Members of the Westshore Rugby Football Club gather for a photo after the national senior women’s 15s team’s win over Ireland at UCD Field in Dublin last month. From left are national team director Meghan Howat

Westshore rugby players take game to next level

Senior and junior players compete internationally for Rugby Canada sides

Westshore Rugby Football Club teams may have had mixed success this fall season, but the club has had some definite highlights on an individual basis in recent weeks.

A total of nine Westshore players: four women and three men, and two junior men, have competed internationally of late after being selected to Rugby Canada national 15s teams.

One of those players was flanker Clay Panga, recently back from a tour in Europe that saw the senior men’s side play matches against Ireland and Romania in those countries and Samoa in Grenoble, France.

“It was a great experience,” he said, adding the 0-3 record was not what the team hoped for. “It was great to build (our teamwork) and we’ve got the (Americas Rugby Championship) coming in February, so we’re working towards that.”

Panga was joined on the tour by Valhallians clubmates Ryan Kotlewski at tight head prop and fellow flanker Kyle Baillie.

Meanwhile, the world No. 2-ranked senior women’s 15s played three matches in an eight-day stretch in Great Britain, with matches in Ireland against No. 1-ranked New Zealand, and the host country, plus a match in London against England. On the roster were Westshore Valkyries veterans Barbara Mervin at flanker, Latoya Blackwood at second row, Emily Belchos at fly half and new Westshore club member Elissa Alarie at wing/scrum half.

The women defeated Ireland, played to a narrow loss to the Kiwis and lost to England, who Canada had beaten earlier this season.

And the club’s juniors were involved in international play, with fullback Logan Martin-Feek and centre Quinn Ngawati playing for Canada’s under-19 men’s team for some matches in the U.S.

Westshore club president Mark Wyatt, a former longtime men’s national team player himself, says having a number of individuals represent the club with the national team program is positive on a number of different levels.

“The short answer is it’s invaluable, on a number of fronts,” he said. “You’ve got these players who are capable of playing at an elite level, and that raises the standards of training. In order for an athlete to improve in any environment, you’ve got to be surrounded by people who are performing at a high level.”

The national teamers, who are all quality individuals as well, Wyatt said, not only serve as role models for adult players, but to youth as well. “They see playing for the national team is a viable option.”

From a competitive recruitment standpoint, having Westshore players in the men’s, women’s and junior programs experiencing on an ongoing basis the high level of play and coaching of national program helps attract new players, Panga said.

“The fact that we’re attracting that caliber of player is massive,” he said.

Having the Rugby Canada training centre in Langford brings players from all over the country to the region to train and live. And when they get here they’re expected to play at an elite level when not on tour with their respective national teams.

That means competing in the B.C. Premier League in the winter and spring. South Island teams like Westshore, James Bay, Castaway-Wanderers and UVic compete on the Island in the fall to qualify for the premiership. Each puts their best possible lineup out on the field – all four clubs list national teamers on their rosters – to ensure they get there.

This fall the powerful Valkyries women made it through but the Valhallians men failed to qualify for the elite league.

Wyatt said the “relegation” rule that B.C. Rugby uses to determine which teams advance to the premier division in the new year is widely seen amongst the clubs as not lending itself well to the development of players in this province.

There is movement afoot to change it moving forward, he added, but not for this year.

Of the Westshore premier clubs, he said, “The women are in a class of their own and they continue to produce, which serves as a real drawing card for bringing young women to the sport.”

On the men’s side, he said, “we’ve been competitive in most of the games, but for a variety of reasons we’ve just not been able to stick it out for the entire 80 minutes. Our personnel is a little thin in some areas, but it’s all part of the growing pains of trying to get settled here. We figured there would be a two- or three-year period before we got competitive.”

Both Wyatt and Panga see that as a temporary setback, noting that growth from within, especially in the junior ranks, is what will ultimately grow the club and allow it to become more competitive long term.

For more information on Westshore RFC and its programs, visit westshorerfc.com.

editor@goldstreamgazette.com