James Mckinstrie picked up the ball out of a scrum and took off blindside down the left side of the field. He ran 40 yards before the Vernon defenceman caught him, and then popped the ball off to teammate Carl Nattras just before he was tackled to the ground.
Nattras sprinted into the end zone to score the first try of the game, the provincial rugby finals against the Vernon Jackals which the Terrace Northmen went on to dominate 55-22.
“It was awesome!” said forward Mike Homeniuk. “Sweeping the whole league, and then provincials… and winning in Montana [at the beginning of the season]… I’ve never had that with any team I’ve played on… and we were challenging ourselves.”
Homeniuk said they played big teams both in Montana and at the provincial Saratoga Cup on Sept. 17-18, where he felt the team executed its game extremely well.
“We were beating them on all fronts. They weren’t close games,” he explained, adding that the Northmen were much more fit than their opponents.
The Northmen play in Division III rugby, and Homeniuk said one referee told them they could compete at the premier level. “I think he was just patting us on the back more than reality, but he literally said that he reffed a premier game the weekend before and that we’d be able to give them a run for their money,” Homeniuk said.
The Northmen earned the provincial qualification through an undefeated league season against Williams Lake and Prince George.
Homeniuk said that rugby had died off in Terrace in 2000, but since 2007 recruiting and rebuilding the team has now paid off, particularly in how players understand the game.
“We used to have great athletes [but] they just didn’t have a clue about rugby, but now that’s no longer the case,” he said. “Our guys understand rugby and we know what we need to do. It’s becoming [more and more fun]… and the team camaraderie is just phenomenal.”
Team captain Walker Main said that provincials represented another wave of uncharted waters for the team, but players had two months to train after their regular season ended.
“We didn’t know what to expect from the other teams we were going to face,” Main said. “All we knew was that we were going to train as hard as we could, with the time we had, and be prepared to face anybody that came… just play our game and not worry about [our opponents].”
In the first game the Northmen tackled the Penticton Harlequins, a team with a strong forward pack, and large, built players. “It was probably the toughest pack we’ve gone against,” said Homeniuk. “It was a real battle in the front.”
Main said that the team struggled a bit at first, facing those bigger players, but the Terrace playwers able to adjust and stay in the lead for the whole 80-minute game. “Once we got our feet wet, we started excelling and getting the ball out to the backs and going on some runs,” Main said.
They held Penticton off from scoring all but one try, and established their victory with a strong lead in second half, taking the game 31-5.
That placed them in the finals against Vernon Jackals, who had beaten Cranbrook the day before.
Again, they had a skilled team of strong, big-built players who outsized the Northmen, but Homeniuk said the Northmen were aggressive and hungry, and not intimidated. They got off to an early start right out of the gate, Main said, and were ahead 21-0 after the first 12 minutes.
In a write up of the game, BC Rugby boasted that the Northmen displayed excellent backline play. “The Terrace backline had strong ball carriers and speed throughout, and were able to play with continuity, setting up some beautiful long distance tries,” it said.
Main agreed, saying Vernon had “a stud backline” who dominated on both offence and defence. “We had guys that could just take the ball and will themselves through the opposition,” he said, adding that the backline was complemented by a proficient forward pack who executed smooth passes to set up the plays.
Besides the big-built opposition, another challenge the Northmen faced was adjusting to more strict refereeing. The Northmen are not used to that because northern referees get very little experience, so in the final game, players took three yellow cards and one red card for high tackles and offside.
“We were a little over aggressive with our tackling,” Homeniuk acknowledged. “It wasn’t dirty tackles… we are just not used to the tight reffing down there.”
The Northemn are talking to BC Rugby about finding grants to bring certified, experienced refs for northern league games.
With thanks to their sponsors, coaches and players, Main said the team wraps up the season with an awards ceremony Oct. 1, and will gear up again in May for another year.