British Columbia conducted a rugby civil war, friendly of course, against Canada on Friday night at Westhills Stadium.
The match, won 45-13 by Canada over the B.C. all-star team, was to help prepare the national side for the 2019 World Cup beginning next month in Japan.
Just how close-knit is the B.C. rugby community was on ample display in many ways, with so many interconnections between the B.C. and Canada players, many of the latter who hail from this province.
It is exemplified by the friendship between Canada lock Jake Ilnicki and B.C. captain Nathan Stewart. Both come from Williams Lake. Both played for the University of Victoria Vikes and the Castaway Wanderers of Oak Bay.
Ilnicki was back in Williams Lake this month for the funeral of Rodger Stewart, Nathan’s dad and a legend in Interior rugby, who died suddenly of a heart attack on an oldtimers tour to Alaska.
“I could only be back home for 48 hours, but I just had to pay my respects to the Stewart family,” said Ilnicki, a veteran of the 2015 World Cup.
“Rodger Stewart was one of my first coaches. He helped keep rugby alive in the Interior.”
Paying it forward, the 34-time capped Ilnicki conducted a clinic while back home for Williams Lake youth players.
Friday night took it up an emotive notch with supporters travelling as far as Williams Lake for the game, not to mention the easier trek across town from the CW clubhouse.
“It’s emotional and very special to be able to run out onto the field with Nathan,” said Illnicki.
Ilnicki has played pro all over the world, including as far afield as Australia. After a pro stint with Leeds in England, he signed recently with Seattle of Major League Rugby.
“It’s closer to home and that’s something I appreciate now,” he said.
With Canadian head coach Kingsley Jones yet to name his 31-player 2019 World Cup roster, ahead of the Sept. 8 deadline, there was a lot at stake Friday night at Westhills for players on the bubble looking to state their case.
The last chance comes next Saturday at B.C. Place against the U.S. in Canada’s final pre-World Cup Test.
“No matter who makes it, or who doesn’t, we are all still good buddies who bleed for each other,” said Ilnicki.
Canada went 0-3 against the U.S., Fiji and Tonga in the recent Pacific Nations Cup. That was followed by a 38-35 loss to provincial pro Irish power Leinster last weekend at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont.
“We’ve had so many heartbreaking games, going back to the 2015 World Cup,” noted Ilnicki.
“But that’s what separates the big teams from the others. They play the full 80 minutes. Those have been tough lessons to learn. But we are getting on the right path to consistency.”
Canada’s 2019 World Cup opener is Sept. 26 against Italy in Fukuoka. That is followed by formidable pool games against the New Zealand All Blacks on Oct. 2 in Oita and the South Africa Springboks on Oct. 8 in Kobe. Canada closes pool play against Namibia on Oct. 13 at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium in Iwate prefecture, of which Victoria’s sister city Morioka is the capital.