On April 29, the Elk Valley Bulls won both their matches at the Rucking in the Rockies pre-season rugby tournament, beating the Okotoks Foothills Lions 17 to 7 and then defeating the Red Deer Titans 24 to 8.
All the matches were hard fought. All the teams displayed strength, determination and work ethic but they might not have had the Bulls’ secret weapon: grey power.
This season, three of team’s most important players are Kevin Giffin, Mike Johnson and John Merritt, a trio of athletes who are all in their late 40s.
How is it that these aging warriors are still out there, smashing opposing players in a high contact sport?
Part of the explanation could be that the three individuals are above average in fitness.
Giffin is the director of the Fernie Ski Patrol.
Johnson keeps up his fitness level as a coach for the Fernie Old School Boxing Club.
“It’s the best team sport in the world,” said Johnson.
On Saturday, Johnson was playing the position of hooker. His job was to ‘hook’ or ‘rake’ the ball back to his teammates with his foot during scrums.
“It’s what they call a black art,” said Johnson of being in a scrum.
“A lot goes on in there that people don’t know about,” he said cryptically. “There are ways to win the ball in the scrum.”
Then there’s Merritt, a professional athlete who has participated at the sports’ highest level as a player in both the English and Welsh Premierships.
After retiring from professional rugby, Merritt moved to Fernie at the age of 35 but, fearing that he would injure his amateur opponents, decided not to play for any local team for about the next 10 years.
“It would have caused damage if somebody came from that level into this,” he said.
Another explanation of the Bulls’ grey power is differing fitness levels and body types does not exclude you from playing rugby.
“The beauty is that it’s a sport that can be played by people who are not that fit,” quipped Merritt.
“You can’t go out and play American football at (the age of 47) on two weeks of training. You’re going to get killed,” he continued. “With rugby, we can go out at our age and play 20-year-olds and then we all go to the bar and basically have a great day.”
At age 41, Bulls’ player Joeli Ratudradra said he hopes to be able to move as quickly as his senior teammates when he reaches their age.
Ratudradra had a lot of carries at Saturday’s tournament. The native Fijian said he’s been playing since the age of 15 and spoke about the importance of the sport in his home country.
“Rugby is what we turn to,” he said. “It was something to do after we did our chores. We didn’t even have money for a ball so we would use bottles and stuff. It brings everyone together back home just like hockey (does) here.”
Now in their fifth season, the Bulls have about 50 members and have enjoyed some success on the pitch. They’ve won two provincial titles and are three-time regional champions.
Their success is remarkable given that they’re always building and then rebuilding the team, said the club’s vice-president Peter Dudman.
Many Bulls only stay in the Elk Valley for a season or two and only three players from the Bulls’ first season are still on the team, he said.
“We literally have a 40 per cent turnover of players every season. Every year we’re starting almost back from square one,” said Dudman. “It’s always hard to build up from the bottom again but its also good because we get to teach them they way we want to play rugby.”
Constant rebuilds mean the Bulls are always looking for new talent.
“You beat the crap out of each other for 80 minutes and then you share a beer afterwards,” said Dudman by way of a pitch. “It doesn’t matter if you have any experience, we’ll take anybody.”
Their first regular season game is on May 27 against Cranbrook’s Rocky Mountain Rogues.
Three players from the Bullettes, the Elk Valley women’s rugby team, also played at Saturday’s tournament. The Bullettes did not have enough players for a full lineup so they formed an impromptu squad with other members of the Foothills Lions.
The Bullettes are in their second year and are also looking for more players.
Their spokesperson Mandy Merrill urged local women to come out and try a “gentleman’s game,” where players use a more “distinguished tackling,” than they do in American football.
The Bullettes practice Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Fernie Secondary School field. The first half of the practice is usually devoted to fitness while the latter half involves more scrumming and physicality.
“Its a good way for women to get involved in rugby,” she said. “It’s definitely not as intimidating as they think it is. People think rugby and they think about getting bashed (but) it’s really not. It’s a lot of fitness and it’s a fun game to play.”