Rugby In British Columbia: An Abbreviated History
Files courtesy of BC Rugby Honorary Historian Doug Sturrock
Beginning to 1919
It is most likely that rugby got its start in BC in the late 1860’s or early 1870’s when brief mention of ‘football’ appeared in print, but most certainly it was played regularly after 1876 in Victoria by local players and sailors on the British ships stationed at Esquimalt. Vancouver’s first match was in 1887 just two years before the BCRU was organized in New Westminster. The first clubs, Vancouver, Nanaimo and Victoria, had a few home-and-home games until 1895 when the McKechnie Cup was donated for play among these three clubs. Nanaimo dropped out of the competition for a short time but when the Vancouver and Victoria Rugby Unions were organized in 1907, the McKechnie Cup matches were strongly contested. Rugby was played mainly in Vancouver and Victoria where more were organized after 1907 but Cowichan, Nanaimo, Kelowna and Kamloops also had teams briefly.
When football fell into disfavour by many United States colleges and universities in 1905, rugby became the game of choice at Stanford University, the University of California and several other colleges in California. Up to 1913, exchanges between Victoria, Vancouver and the two universities took place annually for the J. Cooper Keith Trophy.
British Columbia’s first outgoing tours were in 1893 when Victoria went to Portland and in 1894 when British Columbia went to the Midwinter Fair in San Francisco. British Columbia was a favorite destination for Anglo-Welsh (1908), Australia (1909), New South Wales (1912) and New Zealand (1913) sides before the First World War. Vancouver’s first two matches were against New Zealand in 1906 in Berkeley and San Francisco where New Zealand won both. Calgary’s visit to Vancouver and Victoria in 1912 gave better players a measuring stick for their talents.
In addition to the McKechnie and Keith Cups, other trophies were donated for competition: Barnard, Miller, Tisdall, and Province. Victoria High School was the first to field a team, but as schools opened and as boys left school, sides were organized to accommodate them. By 1914, many boys who began their rugby in school were playing representative rugby for their city.
Little rugby was played during the years of World War I when many men who had been active in the game joined the armed forces but some did play overseas for regimental sides or for the Canadian Expeditionary Force team in 1919.
1919 to 1945
Much growth occurred in this period, primarily in Vancouver and Victoria. The University of British Columbia (UBC) entered competition and Stanford renewed its connection. The California Universities and UBC contended for the World Cup, new clubs were formed and new trophies (World, Cowichan, Heyland, Rounsefell, Bell-Irving) were donated. British Columbia sent teams to California three times (1932, 1934, 1939).
Visits by New Zealand (1925), New Zealand Maori (1927), New South Wales (1928), Japan (1930) and New Zealand (1936) allowed local fans the opportunity to see local teams test quality sides from abroad. After the national governing body, the Rugby Union of Canada, was formed in 1929 its representative team contained mostly British Columbia players when it toured Japan in 1932. Ex-King George and the North Shore All Blacks led the Rounsefell Cup tally, yet UBC’s 1937 team ranks among the best.
Edmonton and Dalhousie University made Vancouver a destination and UBC traveled by train to Montreal, Hamilton, Toronto and Winnipeg for matches in 1930. On Vancouver Island, Victoria College and military entries like Navy, Fifth Brigade and Canadian Scottish were stiff competition for Oak Bay and James Bay. The Howard Russell Trophy (Victoria) and the New Zealand Shield (Vancouver and District) became the major school trophies.
Organized club competition was suspended during the years of World War II though a few matches occurred.
In the years before professional ice hockey and football dominated the sport pages in winter, rugby received its fair share of coverage in the Vancouver and Victoria newspapers. The McKechnie, Rounsefell and World Cups were much prized by its winners. British Columbia ventured once again to California in 1947. UBC was very strong immediately after the War and Vancouver’s Kats began a 15-year domination as the most-feared and talented senior side. Kats successful tour to Japan in 1961 was a groundbreaker as they, a club, had been invited by the Japan Rugby Football Union.
Other countries continued to send prime teams to British Columbia, such as Australia (1948, 1958), Queen’s University (1953), Oxford-Cambridge (1955), Barbarians (1957), British Lions (1959, 1966), Yawata Iron and Steel (1960), New Zealand Universities (1962), Japan (1963), Scotland (1964), Fiji (1964) and New Zealand (1954, 1964, 1967). Canada’s team to the United Kingdom in 1962 was dominated by British Columbia players and when the Canadian Rugby Union was re-formed in 1965 BC’s Bob Spray was its first president.
Inter-provincial competition in 1958 and 1959 set the stage for British Columbia’s 1959 Japan tour and the 1966-1995 Carling Bowl and Labatt Trophy match-ups.
A season’s end seven-a-side tournament was first held in Vancouver in 1956 for the Spray Cup and the Jack Patterson Memorial Trophy was first awarded in 1964.
Unprecedented growth took place in this period. New clubs emerged outside the lower mainland, new unions (Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, Okanagan Mainland, Central Interior) were formed to oversee competition in those areas and new trophies (Dunbar, Japan, Brockington) were donated. The Canadian national men’s team played more matches at home and abroad, for which many British Columbia players were often selected. With airlines now the preferred method of long distance travel, touring overseas became commonplace for clubs and schools. UBC’s one-month tour of the eastern United States and across Canada in May 1969 was the first of its kind for a British Columbia side. James Bay established a record of seven Rounsefell Cup victories from 1974 to 1980.
When Canada played touring international teams at home British Columbia was often included in the match calendar. New Zealand (1967, 1972), Australia (1971), Wales (1973), Barbarians (1976), Japan (1976) and England (1982). In addition, first class overseas teams discovered that spring was a Mecca for their year-end tour: Middlesex, Bridgend, New South Wales, New South Wales Country, Cardiff, Aberavon and Newport. British Columbia made four tours in this period, to Japan (1970), England and Wales (1976), Western Samoa and Fiji (1978) and California (1982).
The 18 acres of land purchased by the BCRU in 1967 was never developed and eventually sold. The Union hired its first employee, a Development Coordinator, a handbook was soon produced and summer games competitions for regional age-groups were initiated.
Referee societies in Vancouver and Victoria initiated referee exchanges. Club and school tours, both incoming and outgoing and too numerous to mention in this article, reached an all-time high. A boys’ provincial high school championship started in 1971 and under 17 and under 19 teams were started in some clubs. When the Canadian under 19 inter-provincial tournament was first held in 1976, British Columbia was its first winner.
The huge growth of women’s rugby, the introduction of mini-rugby for boys and girls and age-group championships demonstrated the diversity of people now playing the game. An executive director was hired, a supporter’s club took an active role, the West Coast Women’s Rugby Association was started and sponsorship was sought and welcomed by clubs and unions. Seven-a side tournaments sprang up in the least likely of places like Cowichan, Whistler, Williams Lake, and coaching jamborees became an annual event.
BCRU sent its senior men’s team to England and Wales in 1988 and then celebrated its centenary season in 1989-90 hosting international teams from Australia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand and Wales B. The New Zealand under 21 tour became an annual one. As a result of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, a new premier division for the very best players was introduced. The beginning of the National Super League, the most recent winner being Vancouver Island, spelled the end of the Labatt Trophy competition.