They earned the right to be disappointed, even crushed.
But from every other vantage point, the loss Saturday that the Byrne Creek Bulldogs boys rugby team suffered in the AA tier 2 provincial final was just as much a footnote for a tremendous season than anything.
How do you launch a program, from scratch with nearly no one with experience in the sport, and come a goal-line stand away from being a provincial champion?
Well, first you need coaches who are passionate and patient and the support to take that first risk. And a vision of what can be.
It’s what Byrne Creek’s Moreno Stefanon saw as the prime benefit of the whole program before it became more than an idea, and a 19-10 loss to Sir Charles Tupper in Abbotsford.
“It’s definitely been something special,” Stefanon said following the final. “It’s a testament of the buy-in from the kids. … I said the rugby part is the easy part. It’s getting kids to want to come to practice, to commit to something and want to learn something. That’s the real thing, and after that, the growth is exponential.”
It was an uphill slog, as reflected in the battle against Tupper. It was the third meeting between the two; the Tigers had the upperhand both times, winning the first encounter 44-26, then needing the last play to eke out a 31-28 decision. The Vancouver school was favoured Saturday and grabbed an early lead, scoring the first try just seven minutes into the contest on a well-executed five-pass play to the rightside of the field.
Darius Morrison put the Bulldogs on the scoreboard at the 15-minute mark when he nailed a convert, but on the last play of the first half Tupper’s Mitchell Morgan darted past a number of Burnaby tacklers to put the ball down for what would prove to be the winning try.
Byrne Creek closed the gap 10 minutes into the second half on Shafiq Zikria’s try, followed by a convert, to get them to 12-8. And about 10 minutes later, the ’Dawgs had a glorious chance to pull ahead.
They drove the ball within a few feet of the goal line but were blocked and unable to re-ignite the momentum. Tupper would minutes later turn the tables and put it away on Morgan’s second try of the day.
“It kind of highlights our season, right? We pushed, we pushed and we pushed and it was a little bit of inexperience,” said Stefanon. “We saw the line and got a bit of goal-line fever. Our boys tried to pick it and go. Any experience, if you have it, would say be patient, be patient, draw a penalty, kick for three and nurse the lead home.”
The players conceded that, while the loss stung, playing the game and being part of the team was a winning experience overall.
“It was a big achievement. We started from nothing, just a bunch of guys that didn’t know how to play rugby,” remarked the most experienced player on the roster, international transfer student Francesco Tosato. “In four, five months we ended up in the final, and for me it was a real good pleasure to play with these guys. … I’m really proud of my team, really proud to be their captain. I hope they’ll go on from this and hit hard.”
An icebag taped to his knee, Dino Demirovic said the final was heartbreaking. Making it more so was his injury, which saw him removed from the game after just a handful of minutes.
“Last time I played (Tupper) I injured my knee, and I injured it today, too. We made it here the first year of the program but we really wanted gold but got silver – we have to accept that right now. Next year we’ll come back,” added Demirovic.
“None of us envisioned this. We progressed and got better and better and now we’re here.”
What was learned through a handful of months was just how fun a new sport can be, noted Ashty Omar.
“. It was all friendship and even though we didn’t reach our goal, we still had a lot of fun. It was a great time,” the Grade 11 athlete said. “This game, we thought we could win it but Tupper’s a really good team. They have a good defence, good plays and honestly it looked like they deserved it more than we did. We just weren’t hungry enough for it.”
That it was at all was a testament of the support of the school’s athletic department, fellow coaches and a understanding wife, Stefanon said.
The rewards were in the trust and experiences and learning that every player embraced through the season, he noted.
“If you look at Byrne Creek as a school -- how do you engage kids, especially the male population, and give them a positive outlet for things? Rugby. Look at how many kids we had out – close to 100 kids this year, from Grades 8 through 12, that were doing something positive after school. That in my mind is better than winning a championship,” Stefanon said.