Marius Felix Recounts His Memories of the Vancouver Island Crimson Tide as a Player and Coach
I was delighted to get a message from John Lyall and Mark (McRugby) Bryant about a request to write a portion of the Crimson Tide history, both from a players and coach’s perspective.
I had the good fortune to play on the Tide from 1983-1998. In 1998 I was the Tide forwards coach working in partnership with Tony Medina. We flew to Nova Scotia for the Rugby Canada Super League final vs the Nova Scotia Keiths and Tony told me to suit up and be ready just in case there were any forwards injuries. As it turned out Ben Trevena broke his leg - now forever known as Benny Benny Broken Leg- more on that later - and I had to play about 10 minutes at the end of the game. As I had spent considerable time with old friends at the Split Crow Pub the night before, it was a long ten minutes!
1997 was my last full season as a Tide player, but I am claiming 1998 too! When Tony became the Head Coach in 1997, he asked me to assist him- an opportunity I welcomed, seeing it as a way to give a little back to a team that was such a privilege to be a part of for so many years. Tony and I knew each other well at Cowichan where the club had great success so I was delighted to accept his offer. There was some symmetry too - Tony coached Cowichan to a BC Premier Championship in 1997 and I followed him in that capacity the next year and that team repeated. Similarly, Tony and I coached the Tide from 1997-2003 and I followed him as the Head Coach in 2004, winning the Tide’s last of 4 Rugby Canada Super League titles.
1983-1997- A player’s perspective
The Crimson Tide Rugby Team was highly regarded well before 1983 and many great players wore the jersey with pride and distinction. The twenty-one year span from 1983-2004 has often been described as a “purple patch” of success for the Tide. While I cannot recall the number of McKechnie Cups the team won during that stretch before the emergence of the Rugby Canada Super League, I certainly know the Tide won many. A key and vital element in the Tide’s success was the coaching the team benefited from. During this era, every coach (other than Tony Medina) had also been a Tide member during their playing careers and so held a deep respect for the team and the legacy. Tillman Briggs, Gary Johnston, John Davies and Derek Hyde-Lay, Alun Rees, Gary Johnston again, Tony Medina and finally Marius Felix and Ian Hyde-Lay brought their own unique approach to the team and shared a passion to produce teams that played attractive and exciting rugby.
The 1980’s were marked by highly competitive matches between the four teams who played for the McKechnie Cup- UBC, the Fraser Valley, Vancouver and the Tide. There was also incredible parity between these teams and often, a McKechnie Cup Final would be viewed by BC and National Team selectors as an unofficial trial match.
It was also a time when Island Rugby was blessed with no less than 7 first division teams - JBAA, Castaways, Oak Bay Wanderers, Cowichan, UVic and Nanaimo, with Velox joining later in the decade. In addition nearly all of these clubs had 2nd and 3rd teams and highly functioning junior teams. This was a key factor in developing players and it was from this foundation that the Tide selectors were blessed with true player depth.
The team fielded numerous current, former and emerging Canadian internationals on any given day and these teams were formidable opponents, regardless who they faced. Indeed, the Tide faced some of Britain’s top teams, including a match vs Scotland that was eventually won by the Scots in the dying moments of the game (BC gained a large measure of revenge the following week when they defeated Scotland, sporting a large continent of Tide players on the day). Indeed, emulating the Tide’s famous win over Cardiff in 1977, the Tide enjoyed an historic win vs English Club Champions Harlequins, much to the Brits chagrin. That match featured a massive punch up during which Leonard Carson absolutely cranked one of the Quin props, who was not able to complete the game.
Numerous other high profile teams visited the Island during the 80s and 90s, including (in 1984) Heriots RFC, sporting the famous Milne brothers in the front row (Iain, David and Kenny). Iain, a Scottish and British Lions international, after the match said Gary “Duke” Dukelow was one of his toughest ever opponents. They would renew their rivalry when the Tide played Scotland in 1985 and Duke was part of the BC team that secured a famous win over Scotland that year. East Japan toured in 1985, and the Tide earned a good win. The following week, BC did the same at Swangard Stadium in Vancouver, again with a large contingent of Tide players in the team.
