Mar 15 2014 028_webSome great early season rugby graced the fields of Merritt on the weekend, as the Kamloops Raiders and Kelowna Crows squared off in a Division 1/2 women’s match at Voght Park on Sunday.

The two British Columbia Rugby Union sides were forced to move their scheduled league game to Merritt when the fields in their respective communities were deemed not yet ready to play on.

A good-sized crowd of 60 to 70 people came out to watch the women’s game, which was played under mostly sunny skies with relatively moderate temperatures.

Adding to the lustre of the event was the presence of two players on each team with strong ties to Merritt.

Wearing the purple and yellow colours of the Raiders were flank Kalea Nokleby, who played four seasons with the Merritt Secondary School Panthers, and centre Jess Oldenberg, who has lived in the Nicola Valley for the past two years while working at one of the local veterinary clinics.

Suiting up for the Crows were flank Emma Graham, also a former member of the MSS Panthers, and wing Aliyah Rodominski, a recent convert to rugby after playing soccer for four seasons at Merritt Secondary.

In addition to competing for the Crows, both Graham and Rodominski are members of the UBC-Okanagan Heat women’s rugby team.

Despite Sunday’s game being the first and second games of the season for the Crows and Raiders respectively, both sides played a spirited brand of rugby with lots of hard running, efficient passing and aggressive tackling.

The Crows emerged from a rugged first half of action with a narrow 7-5 lead, thanks largely to some strong play by their forward pack.

Former Merritt Secondary School rugby player Kalea Nokleby (with the ball) played for the Kamloops Raiders on the weekend in Merritt. Ian Webster/Herald

Former Merritt Secondary School rugby player Kalea Nokleby (with the ball) played for the Kamloops Raiders on the weekend in Merritt. Ian Webster/Herald

Kelowna added another try early in the second half to go up by seven points.

Things got tough for the team from the Okanagan shortly thereafter, as they lost one of their players due to injury. The Crows not only had to continue with just 14 players (they had no subs), but they had to play all scrums ‘uncontested’ (in essence conceding ball possession each time).

The Raiders took advantage of their opponent’s misfortune and scored a try of their own with just three minutes remaining in regulation time.

Oldenberg’s successful, long-range convert from almost the right sideline deadlocked the game at 12-12.

With less than a minute to play in the match, and the referee indicating last whistle, the Crows executed a series of impressive passes to run the ball the length of the field and score the game-winning try. They nailed the convert as well for good measure. The final score was 19-12 for Kelowna.

“We have some really key players on our team who just live and breathe for the sport,” said Graham. “They just refuse to quit.”

Graham also gave credit to the Crows’ new head coach, South African Shaun Oosterhuizen, for the victory.

“He’s amazing,” she said. “He has such a great attitude, and has 100 per cent belief in us. He’s very invested in the team emotionally.”

Nokleby, who had a very strong game for the Raiders, admitted that her team may have underestimated Kelowna a bit.

“They played us tough, a lot tougher than we expected. We have a lot of rookies this year, and I think today’s game was a bit of an eye-opener.”

Graham and Carroll attend CIS Nationals with UBCO Heat

A pair of former Merritt Secondary School rugby players took part in the Canadian intercollegiate seven-a-side rugby championships, held on the March 7 to 9 weekend in Langford on Vancouver Island.

Emma Graham and Sam Carroll were members of the UBC-Okanagan Heat women’s and men’s teams respectively at the national university championships which saw participation by 17 different schools from across the country.

“It was a great experience,” said Graham, 19, who was taking part in her second Nationals. Last season, she saw very limited action at the Canadian championships due to an injury.

MSS graduate Emma Graham played for the UBC-Okanagan Heat at the CIS national 7s championships on the March 7 to 9 weekend in Langford on Vancouver Island. Photo courtesy of Cary Mellon/UBC-O Athletics

MSS graduate Emma Graham played for the UBC-Okanagan Heat at the CIS national 7s championships on the March 7 to 9 weekend in Langford on Vancouver Island. Photo courtesy of Cary Mellon/UBC-O Athletics

Day one went quite well for Graham and her Heat teammates as they won two of their three games. They defeated the University of Regina 29-5 and Mount Royal from Calgary 34-0. The Heat’s only setback was in their opening match — a hard-fought 17-5 loss to the University of Victoria.

“[The first game] was kind of a wake-up call,” said Graham. “After that, we played much better.”

Day two did not go quite as well for the Heat women’s side as they lost all three of their games: 17-0 to Toronto’s Humber College, 12-7 to the University of Victoria and 21-0 to York University.

“The weather [on the second day] was miserable,” said Graham. “Cold and wet. We had a lot of trouble with the slick ball and slippery ground. It just wasn’t something we were used to.”

Over on the men’s side of the competition, the 23-year-old Carroll was thoroughly enjoying his first time at the National 7s championship.

“Going into it, I had no idea what to expect, but I had a ton of fun. I even got to start in our first game.”

Unlike their female counterparts, the Heat men’s squad had an easy time of it in their opener — defeating the University of Vancouver Island 29-0.

“That was a good matchup for us,” said Carroll. “It helped get our heads into it and gain some confidence.”

The Heat men lost their second outing, 15-5, to the University of Calgary Dinos.

MSS grad Sam Carroll also played for UBCO. Photo courtesy of Cary Mellon/UBC-O Athletics

MSS grad Sam Carroll also played for UBCO. Photo courtesy of Cary Mellon/UBC-O Athletics

“We’ve played them three times in the last three seasons in the final of the Hindson Cup,” explained Carroll. “We won the first one, they won the second, and we won again this year. We know their boys pretty well and have quite a rivalry with them.”

The Heat improved their record to 2-1 on day one with a 15-10 victory over the University of Regina in their final outing.

After a disappointing 14-7 loss to the University of Waterloo to start day two, the Heat finished off with a pair of impressive wins — 15-0 over Calgary and 21-7 over Mount Royal. Their 4-2 record earned them first place in the third tier playoff grouping.

“The Waterloo loss was a tough one for us,” said Carroll. “We were up 7-0, but got back-to-back yellow cards in a span of a few seconds. We had to play shorthanded, five players to seven, for almost two minutes. They managed to score twice against us during that time.”

Both Graham and Carroll admitted that training for the National 7s championship was difficult through the winter months. Most of the preparation consisted of workouts indoors, and lots of time spent in the gym.

“[Both teams] also tried to get to the indoor turf field in downtown Kelowna once a week if possible,” said Graham, “but it’s expensive to rent.”

While the Heat men’s team had to settle for simple scrimmages against each other prior to Nationals, the women’s squad did play a trio of mini-games against UBC-Vancouver in February to work the kinks out.

“They pretty much slaughtered us,” said Graham, “but we improved with each game.”

Playing for the UBC-Vancouver Thunderbirds was Haley Glendinning, another former MSS rugby player. Glendinning, who also plays for Burnaby Lake in the B.C. women’s premier league of rugby (along with yet another former Panther, Emily Young), was recently selected to the Western Canadian university rugby all-star team.

While college rugby has wrapped up for the season, both Graham and Carroll will continue to play through the rest of the spring and into the summer.

“I’ll be playing for the Kelowna Crows in 15-a-side rugby until the end of May,” said Graham. “After that, there’ll be some fun summer tournaments that a bunch of us will go to.”

Carroll will concentrate on seven-a-side for the remainder of his season.

“We have an unofficial tournament team we call the Tartan Blazers,” he said. “It’s mostly just a bunch of the Heat players who like to hang out together. We’ll go to some friendly sevens competitions and have a lot of fun. It’s a way for us to keep our hands on the ball.”