With the winter sun shining down on a very familiar pitch, the UBC Thunderbirds took to the field against the McGill Redbirds in a bid to defend their reigning Canadian University Men’s Rugby Championship (CUMRC) title at Thunderbird Stadium on Sunday.
As the referee blew the whistle and called the game a little over 60 minutes later, with a score of 48-5, the UBC Thunderbirds did just that.
The team stood side by side as they were crowned the 2022 champions of the CUMRC and a familiar feeling washed over the 13 players who received the same snowy honour last year at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Izzak Kelly took a moment to reflect on his team’s consecutive successes.
“There’s a lot of talented players on the team and a lot of playmakers, but we knew that in order to win, we had to play as a team of champions,” he said. “We knew McGill was going to put up a fight, but we knew that if we came out firing and we came out and played our best, there wasn’t a team that would be able to beat us.”
Right out of kickoff, the T-Birds set the pace with a breakaway run all the way down to McGill’s end zone. The first points of the game came within just four minutes when Relmu Wilson-Valdes scored a try for UBC.
“Let’s go, Tenniel, let’s go!” echoed through the stands as Tenniel Cowen scored the second try of the game. Jack Carson followed suit, and the McGill team was left scrambling with a defence that allowed Takoda McMullin a penalty kick on top of a conversion.
UBC friends and family alike stood and cheered as the T-Birds closed the first half 20–0.
Head coach Curry Hitchborn said playing at home “means a lot. We were very fortunate with the resources we have out here to be able to do things like this.”
“It was a very validating process for all these guys, for the coaches. They put a lot of work in. For them to come away with this result validates their hard work, who they are as people.”
The T-Birds came into the second half with a bang as Kelly crashed his way through to score a try within the first minute.
Ethan Berry put up a strong defence and sent more than one McGill player airborne as he lifted and blocked the offensive line. Alastair Marshall scored twice on some impressive technical runs.
The McGill team was running on near empty while facing a team that did not know how to quit until the clock hit zero. Only allowing McGill one try, UBC kept the pressure on.
As the minutes ticked down, tempers started to flare. With a lot on the line, heated exchanges caused pauses in the game.
“It’s just a part of the game,” said Kelly. “Both teams wanted to win it, and you get some clashes of emotion. At the end of the day, we leave everything on the field. In the heat of the moment, stuff happens, and you try your best to not get into it, but sometimes it’s going to happen.”
With four minutes to go, UBC’s Callum Arnesen scored the last try of the game, and on his home turf, McMullin kicked four conversions.
UBC Thunderbird fans clapped and cheered as the team took in their championship win at home.
“I’m just so happy. We got our entire team off the bench. Everyone got minutes in the final. I’m happy everybody got to experience this moment with us ... There’s nothing better than winning with your friends,” said McMullin after the game.
While the Thunderbirds are a formidable opponent for any team, the most noticeable aspect of the team is the sense of teamwork and camaraderie that is displayed on the field. Looking down from the bleachers it’s clear that the team plays not only for the game but for each other.
“They are all very very very good friends. They are also hyper hyper-competitive. These guys are here to take jobs off one another. They are here to win games, and they are here to win championships,” Hitchborn said.
“For them to wrap themselves in that, use that as a bit of body armour so they can look after each other better, that’s what you saw out there.”