Wilson’s Canadian Ruggers

PSB Wilson's crew has a learning experience in Britain-- both on and off the field.

PSB Wilson photograph by Michael Cullen.

PSB Wilson photograph by Michael Cullen.

Article by Caleb Smith '93

In February of 1979, Trent rugby travelled to England for the team’s first major rugby tour. Greg Mather organized the tour with help from captain Nigel Roulet, Bob Keay and Paul Wilson provided contact with teams in his home country. Fundraising for the tour was not successful—the team hosted some house parties and pubs at the Commoner, but they were not big financial gains. Each player paid $500 for the tour, and the team that travelled to England was a Trent rugby/Peterborough Pagans combined squad.

At 9:15 pm on Thursday, February 22 that year, Trent rugby strapped into their plane seats and set off for England. The London customs department was on strike when they landed. A long line had formed at customs and the boys were anxious to see London. Trent rugby did what any rugby team would do: they began to sing. The people who were running customs quickly checked Trent so that they would not have to listen to their bellowing. When the team finally arrived in London they were met by their hosts, the London Welsh rugby club. The players were billeted by members of the London Welsh club and quickly experienced British hospitality. Although the team did enjoy a few beers, they were in England to play rugby.

Greg Mather and number eight, Jeff Waterman, decided to take a tour of the local pubs. When they had finished their sightseeing, they realized that they were lost. The two lost souls dropped into a police station to phone their billet. They explained where they were, their host laughed and told them to wait outside. A short time later they saw a car pull out of a driveway 200 meters away. The car pulled up to the curb, their host laughed at them, put them in the car and drove them home down the street.

Wilson's Warning

On Friday morning the team was to have a short training session. Paul Wilson arrived only to find half of his team on the pitch ready to practice. Bob Keay, a Trent player in 1969 and a member of the Peterborough Pagans, had known Wilson for a decade and had “never seen him so angry.” Paul was upset because he knew that the Trent team had not been on a field in months and would be in for a hard game. It was not the fact that the few players who did come to the practice were hungover, but he knew the Trent team was taking game preparation lightly. Saturday, the team met for a training session at Old Deer Park. Paul Wilson was able to rest (he was probably nursing a hangover himself) because the coach of Wales national rugby team handled the practice.

Sunday, Trent rugby entered the stadium at Old Deer Park; they were ready, and they would show the London Welsh that Canadians could play rugby. The stadium was packed, 2,000 spectators had come for the match. When the London Welsh came onto the field the fans began to cheer. It was at this time when Wilson began “to question, what we are doing here?” Greg Mather felt that it was “intimidating playing in front of people.” The Trent squad usually played their games in front of a few supporters—2,000 spectators to watch them play was definitely an experience.

After the opening kickoff Trent found themselves on their opponent’s goal line. They were awarded a penalty in front of the Welsh goal posts. Trent did not listen to Wilson’s plea to go for a field goal; instead, they elected to run the ball. They were stopped and the Welsh took over the game. Spectators could only stand on the sidelines and watch a 58-to-4 thrashing of Trent. In the opening five minutes Trent’s outside centre, Rich Aitken, broke his hand. “What could I do?” Aitken said in a January 1997 interview. “We were already short on players. I just had to tape it up and keep playing.” During the game, the crowd began to cheer for the Canadian school. With every good hit or play, the spectators would yell, “Good play Canadian!” After the game both teams retired to the London Welsh clubhouse to sing rugby songs and drink a few beers.

On March 3, when Trent returned to London, the London Welsh had obtained tickets for Trent to watch an international rugby game, England versus France at Twickenham. Each Trent player received end zone tickets, seats that were, in fact, large concrete platforms. Fans stood on the concrete platforms eight people deep, trying to look over each other to see the action on the field. Bob Keay was heading for the match when he saw Wilson walking towards him with a new friend. Wilson handed Keay his ticket saying he had a “pressing engagement.” Translated from Wilson language, “I just wrangled my way into a high class rugby party.” Keay went to the stadium gates with his teammates and was about to head towards the end zone stands when an usher sent him towards the grandstand. It was a rainy day and the poor chaps in the end zone were soaked, but not Bob Keay. His seat was at mid-field, 15 rows from the action and under the stadium roof. Sitting next to him was the president of the London Welsh, and for the first half he called Bob by the names Paul or Wilson. It was not until the second half when Bob explained who he was, but his host never changed demeanour and continued to offer him sips from his flask. When the game was over, Bob’s host offered him a ride back to the clubhouse. They proceeded to the basement of the stadium where a Rolls Royce was parked, hopped in and were drinking at the clubhouse for a good hour before his mates returned.

“We're Trent and We’re Far From Home!”—Traditional Tour Motto

After the game against the London Welsh, the team travelled to Wales. Their hosts in Wales backed out on the game but found new opposition for Trent: Caerphilly, Wales, a small mining town in a beautiful valley. When the team arrived, posters were put up all over the small town, “Caerphilly vs. Canada!” They thought the Canadian national rugby team was coming to play; instead they received Trent rugby.

Before the match, fans asked for autographs and the Trent players obliged. The game went as predicted, Trent lost by a margin of five tries. It was an educational match for “team Canada,” as the Caerphilly players were providing instruction while they played. At the sound of the final whistle, both teams shook hands and went into the basement of the clubhouse. The bathrooms were just that, large baths. The players undressed and relaxed in large Roman soaking tubs, the club president served the tired warriors hot tea.

A private reception was held in the Caerphilly clubhouse banquet room, which was separate from the club’s main bar. The town dignitaries were introduced to the players and Wilson put on his usual charm. Shortly after the reception, the doors to the banquet room were opened to the public. Songs were belted out by those in attendance and the party had started.

Later that night some of the Trent players ventured to a local pub named The Castle. When the team arrived they noticed that the female patrons were the only ones dancing, while the men stood at the bar. Unbeknownst to the Trent players, it was local custom that the women were the only ones to dance. Seeing so many prospective dance partners, the Trent boys jumped to action, dancing with the ladies. The solo-dancing women thought it was terrific, although some of the local men did not appreciate Trent’s frolicking and began to get rough with the visitors. The bartender, who was a rugby enthusiast, quickly jumped in and sent Trent back to the clubhouse.

The tour was a success, and finished with a bang. Trent came away with a 3-0 win over the Oxford County rugby club and a tie against Broxbourne. In the win over Oxford, Rich Aitken did some acting as he was lightly hit after a kick. He went to the ground and pretended to be writhing in agony. The referee gave Trent a penalty and that provided the field goal for the win.

Reflecting back on the tour, Rich Aitken, Greg Mather and Bob Keay agreed they had learned some valuable lessons. Rugby culture, the songs, and warmth of the opposing players was new to these players. Sure, Wilson had always stressed that after a game you have a beer with the other team, but this was different. Their hosts showed them that you could give good hits, play hard, hate each other on the field, and after the game you could make friendships and truly enjoy your opposites’ company. The Trent players were exposed to an unknown brand of rugby, extremely wide open, with many different phases to the game. Bob Keay remarked that it was “the first time I had ever seen intricate plays from a penalty.” It was “an eye opener,” Rich Aitken commented, and “the intensity” of the opposition was mind-boggling. For a majority of the players it was their first experience in Europe, let alone playing against top-level rugby clubs, and it forced them to play even better. The Trent team left England with some new friends and some new insight into the game of rugby.

 

 

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