As a raw and inexperienced player in 1983, what I remember most are the people who played for the Tide. The 1983-84 Tide team was full of national and provincial team players - Hans “Dutchy” de Goede, Larry Cheung, Gary “Duke” Dukelow, Roy Radu, Paul Vaeson, Ron “Tuna” McInnes, Rob Frame, Mark Wyatt, Evan Jones, Tommy Woods, Jamie “Hooper” Hawthorn, Denny Sinott and Paul Monohan.
Tillman Briggs coached in 1983 and Gary Johnston, supported by Captain John Poole, was the manager, both former Tide players ran the squad in 1984. We were also fully supported by the extraordinary skills of athletic therapist Dan Devlin, who was with the Tide for many years. Isobel Grondin followed him with similar expertise and would later distinguish herself with the World Rugby Organization as a leading authority on head injury prevention and management.
While I had played against all of these players as a member of Cowichan RFC, playing with them was an eye opener - the pace of play, the speed decisions were made and the skill was impressive. An example of this was written in the Times Colonist by Max Low, who wrote a story on the Vancouver vs Tide match played in November, 1983. Both teams were unbeaten at this stage of the competition. He wrote, "The Island forward supremacy in the loose was emphasized midway through the second half when a trio of the up-front heavyweights went on a running and passing rampage that ended up in a brilliant try. Brad Miles started it, Gary Dukelow was there to take the pass and Ron McInnes collected the ball last to dive over the Vancouver line. So impressive was the tricky running and particularly the passing that it prompted one fan with a loud voice to suggest “Put them in the backline next time!
That game also featured the depth of the team. For this match, regulars Murray Allan and Mark Wyatt were injured. To address this, Guy Prevost moved to #10, Kane Straith started at fullback and Peter Boyle in the centre. All three played excellent games, with Boyle scoring the first try of the match after some nifty running and Straith taking on the kicking duties in Wyatt’s absence. The Tide won the McKechnie Cup in 1983, capping off the competition with a hard-fought win, 14-7, over Vancouver.
1984-5 and 85-86 saw another pair of impressive campaigns for the Tide, as well as some powerhouse touring teams visiting the Island. During the McKechnie Cup competition, the depth of rugby talent on the Island was well-utilized by coaches John Davies and the legendary Derek Hyde-Lay of Cowichan. John (JD) established a game plan based on uncompromising forward play and Derek (DHL) leveraged that forward proficiency and had the backs playing with flair and tactical precision. Newcomers to the Tide included Max McDowell, Ian Hyde-Lay and Mike Moss from Cowichan, Tim White, Tim Anderson and Mark Cardinal from James Bay, John Oleson from Nanaimo, Steve “The Ox” Thompson from the Castaways and Doug Grey from UVic.
The campaign was another success, with the Tide securing the championship. Although the squad dropped a decision during the campaign to Vancouver, the team regrouped to win their other matches, winning the final vs the Fraser Valley with a 50-13 scoreline. The Tide also secured the Inter-Branch Championship in Victoria, defeating the Toronto side in the final. The spring and summer saw three top class sides visit the Tide. Japan East visited in April, 1984 and the Tide earned a keenly contested win. Herriots RFC from Scotland edged the Tide 14-3 in a May encounter and English Champions Bath defeated the Tide in August.
During the Japan East post match function in the JBAA clubhouse, the Japanese players saw several of the Tide players partaking in some Copenhagen chewing tobacco. They were fascinated and several insisted on trying it, in spite of the language challenged warnings issued. One of the Japanese props took a particularly large wad. It took about 15 seconds for him to realize the mistake he made and he bolted to the washroom to relieve himself, much to the delight of his teammates!
