Brit Lions players (red and black) closing in on a Burnaby player running towards the Brit Lions’ goal line during the Brit Lions 7s Tournament on June 3, 2017. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Delta’s Brit Lions rugby club celebrating 90 years of blood, sweat, tears and cheers

“[It’s] more than a community, it’s a family.”

Walter Johnstone looks the part of a rugby player.

His contracted pupils punctuate ice-blue eyes, and one of his ears bears the mark of blunt force trauma. Standing in the Ex-Britannia Red Lions clubhouse at John Oliver Park, he wears a green and red Brit-Lions windbreaker and holds books on the history of the clubhouse.

In fact, the only thing that shows Johnstone to be anything other than a typical rugby player is his age. At 76-years-old, Johnstone is one of the longest serving members of the Brit Lions (as the club is informally known), having been part of it for 56 of its 90 years.

“I never left, no,” he said about the club he joined back in 1962, when a friend invited him to try rugby. “It’s become a second home — much to the chagrin of my wife.”

Over the years, Johnstone has taken on a number of roles in the rugby club, including player, president and now trainer. Next month, he’ll get a chance to revisit his former roles with his old compatriots.

Saturday, April 7 is the 90th anniversary of the Ex-Britannia Red Lions, possibly the longest lasting rugby club in the Vancouver Rugby Union. At Roma Hall in New Westminster, rugby players both past and present will gather to celebrate the long, illustrious and sometimes difficult history of the club.

Current president Lance Baker is expecting the club will sell every one of the more than 230 tickets to the event. With only two adult teams playing in the club right now, that means around 200 of those tickets will be for alumni and guests.

For Johnstone, it will be an emotional time.

“What am I looking forward too?” Johnstone asked rhetorically, thinking about the upcoming event. “Seeing all of my old teammates.”

“To go to this 90th is going to be a thrill,” he continued. “All the people you either played with or looked after as a trainer, right. It’s very emotional, for me anyway.”

Johnstone’s history with the club goes back more than half its lifetime — and it’s unlikely any members from the first teams will be joining for the event.

1931 Ex-Britannia
The Ex-Britannia rugby club in 1931. (Contributed photo)

Back in 1927/1928 the Brit Lions was actually called Ex-Britannia RFC. At that point, it was a club in East Vancouver for Britannia High School students who wanted to continue playing rugby after they graduated. It was Ex-Britannia that Johnstone joined in the early 1960s, when rugby was a more popular sport.

The group had three clubhouses in Vancouver, but sold them to create a new clubhouse on Kitchener Street in East Van around the 1980s.

It was at that point that Geraldine Griffiths, more commonly known as Ged, first was introduced to the Brit Lions.

Now a member of the BC Rugby Hall of Fame, with a trophy named after her and a legacy of building the sport in the region, Griffiths was 20 when she first started playing rugby in Richmond. She met her now-husband through the rugby circuit; he was an Ex-Britannia player.

“I always wanted to play in the same club as Les [her husband],” Griffiths said. “So I said, now is a good time to try and … start something up at the Brit Lions.”

At that point, in 1988, women’s rugby was still a new sport in Vancouver and getting a team together wasn’t easy. Often, they would have to borrow players from the opposing team to come up with the 15 people per side needed.

“We struggled every week,” Griffiths said. “And every team was in that position. So we played with each other, we helped each other, we supported each other, just so we could get a game going.”

That support came from within the club as well. The men’s teams — at that time, Griffiths remembers there being three teams — provided equipment, fields and training for the women. But most important was the camaraderie.

“Many of the women would go watch the men play, and then the men would come and watch the women play,” Griffiths said. “So it would be like we’d have 20 coaches on the sidelines all yelling at us, telling us what to do.”

Between 1988 and the late 1990s, the women’s team managed to become “the team to be on in B.C. if you wanted to play good rugby,” Griffiths said.

For both the men and the women, it was a proud achievement.

“You could see them getting prouder and prouder and prouder of us, and that made us feel great,” Griffiths said. “You know, it’s a community — more than a community, it’s a family.”

Although the pride was growing, the men’s side was declining. In 1991/1992, Ex-Britannia and West Vancouver’s Red Lions merged because of low numbers, becoming the Ex-Britannia Red Lions — the club’s current name. By the early 2000’s the women’s side was in a steep decline as well.

“More and more of them were moving out of Vancouver and living in North Delta or Ladner or Surrey, because they were young and getting families, and that’s where they could afford to go and live,” Griffiths said. “So a lot of us were driving from North Delta to Vancouver … for rugby three times a week.”

It was then that the Brit Lions made a bold move.

The club sold its 3,000 square foot club house on Commercial Street, and instead bought a plot of land just outside of North Delta. The dream was to build two fields and a clubhouse on site for the newly relocated club.

“The dream didn’t come,” Griffiths said. “We built the fields, we have beautiful fields, a great location” at John Oliver Park.

The club cleared trees from the fields and established the drainage themselves.

They even began building their dream clubhouse, until mounting construction costs drove the project out of their budget.

“We were hung out to dry on the two fields,” Johnstone remembers. “We were all set with the foundation of the clubhouse, and then Delta said we had to pre-load the area for a period of time — which made sense in the long term.

“But that per-load period ate up what funds we had, because we had all taken out loans on this.”

The city bought back the land from the Brit Lions, and today the clubhouse is simply a three-room changing facility with a shower and Brit Lions regalia hung up on the walls and ceiling. But some of the grandeur is coming back.

The women’s team reformed in 2009, winning the Ged Griffiths cup with Griffiths playing on the team. The men’s team is currently playing in the second division, although Baker is hoping they will be able to put together a first division team in the future.

And that future is where the club is focusing.

“I would like to see rugby grow again in Delta,” Baker said. The club has put a lot of emphasis on mini-, rookie- and junior-rugby for kids who want to try the contact sport. Alongside the BC Rugby Association, they’ve put together “try rugby” days to get younger players interested in the sport.

The women’s team is largely made up of young athletes, something Griffiths thinks could bring a positive change to the club.

“My goal was just to finish off my rugby career with a Brit Lions team,” she said. “If they lasted for five years, I would have been happy. If we had just people stepping on the field and playing, I would have been happy. But we did more.”

“We’re growing this young team again,” she continued. “It’s almost back to step one, where you’ve got these young, inexperienced players that are learning to play women’s rugby … And in a few years, we’ll be up there again, I hope.”

The Brit Lions 90th anniversary reunion will be taking place on April 7, from 6:30 p.m. to midnight at Roma Hall in New Westminster. To register for the event, visit britlions.com/90th-anniversary-.html.



grace.kennedy@northdeltareporter.com

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