United on
the Pitch

Over-40s rugby clubs bring together players from Canada and Japan

In November, the Canadian national rugby team will compete for the final spot in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. As this moment approaches, it reminds us that sports has the power to bring people together across national boundaries and the inspiring force to keep athletes competing well into their later years. Nothing makes that clearer than a pair of matches that were played on April 29 at Macdonald Park in Victoria, British Columbia, between the Ebb Tide, a British Columbia-based over-40s rugby club, and the Osaka Gentlemen. Both teams have members who are in their seventies and eighties, and have been playing each other for decades.

The Ebb Tide’s Don Swainson goes high on a lineout.

There has always been a connection between the Ebb Tide and Japan, as we discovered through our conversation with Glen Okrainetz and Dave Knox, president and secretary, respectively, of the Ebb Tide Rugby Football Club.

It all started in 1971, when Bill Dunbar, then president of BC Rugby Union, was in Japan on business. He happened to meet the president of the Wak Wak Club of Osaka and found out that the club was interested in touring British Columbia.

A year later, BC Rugby Union reached out to senior rugby players in British Columbia, asking them to form teams in Vancouver and Victoria. The team that was started in Vancouver was called the Oldstylers (the team’s name has changed several times since then, and they are now known as the Evergreens). The Victoria team included many former members of the Vancouver Island Crimson Tide, so they dubbed themselves the Ebb Tide — it’s the longest continuously used club name for an over-40s club in British Columbia.

On the Road

The first match with the Wak Wak Club in 1972 fired the Ebb Tide’s interest in coming to Japan, and the club made several journeys to the country to compete with clubs here. They made their first trip in 1974, when they played the Old Bears in Tenri (Nara Prefecture), Wakusan in Hiroshima, Meiwaku in Kyushu, Fuwaku in Tokyo, Wak Wak in Osaka, and Kintetsu in Higashi-osaka.

It was the first of many trips — they would come again in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, and 2006. They’ve played teams from as far south as Fukuoka Prefecture and as far north as Morioka, in Iwate Prefecture. Okrainetz, who has travelled to many countries with the Ebb Tide, says one thing that stands out when it comes to playing in Japan is the hospitality: “The Japanese hosting is superior to any other club hosting that the Ebb Tide has experienced on tours.”

And when it comes to rugby itself, the Ebb Tide has fared extremely well in Japan. They lost just one over-40s match to the Wak Wak team in Osaka in 2006, but have won all of their other games.

They’ve expanded their rugby horizons through trips to the United States, Scotland, England, Wales, Hong Kong, Chile, and New Zealand, while hosting teams from England, Japan, Wales, Ireland, and the United States.

On the domestic front, the Ebb Tide have played for many years in British Columbia’s Third Division, and then against other over-40s teams in the Pacific Northwest Over-40s league, which was formed in the 1980s.

“Getting together with the lads on a weekly basis to toss the ball around and share a pint afterwards is what keeps many of us going.”

Sizing Up

The games at Macdonald Park mark the third time that the Osaka Gentlemen had gone to Victoria in six years. They had visited Victoria in 2015, and they were also there for the Ebb Tide’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2012, along with the Tenri Old Bears.

The Ebb Tide, meanwhile, has plans to visit Japan in the years to come. Right now, they’re looking ahead to 2020 or 2021, when the Osaka Gentlemen will celebrate their 40th anniversary.

As far as the matches themselves go, the Ebb Tide won both the under-60s and over-60s contests but, as Okrainetz reminds us: “The score was not important.” In general, Okrainetz says that the Canadian sides definitely have size on their side, but that “the younger Japanese players are getting a bit bigger.”

Mikio Oku, who has been a member of the Osaka Gentlemen since 1985, agreed with Okrainetz’s assessment, but said that the Japanese do manage to keep up off the pitch. “There is a big difference physically between us Japanese and the Canadian team. When we play with the Canadians, who are bigger and more powerful, we have to be more tactical and much more speedy and flexible. But even though we have a hard time keeping up with them on the field, we can catch up with them in the after-game functions.”

And in true rugby fashion, there is plenty of celebrating that goes on after the matches are over, although Okrainetz keeps mum about the specifics, saying only, “There are occasionally interesting situations but the rugby tradition is that what goes on tour stays on tour.”

Friendships, on and off the Field

The Osaka Gentlemen’s Shiro Noiri (left) and Takaaki Oka (right) flank the Ebb Tide’s Paul Dancey at the post-match banquet

Language can be a challenge for the teams — the Ebb Tide relied on a translator for their official speeches and gift exchanges after the matches — but their communication through sport is remarkably strong, and the friendships that have developed over the years go far beyond the field of play, as Oku explains. “I have a close friend who is like a brother in Ebb Tide. We first met in Kyoto in 1987, and ever since we’ve had a good friendship visiting each other and traveling together in Asian countries. In fact, my wife and I spent a month traveling across Canada with my friend and his wife last autumn.”

This was a sentiment that was echoed by Toshiyuki Nakai, who is also a member of the Osaka Gentlemen: “When I played rugby when I was younger, I was always focused on victory or defeat. Of course, winning and losing is also important in senior rugby, but we put a high value on making friends after the game. After finishing the battle, I can make many friends while maintaining a ‘no side spirit’ in which we praise and respect our opponents and we can make new family ties that span countries and cultures.”

And what is it that gets players in their seventies and eighties out on the field, week after week? Okrainetz says that it all comes down to a sense of togetherness: “The camaraderie is an important part of the club function. Rugby is a very social game and getting together with the lads on a weekly basis to toss the ball around and share a pint afterwards is what keeps many of us going.”

The Victoria Ebb Tide and Osaka Gentlemen gather for a group photo.

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