Celebrating 25 Years of the Boot Game Rugby Rivalry

The year was 1995. Some 60-plus athletes had turned up to play Senior Boys Rugby, allowing SMUS to run three XV teams. Halfway around the world in Europe, Gareth Rees ’85, a product of the SMUS rugby program, was playing professionally and preparing to compete for Canada in the Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

“I think Gareth was the greatest player to ever play for Canada,” says Gary Johnston, former head coach of the Canadian men’s national team.

In 1995, Johnston was coaching at Oak Bay High and had been witness to the decades-long rivalry between SMUS and Oak Bay on the rugby pitch. Inspired by a similar rivalry between the UBC and UVic rugby teams (who play each year for the Brian ‘Winky’ Wightman Boot), Johnston jumped at the opportunity to make the annual SMUS-Oak Bay game, already one of the most exciting of the season, an even greater match-up.

Gareth Rees, right, presents the Boot Game trophy to SMUS captain Quinn Ngawati after the 2017 game.

He approached Rees, who graduated from SMUS in 1985, and asked if he would get a boot bronzed and mounted onto a trophy in his name. Rees agreed and so began a tradition of the annual Rees Boot Game between SMUS and Oak Bay. (Despite folklore, the boot atop the trophy is not one of Rees’s old boots.)

“When I was at SMUS, Oak Bay was a really big rivalry, so I was honoured when Gary called me up and asked if I would want my name on a trophy that the two schools would fight for,” Rees says. “The school that had produced me – SMUS – and Gary – from his time as Canada’s national coach – both played a big role in why I was able to play rugby professionally. There was absolutely no hesitation in my mind to help support this rivalry and celebrate these schools that produce such great athletes and community leaders.”

Celebrating 25 Years

This coming Alumni Weekend (May 4, 2019) marks the 25th Boot Game.

Coach Ian Hyde-Lay, who came to SMUS in 1984-85 during Rees’ Grade 12 year, says the past quarter-century worth of games has been amazing to witness.

“Our two rugby programs have been among the best in the province and certainly the best on Vancouver Island for many, many years. Competing against each other tends to bring out the best in all of the athletes, making for a high-skilled, high-pressure environment,” Hyde-Lay says. “What every rivalry needs is a competitive balance, which we’ve absolutely had over 24 years. Every year we get a high level of play and some close, exciting games.”

The 2013 Senior Boys Rugby team celebrates their 10-5 Boot Game win.

After 24 outings, the Boot Game rivalry is very evenly matched. The record stands at 12 wins for Oak Bay, 11 wins for SMUS and 1 tied game.

“I think the athletes and the coaches feel lucky to have this situation. I think there may only be a handful of other high school sporting rivalries in BC, maybe Canada, that would rival SMUS-Oak Bay rugby for intensity, for excitement and for interest,” Hyde-Lay says. “And it makes it even more special for us to have it on Alumni Weekend at SMUS when there’s so much going on on campus highlighting our school’s history.”

Many young athletes from both schools who have gone on to play rugby at the provincial or national level have experienced the intensity of the annual Boot Game, including SMUS alumni Ed Fairhurst ’97, Mike Danskin ’98, Mike Pyke ’01, Dave Spicer ’03, Luke McCloskey ’10, Mike Fuailefau ’10 and Quinn Ngawati ’17.

“It means a lot to me that it’s still important to the kids; it’s important to them to try and win the Boot. That’s what we want: our kids striving to be the best,” Rees says. “Playing against the best drives excellence and that’s really what this is all about.”

The 25th Rees Boot Game will be played at SMUS on Saturday, May 4 at 3:45 pm.


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