In May, 1985, Scotland toured and played the Tide in Victoria. Scotland edged the Tide 20-10 by scoring twice in the dying moments of the match when Scot Captain David Leslie scored a try. BC gained a large measure of revenge the following week in Vancouver, defeating the Scots with several Tide players on the field.
The Tide also toured to the Caribbean in the summer of 1985, winning all of the matches they played. John Davies, John Poole and Barley Logan (in place of Derek Hyde-Lay who was unavailable) led the trip. The purpose of the tour was to help the development of rugby in the region, but the most memorable event off the field involved Mark “Toasty” Cardinal, the mercurial and talented JBAA hooker and Max McDowell, the quiet but granite tough centre from Cowichan. On an off day from matches, a harbour tour was organized by the local rugby union for the Tide. Plenty of beer and rum drinks were on offer and not surprisingly, the players and coaches enjoyed the hospitality. For reasons unknown, Mark and Max were beaking off at each other, likely fuelled by the warm weather and cool drinks and Mark clearly took the banter a bit too far. The end result? Max tossed Mark over the side of the ship, a 20-30 foot plunge, into shark infested waters! As the ship circled back to collect Mark, players were taking side bets on whether Mark would become a quick afternoon snack. For his part, Max claimed, with a smirk on his face, that he was unaware of the potential dangers!
Good natured club loyalties were always simmering under the surface amongst the Tide players and plenty of good natured ribbing was part of the player experience. Tony Arthurs, a UVic, Velox and Tide stalwart with a clever and often acerbic sense of humour, wrote about John Davies. Quoting Tony, “I was privileged to play under John Davies’ non-partisan coaching regime for a couple of seasons and I always got a kick out of his sideline cheerleading. Well done Marius! Well done Hydes! Well done Mossy! Well done Pat Kyle! Well done Max McDowell! Well done Cowichan...er the Tide!
John, in addition to his ability to prepare the team so effectively, had his own good natured humour. For a game vs the Valley, John selected Steve Thompson at lock at the expense of yours truly. Steve proceeded to have a blinder, scoring two trys. After the match, JD labeled Steve as “Two Tally Thompson”, directed primarily at me, adding, “How can I select anyone other than the Ox after such a sublime performance?
” Once his playing days ended, Steve went on to a fine career in government, acting as the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations for the BC Provincial government.
Alun Rees took on the Head Coach role in 1986 and enjoyed several years in that role. In addition to the Mckechnie Cup competition, the Inter-Branch Championship continued, a step to help develop and identify highly competitive players for Provincial teams and the National team. Alun’s coaching style was rooted in playing an expansive and high-paced game. Not surprisingly, his son Gareth was a key member of the team before he went to Oxford and later Wasps and was the fly-half of the Tide who won both the McKechnie Cup and Inter-Branch Championship, played in Montreal.
The trip to Montreal was a memorable one. The Tide was matched up against the Montreal Cariboux, Quebec champions, in the final. The game was an intense encounter, eventually won by the Tide 16-9. Team Captain Rhodri Samuel, who had an incredible knack of living offside and rarely getting caught, was lucky to finish the match. One of the Montreal locks kicked a young Tim Sinclair in a ruck, and Rhod retaliated swiftly with an impressive shot to the offending player. Unfortunately, the ref saw the retaliation and called Rhod aside, preparing to send him off. Rhod readily recognized the ref’s Welsh accent and as only Rhod could do, started a friendly banter with him in Welsh - likely asking him which village he was from and how many people they knew in common. Remarkably, the ref allowed Rhod to carry on with only a stern warning. I believe Rhod provided a few pints to his countryman after the match! The post-game festivities were also memorable, and two incidents in particular stood out. In a pub, the team settled in to have a few quiet ones. After several pints and in celebratory mood, some genius convinced John Poole to remove his lower leg prosthesis, which was promptly filled with beer. Naturally, every player had a sip - a unique experience to say the least! Later in the evening, for reasons unknown, Alun offered up his top dentures and we played either soccer or some form of hockey with them on the dance floor. It is unclear if they were cleaned before returning to their proper use!
