They came in as a dark horse, but the senior boys team at Malvern Collegiate finished Ontario’s rugby championship with a flash of silver.
Undefeated in Toronto, the Black Knights knew they would face another level of competition when the OFSAA rugby finals kicked off in Hamilton on June 5.
Reaching the final game against Saltfleet Secondary two days later was a first in Malvern history – and to get there, the Knights had to power past schools that held the Ontario title in 2013 and 2014. The last time Malvern even made it to OFSAA was six years ago.
“It’s kind of surreal that we made history at a 100 year-old school,” says Alexander Mathers, the team captain.
“Last week, we were unranked, and now we were fighting for first in this province.”
Rugby has strong roots at Malvern. About a third of this year’s senior team plays with the Balmy Beach Rugby Club, and most graduating players have played for Malvern since Grade 9, Mathers included. Still, he said, no one was expecting a record season.
As the only school in the top four without any fifth-year players, Malvern had no size advantage, either.
“We had people playing positions opposite guys 100 pounds heavier than them, stepping up and making some game-changing tackles.”
What Malvern did have was a strong knowledge of the game, said head coach Doug Underwood, who coaches alongside assistant coach Paul Myers.
“We can play the game in a lot of different ways, and I think that’s what surprised people at OFSAA,” he said.
Malvern’s first big surprise came in game two, when they eliminated Bill Crothers Secondary 10-6.
While it’s difficult to rank teams provincially, Crothers entered OFSAA as the number-two seed. Malvern was tenth.
“I don’t think anyone said it out loud, but I don’t think any of us had too high hopes,” said Mathers.
Malvern drove hard from the first whistle – an aggressive start played a big role in their opening 20-12 win over Banting Memorial.
They seemed to catch Crothers off-guard, but Crothers fought back.
It wasn’t until the last five minutes of the game that Malvern’s Dylan Young managed to make a down-field charge that secured their second victory.
“I think after that win, we realized, ‘We just knocked off the number-two team – this is happening, this is possible,” said Mathers.
“We were flying when we came out against Brantford.”
Malvern actually played Brantford Collegiate on the same day as the Crothers game, late in the afternoon. A big thunderstorm struck just before, soaking the field.
It was in the early minutes of that semi-final that Malvern showed some of the game smarts Underwood talked about.
Hunter Knifton made a couple of surprise kicks – “heady plays,” said Underwood – kicking the ball into empty space and trusting his teammates could recover it.
Thanks in part to the soaked field, Brantford had trouble corralling the ball. Malvern found it, scored, and by the first half they had a 10-0 lead.
But just as Crothers had done, Brantford came back fighting. And unlike Crothers, Brantford tied it.
Normally, the 10-10 tie would have been settled in overtime. But under OFSAA rules, teams can only play two full games in a single day. So, the ref said, the semi-final would be decided on kicks.
“When he said ‘kicks’ the anxiety built up for all of us,” said Mathers. “We just put faith in Dylan.”
Dylan Young was Malvern’s best kicker, but he had missed some earlier in the championship.
Young made all three of his kicks. Brantford made two.
“Ice-water veins,” is how his coach put it.
It was a squeeze, but Malvern had made the OFSAA final against Saltfleet Secondary.
“We’d heard the whole tournament that Saltfleet was a superpower,” said Young. “They hadn’t lost, and almost no one had scored on them.”
For the first half, it looked like Saltfleet would make it all the way to OFSAA gold without a single try scored against them. Malvern missed a good chance early on, which sapped some momentum, and Saltfleet opened up a 15-3 lead.
“The guys never gave up,” Young said, which showed when Malvern finally landed a try on Saltfleet in the second half. In the end, Saltfleet took the game 32-8. But Malvern had left their mark.
“We’ve had some good years previously, and my expectation almost every year is to win the Toronto championship,” said Underwood.
“But these guys really went above and beyond when we got to OFSAA. It was really satisfying to see that.”