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Written By: Mark Janzen
Yes, there’s a respect between the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia.
“But as soon as the whistle blows, it’s full on,” says fifth-year UVIC fly-half Guiseppe du Toit. “We just like to get after each other.”
Such is the case when it comes to the best university rugby rivalry in Canada and an annual match-up that features two of the best university programs in North America competing for an historic prize.
When they get together, they play for the coveted Wightman Boot – bronzed rugby cleat that could tell rugby tales into the wee hours.
The boot belonged to the late Brian Wightman, who coached UBC from 1964 to 1967. A capped English rugby player, Wightman led the Thunderbirds through the mid-sixties before moving to Fiji, where he became something of a legend in his ability to lead and guide Fijian sport. In terms of foundational efforts, perhaps Wightman’s most notable posting was as coach and manager of the first-ever Fijian side to compete at the Hong Kong Sevens in 1976.
Beyond that, amongst a multitude of leadership positions, he was the Chef de Mission for Fiji at two Commonwealth Games (in 1978 in Edmonton and in 1986 in Edinburgh) and the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Yet, his tattered boot sits behind glass within the walls of the Gerald McGavin UBC Rugby Centre. At least that’s where it has sat, within the confines of the victor’s castle, for the last four years.
As the story goes, a few of Wightman’s players plucked his well-used boot and had it bronzed. In the year following his departure, 1967, the Wightman Boot made its debut as a trophy of particular esteem.
In an odd twist, the first year the trophy was put up for grabs, the contest actually featured UBC and nearby Simon Fraser University. The Thunderbirds won 18-6. However, since then, other than a one-year hiatus – in 1978-79 the Thunderbirds played Stanford for the trophy, winning 47-0 – the Wightman Boot has been given to the winner of the annual game, or two-match series, between UVIC, who holds a 26-18-1 all-time record in the series, and UBC, who conversely stands at 18-26-1.
“It’s a big competition and it’s always been the big match-up between UVIC and UBC,” says Vikes head coach Doug Tate, who was once a Thunderbird, attending UBC from 1977 to 1982. “It’s always been a big game for the players. During the lead-up, you can tell there’s a bit of a different feeling in training.”
The historic relevance and current prominence is engrained in the players early on.
“When I first came to UBC, we were introduced to it and the history of it right away,” says fourth-year Thunderbirds flanker Jake Ikeda. “It’s a big deal and you could always tell by how fired up the older guys were about it. We just don’t want to lose to UVIC.”
And for the first 10 years of the competition, they didn’t. It took until 1981-82 before the Vikes finally took home the Wightman Boot, thanks to a 9-6 win. However, that first win sparked a run of dominance from the Islanders that saw Victoria win 26 of the next 30 editions, capped by a run of 16 straight victories, from 1997-96 to 2012-13.
However, the tides have turned once again in recent years, with UBC grabbing the Boot in each of the last four seasons.
With UBC winning 44-24 in the first leg of this year’s two-game total points series, it’s on the Thunderbirds to keep rolling and the Vikes to strike back.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to play in those sorts of games,” Du Toit says. “Now that UBC has won a few in a row, it really means so much more for us. I’ve played for four or five years against UBC, but I still haven’t beaten them. I know the UVIC boys are really getting fired up for this one.”
On the other side of the ball, neither four straight titles, nor a 20-point cushion in this year’s series has the Thunderbirds treating the next outing lightly. And with both teams playing in the BC Premier League, the Wightman Boot also represents a rare opportunity to play against strictly university-aged opposition.
“We have a mutual respect between the two teams, but everyone has something to prove playing against players of our own age,” Ikeda says. “And we want to stick it to them.”
That too seems mutual.
On Saturday, at the Gerald McGavin UBC Rugby Centre, the Vikes and Thunderbirds will put the Wightman Boot on the line for the 46th time. Kickoff is at 12:45 p.m. (PT)