Matches between the Tide, Vancouver and the Valley teams were often intense encounters. The Valley clubs were producing outstanding players like John Thiel, Gord McKinnon, John Cannon, Ross Angelusi, Pat Cochrane, Ron van den Brink, Mike James and Mike Schmid and the quality of these Valley teams made for highly competitive matches. Vancouver were able to rely on the traditional powerhouse club teams. The Lomas, Vancouver Rowing Club, UBC Old Boys, Capilano RFC and Ex-Brits all produced powerful teams and excellent players. Pat Palmer, Matt Kokan, Ian Stuart, Andy Wilson, Glenn Ennis, Bill Sullivan, Robin Russell, Chris Tynan, Scott Stewart, Ian Cooper, Richard Bice and Al Tynan to name a few added to the high level of rugby being played.
A Tide staple during his playing days was Mark Wyatt, who enjoyed a stellar career at UVic (longest UVic career in history??), a stint with the Bays, as a founding member of Velox and of course, the Tide, BC and Canada. Some of his memories of the Tide are below:
1. A few top memories about the brand of rugby we tried to play and memorable wins/matches we had (Harlequins and Scotland matches for example) I recall that for the most part our brand of rugby was driven by the coaching staff. What was unique, is that we had a very talented group of individuals who were capable of adapting to almost any style of play. In the early and mid 80s the Tide was made up of quite a few National Team players and it was a formidable team. There were so many great matches and I think back to Scotland and Cardiff as being very memorable. The McKechnie Cup pitted the best of the province against one another and I really enjoyed that series as we were able to strap on the boots with guys we played against week in and week out. In the late 80s and as Canada was emerging on the international scene, there were many more opportunities for players to evolve at different levels. The Tide began to evolve as well; more players were provided with the opportunity to “play up”.
2. A couple of funny stories about the characters we played with.
That is a very long list of individuals and moments. However, a personal favourite was playing against Cardiff in Nanaimo and midway through the second half, I chipped a ball through and hit the gap only to be grabbed by their 10 (a Welsh International – Davies, Edwards, Gareth, Johnathan, something). Annoyed by the fact I may have scored, I swung my elbow trying to get free and he did not let go. I turned and squared off and was the first to land a solid knock with my number 10 purse, and down he went. Within seconds I had 3-4 Cardiff guys firing punches at me as I retreated – none did any damage and I was quickly bailed out by my guys. When the dust settled, the injured 10 stood up and he was cut badly, full left eyebrow opened up and bleeding profusely as those tend to do. After receiving a few half-hearted threats from the Cardiff players, the game ended somewhat peacefully. Within 10 minutes at the post-match function, two of the Cardiff front row players came over and handed me a pint, winked and said, “I wish it had been me that had done that”!
Between 1983-2004, Tide players who went on to represent Canada were Hans de Goede, Larry Cheung, Gary Dukelow, Roy Radu, Paul Vaeson, Ron McInnes, Rob Frame, Mark Wyatt, Evan Jones, Tommy Woods, Jamie Hawthorn, Denny Sinott, Paul Monahan, John Robertson, Marius Felix, Mike Holmes, Bobby Ross, Gareth Rees, Mark Cardinal, Ian Hyde-Lay, Pat Kyle, Ian Gordon, Tony Arthurs, Andrew Heaman, Norm Hadley, Tony Healy, Chris Whittaker, Jason Penaluna, Winston Stanley, Chal Smyth, Gareth Rowlands, Pat Dunkley, Troy MacDonald, Roger Robinson, Rob Card, Mike Danskin, Rob Robson, Kevin Wirachowski, Derek Daypuck, Ed Fairhurst, Freddie Asselin, Jared Barker, Jeff Williams, Mark Lawson, Aaron Abrams, Josh Jackson, Gregor Dixon, Chad Plater, Stan McKeen, Shane Thompson, Mike Pyke, Tyler Wish, Brian Collins, Derek Daypuck and Dave Spicer- an impressive group from one regional team. Apologies if I have missed anyone- let me know if I did.
