The Kelowna Rugby Football Club plays a match against Vernon on Dec. 7

A century of rugby in Kelowna

A look at the history of rugby in the Central Okanagan as local ethusiasts host a 100-year anniversary celebration on Saturday

On Dec. 7, with a wintery bite in the air and frozen earth beneath their feet, members of the Kelowna Rugby Football Club and the Vernon Odd Sods took to the pitch for one of three organized rugby matches played in Kelowna in 1912.

On the land where much of Kelowna’s City Park now sits, the home side prevailed over its North Okanagan rivals by a 14-nil score in 0 C temperatures.

To date, it remains the latest time of year a rugby match has ever been played in Kelowna.

As the local newspaper of the day, the Kelowna Courier and Okanagan Orchardist, reported:

“…the ground was in a semi-frozen condition, which did not make the best of footing, and scraped knees and elbows were the order of the day, but there were no serious casualties.”

One hundred years to the day later, the Central Okanagan Rugby Enthusiasts (CORE) is marking  the sports’ rich and storied history in Kelowna with a centennial celebration  this Saturday afternoon.

At 2:50 p.m.—the same starting time as 100 years ago—about 50 local rugby enthusiasts will play a series of touch games at City Park to commemorate the occasion.

CORE president Doug Manning, who has spent hundreds of hours researching the history of the sport in the Okanagan, found that rugby was amongst the most popular of all outdoor activities in Kelowna in the early 1900s, rivalling water sports, lacrosse and track and field.

A community of about 2,500 residents at the time, rugby’s roots in Kelowna are grounded in the arrival of some of the first immigrants from Britain.

“People from the British Isles came here to get some land to start to a ranch, an orchard or a vegetable garden, and they had strong connections to England, Scotland and Ireland,” Manning said. “They were young, ambitious and brave with nothing to do but work hard and play.

“One of the key things they play are the games they bring with them, and rugby was one of them. It’s one of the sports that got the most profile in the newspapers back then.”

While the 1912 matches were among the most well-documented of the early days of rugby in Kelowna, records show the first game played in town was in 1908.

Kelowna took on the South Okanagan team (later named Okanagan Mission) in a practise game on Oct. 10 on the lacrosse grounds, the site where Elks Stadium now sits.

Kicking off that day for Kelowna was Dick Parkinson, the father of the future Kelowna mayor of the same name.

Several matches were played in town over the next six years, mostly involving Kelowna, Vernon, Okanagan Mission, Okanagan College, Penticton, and The Benches, a team from East Kelowna.

Because cars were rare and roads were either of poor quality or non-existent, teams often had to employ other methods of travel.

For Okanagan College, then located in Summerland, trips to Kelowna entailed travelling by boat across Okanagan Lake.

During a meeting between the two sides at City Park on Nov. 12, 1912, the game was cut short when the sternwheeler named ‘Okanagan’ signalled it was time for departure.

“Halfway through the second half, the steam whistle blew on the Okanagan which basically told those guys get on the boat or you’re not getting home until tomorrow,” Manning said with a laugh. “So they all just bolted midway in the second half, ran off the field to catch their ride home. The game was over.”

Most of the games between 1912 and 1914 in Kelowna were played where much of City Park is currently situated. Manning said one end zone butted up against what is now Leon Avenue, while the other end zone ran up against the base of Mill Creek. Fans would often watch the game lined up along what is now Abbott Street.

Rugby matches, up and down the valley, continued to be played until the spring 1914.

In April of that year, Kelowna defeated Vernon to win the Owen Cup, a trophy donated by a Vernon resident and rugby supporter referred to in the Kelowna Courier as “Mr. Owen.”

Among the players appearing in the picture of Kelowna’s cup-winning team in 1914 is Jock Thomson—the great uncle of Kelowna native and former national rugby team member Steve Thomson.

The younger Thomson plans to be on hand Saturday at City Park to celebrate both the sport and his personal connection with Kelowna’s rich rugby history.

“Maybe my love of the game is because of (Uncle Jock), maybe it’s in my DNA ,” said Thomson, who is the Liberal MLA for Kelowna/Mission. “When that picture surfaced, it really piqued my interest and it’s neat to be able to reflect on and recognize the history of the sport in Kelowna.”

As it turned out, the Owen Cup game on April 10, 1914 would would be the last organized rugby match known to be played in the Okanagan for decades to come.

The onset of World War I put a halt to many recreational activities in town and cities all across Canada. Rugby in Kelowna wasn’t about to be spared.

“Rugby just came to a stop, all sports came to a dead stop when the war started,” Manning said. “At the time, I’m guessing there were about 1,500 men in Kelowna, and 700 of those went off to war. You look at the pictures of the players back then, and the majority of them went to war. A lot of them didn’t come back.”

Although he suspects there may have been at least a few organized rugby games played, Manning said there is no documentation of any matches being contested in Kelowna between 1914 and 1964.

Today, however, rugby is in the midst of a considerable growth phase in the Central Okanagan. Since the formation of CORE in April 2010, the number of players in Kelowna and area has risen from 600 to more than 1,000.

Rugby 7s, 15s, Rugby League and touch rugby are all being played at either the minor, junior, senior, middle school, high school or university levels.

On a global scale, rugby is the second most watched sport in the world. Men’s and women’s rugby will make their Olympic debuts at the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil.

Manning said this weekend’s 100th anniversary event is designed to celebrate the past, present and future of the sport in Kelowna.

“There is a great, rich history of rugby here and we’re representing the events that happened right in the beginning,” Manning said. “Our focus as CORE is the development of rugby in Kelowna and it’s nice to know we have a real, solid grounding and foundation to build on.”

People interested in participating in Saturday’s game are asked to arrive at City Park at 2:30 p.m.

For more information on this weekend’s centennial celebration or rugby in the Central Okanagan, visit corerugby.com, or email dmanning@corerugby.com

 

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