutes of play, but it would not come as the Bears held strong in front of their try line to secure the series victory.
“Up in Red Deer, we felt we didn’t work as hard as we could have, and that was the message this weekend, was to leave everything on the pitch,” said head coach James Thompson after the win. “Some guys played 40, some guys played 50, some guys played 80. We had 23 players that all wanted to work hard for each other. Regardless of what’s in front of you, to be able to pull out a result like that shows a never-say-never attitude.”
Brock Staller said his team was confident heading into the match, but that didn’t change how good it felt to pull off the comeback.
“We knew we could come out here and beat them by 33 if we played our structure and kept to it. We had a quick start and upped the tempo in the second half. We put the work in, and it showed today. Words can’t describe how much it means for the guys to come out and win this.”
Both Thompson and Bears captain Michael O’Toole appreciated the packed house in the Apple Bowl that spurred them on to victory.
“It was great. They really energized us, especially in the second half,” said O’Toole. Thompson, meanwhile, took pride in putting on such a great performance in front of the many U16 players in attendance.
“To be able to play a match like that in front of guys and girls that will hopefully be here one day – you couldn’t have written that script if you tried.”
All eyes will now turn to the end of August when BC will field an All-Stars XVs team to face Canada as the national team continues their preparations for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo. The match, which will take place on Friday, August 30 at Westhills Stadium in Langford with kick-off set for 6:30 pm (PST). With tickets just $10 for adults and $5 for children, this will be an incredible opportunity for rugby fans in BC to see some of the best athletes in the country go head to head. Stay tuned for information on ticket sales and live-streaming.