The Canadian Super League and Coaching
Now sadly lacking from the Canadian rugby landscape, the Rugby Canada Super League, brainchild from the irrepressible and visionary Karl Fix, was a fantastic development tool for Canadian Rugby, as was the Inter-Branch tournament that preceded it.
I hope it has been noticed that Chile, who defeated Canada in October thus ending Canada’s run at the Rugby World Cup, has benefited immeasurably from a South American Super League, exposing hundreds of players to a higher brand of rugby and in turn, developing players who can shine at the next levels. That is a far cry from the “high performance” programs in Canada, which have seemingly ignored the immense value of club and school rugby for years, to the significant detriment of the Canadian game. There are fewer players playing rugby in Canada at clubs and schools and those numbers continue to diminish. The great value the Canadian Super League provided were opportunities to play representative rugby outside of club rugby, with players getting an opportunity to improve their game.
At the peak of the league, there were 11 teams. 11 teams x 24 = 264 players - depth that the national team could and did rely on. Today, that depth and development is sadly missing. The MLR in Toronto provides scant opportunity when compared to the far greater number of players who cut their teeth in the Super League.
Curry Hitchborn’s efforts in BC may be the tip of the iceberg in re-establishing a more robust development system for the Canadian game and there is a great deal of work that needs to be done to meet that end, if the Canadian establishment is prepared to do the hard yards work and make the financial investment to make it happen.
The other player development opportunity is in USport. That model has certainly served the Canadian Women’s Rugby Program to great effect. There are 19 varsity status women’s teams under the USport umbrella. I hope Rugby Canada would consider partnering with USport to establish fully funded, professionally coached programs in as many university men’s programs as possible. It is no surprise that UBC, UVic and Queens have benefited from this model and there is no doubt other programs would too. It is no secret that a more competitive environment develops better players.
Forget about New Zealand - simply look at what Chile, Uruguay, Spain and Portugal are doing. In each example, those countries have benefited from strong club leagues and university programs and then as a result elevated opportunities for the best club players to get better once their club seasons are completed. Canada is currently in Europe and last week played and lost to Portugal, further evidence that the rugby community here in Canada needs to come together and re-establish the rich club and high school rugby cultures that once existed which in turn will fuel and support player development.
The Tide’s role with the Super League was significant, winning the championship in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2004. Equally significant were the other champions - The Rock (3) the Fraser Valley Venom (2), the Saskatchewan Prairie Fire (1) and the Calgary Mavericks (1). This illustrates how successful and broad this league was, played each summer between 1998 and 2008. Since the demise of the league, nothing of any substance that engages a broad base of players has replaced it and as such, less player development has been the cost.
Tony Medina was the Head Coach from 1998-2003, and I assisted him with selection and in prepping the forwards during those years. The rugby played by all of the franchises was of high quality and as I had mentioned, was a highly competitive environment for up and coming players, current national team players and former test players alike.
Tony’s Aussie roots encouraged fast, positive, skill based rugby and the teams he coached delivered. What was special about not only the Tide, but the other teams in the competition was a willingness from the players to make the commitment to their respective teams, often in addition to their club commitments or in the case of the BC teams, during the summer months. Many BC based players would return to their home bases to play for their Super League teams, which promoted loyalty and a sense of pride in their rugby roots. In addition, a long list of Tide players went on to play for Canada during this era, Stan McKeen, Dave Ramsey, Shane Thompson, Nik Witkowski, Freddy Asselin, Rob Robson, Jared Barker, Tyler Wish, Aaron Abrams, Mark Lawson, Jeff Williams and Gregor Dixon among them. Apologies if I missed anyone!
