Sea to Sky rugby fans will want to mark May 27 on their calendars, as the Rugby League British Columbia (RLBC) Nines Tournament is coming to Whistler for the first time.
The Nines is a preseason event scheduled before regular season matches kick off later this summer. RLBC and Whistler Wolves president Blake Stewart lobbied successfully to host this year’s iteration of the contest, which will take place at Whistler Secondary School (WSS). Admission is free.
More than 110 athletes are slated to take part, including men and women. There will also be a “masters” category for those over the age of 35.
“We are thrilled to be hosting this event and believe that it will be an excellent opportunity to showcase the sport of rugby league to our community,” said Stewart. “It will be a super enjoyable day, and the games are fast. They’re only 18 minutes long.”
Rugby league is one of two main codes (or types) of rugby, the other being union. Compared to its counterpart, league rules include fewer stoppages and more turnovers, generating a faster pace of play. Typical league games feature 13 players per side, but Whistler’s upcoming tournament—true to its name—will have only nine.
The Wolves, meanwhile, are the Sea to Sky’s local rugby league club. They were founded in 2019 by Australian expatriate Stewart, who lives in Whistler and works in Squamish.
Having played rugby league since his childhood in Penrith (a working-class town in Western Sydney that he likens to Hamilton, Ont.), Stewart is passionate about fostering local growth in his sport. The Wolves did not play their first official game until 2021 due to COVID, but have already experienced success in their short history.
Last year, Stewart’s club lost 26-24 in a tight Grand Final nines match to the Point Grey Thunder.
Growing their sport
The Wolves are developing legitimate talent at all levels. For instance, Blake Mahovic and Josh Michalik suited up for Team Canada last November in an international match against the United States. Keller Reeves—a lifelong union player until last year—also donned the Maple Leaf in the masters’ version of the 2022 Rugby League World Cup, and he’s still going strong at 47 years of age.
More important in Stewart’s eyes is the opportunity to create exposure for rugby in general. Although the Wolves are unaffiliated with Squamish’s Axemen, who play union, their combined outreach efforts have helped many discover rugby for the first time (or return to action after time away from the sport). It certainly helps that—unlike in other parts of Canada and the Commonwealth—the Sea to Sky’s union and league seasons do not overlap, allowing athletes to maintain form throughout the year.
Some locals, like Mahovic and Michalik, are key members of both the Wolves and the Axemen. Stewart reckons that a player like Michalik may never have made it to Team Canada without first being exposed to rugby by the Wolves (whom he captained during the 2022 season).
At another end of the spectrum, roughly half of those who attended the Wolves’ first training session of the year on April 24 were rugby union players with little to no league experience.
“As long as people have a rugby ball, I love it,” Stewart said. “The camaraderie between the players and everyone involved is huge. You can play league this summer, and then rugby union starts again in the fall.
“I just want to see rugby as a whole grow in the Sea to Sky because I chose to live here, as many expats do, and I’d love to see the sport that I love grow in any aspect.”
Tapley’s Pub and Gibbons will provide a beer garden and food options at WSS for those planning to attend the RLBC Nines Tournament. Fans can expect to watch a series of high-scoring, free-flowing games that showcase speed and tactics in addition to physicality. Stewart hopes that the event will raise further awareness for rugby league and give many more a chance to plug into what he calls “an enjoyable, enjoyable sport and community.”
More information about the Whistler Wolves is available on Facebook, Instagram and at rugbyleaguebc.ca/clubs/whistler-wolves.