In the 1998 RCSL final, the Tide played the Nova Scotia Keiths in the centre of Halifax, another tense match which was a springboard for Ed Knaggs to enjoy a fine career with the Castaway-Wanderers, the Tide and Canada. The rugby community in Halifax was able to put a field in the middle of the city in a massive greenspace. A huge crowd enjoyed the game won by the Tide, and later the team was treated to the “Liquor Dome”, a downtown establishment in which 9 bars were located under one roof. In one of these establishments, a marketing tool was having massive tubs filled with beer barely supervised by overwhelmed staff. This temptation was too much for Ben Trevena, who during the match had dislocated the top of his fibula (his leg was immobilized but not casted). Since that trip, Ben became known as Benny Benny Broken Leg, a moniker created by Rob Robson that night. Ben was caught pinching a beer and the bouncers (all seemingly from the St. Mary’s University football team) forcefully escorted Ben out of the building. Ben, being the tough as nails player he was and perhaps slightly intoxicated, was prepared to take on the entire group. Luckily, Roger Robinson and I saw what was unfolding and came to assist Ben. Roger, smooth as can be, talked the bouncers down and managed two things: Ben was ushered away unscathed (some would say the bouncers were the lucky ones) and Roger also convinced them to let the remaining Tide players continue to enjoy the evening.
The 1999 final was played at the Cowichan Rugby Club in front of more that 3000 fans, with the Tide defeating the Toronto Renegades 23-11. The event was a massive success and demonstrated how much of a following the league enjoyed. Post match festivities included a massive sing-song led by Cowichan and Tide player Steve “Muck” McCulloch, one of the most under-rated and incredibly effective players of that era.
The Tide played two finals in Newfoundland, in 2002 and 2004. Playing on “The Rock' was a wonderful cultural and rugby experience. Both encounters were exceptionally tense and competitive matches (6-3 Tide in 2002 and 14-8 Tide in 2004) and a testament to Pat Parfrey’s ability to prepare highly competitive teams. The atmosphere at the Swiler’s RFC was amazing and the quality of chirping coming from the stands during the matches was equally impressive and often X rated!. True to rugby, however, once the results were decided, everyone enjoyed the unbeatable hospitality Newfoundland is renowned for.
After the 2003 RCSL season, Tony Medina called it a day on his Tide coaching having earned 3 championships in 5 years in the RCSL. In my opinion, Tony was an excellent, players first coach who vastly improved rugby at Cowichan, with the Tide and BC. Coaching with him for all three of these teams was great fun because of the success the players enjoyed.
In 2004, I took on the Head Coaching job and was joined by Ian Hyde-Lay who, like his father, is a superb tactical coach who helped to leverage the forward dominance the Tide had enjoyed that season and provided the players with the tools and confidence to play effectively. Having been stung the previous year by a good Calgary Mavericks team who went on to win the RCSL title, (coached by Aussie Darren Coleman who is now the Head Coach of the NSW Waratahs) we knew the rematch would be pivotal to any aspirations of playing in the national final, which we succeeded in doing. The national final, slated to be hosted by the Cowichan Rugby Club, was inexplicably changed to Newfoundland. Pat Parfrey and I had a spirited exchange on the subject, given the considerable revenue Cowichan lost out on and the burden to put on the Tide players. Having eked out a tense 6-3 win in 2002 in St. John’s, many knew the challenge ahead. The match was another “war of attrition”, with ferocious defence from both sides, but as the game unfolded the Tide was just a bit sharper. The forwards enjoyed the upper hand in the sets and lineouts and they were able to provide the backs with both possession and front foot ball as the match unfolded. The final, 14-8 to the Tide, was immensely satisfying given the circumstances we had to manage. For me it was a wonderful way to end my association with a highly successful organization and I thoroughly enjoyed my relationship with the Tide.
Writer’s note- If I have missed players, I apologize. Also, I could not find any information on matches played between 1994-1996, although I know I played in Tide games during those years.