Gertrude is their golden hen, the clucking that drives the rucking.
The Okanagan champion South Kamloops Titans, undefeated in league play with their one-year-old mascot chicken on the sideline, are flying the coop for the AA Tier 2 B.C. High School Rugby Championships in Abbotsford, a bird of prey once left for dead.
Senior boys’ rugby at South Kam was going the way of the dodo, its goose appearing cooked for a third straight season, with the team having folded due to a dearth of players in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.
“Based on my background, I was thinking about not putting a team in again,” said head coach Scott Eising, who moved to Canada from Australia about five years ago. “We haven’t got a lot of guys who played rugby before. If it was up to me, I would have said let’s fold and train them up so they don’t get hurt, but I was told the competition was a lot different.
“They put in the hard work and I showed them the way. All of it goes to the boys.”
It most certainly does not all go to the boys, who rave about Eising and assistant coach Wyatt Henry, the tandem that taught the rag-tag group of multi-sport athletes how to conduct themselves with an egg-shaped ball, many of them having never picked one up until this year.
And perhaps it is the chicken who comes first in this story.
“Gertrude the hen, oh my goodness,” said South Kamloops winger Birch Mierau, whose eyes lit up when bokking about the bird. “The first time I heard about Gertrude was in a group chat. One of the boys was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to bring my hen down to Rugby Fest.’ We’re like, OK, whatever, I don’t know what he’s talking about. We get there and there is this chicken running around the field. He escapes from the bag and we’re like, what is this? He’s like, ‘This is Gertrude, my hen.’ She was with us all tournament. She came to our semifinal game, to our final game. We held up the chicken. We worshipped the chicken. I don’t know what it was. We all kissed him. Hopefully, we don’t get salmonella.”
KTW visited the oft-misgendered hen on Monday night.
“I’m holding Gertrude. She’s being pretty silent at the moment. She’s pretty calm,” said Grade 12 prop Tristan Cooke, whose family keeps four birds behind its Aberdeen home, a roost made possible when a controversial egg-laying hen by-law passed in 2016.
“Usually in the games, when we have her there, she just sits with one of the parents. It’s a pretty weird thing, but hey, we’ve won most of our games with her.
“I just kind of thought, hey, we don’t have a mascot, so if I bring a chicken, maybe it will do something. We won that game and I kept on bringing her to the games I was able to make it to.”
The Titans posted two wins apiece in league play against Princess Margaret secondary of Penticton and Clarence Fulton secondary of Vernon to reach the Okanagan final last Thursday, a title tilt that decided the region’s only berth at the eight-team B.C. championship.
With Gertrude looking on, South Kam was unstoppable, mauling Fulton 39-21 to claim the regional banner and its unlikely place at the provincial championship.
“I’m sure they fear the chicken,” Mierau said.“They look over and, ‘What are these boys crowding around? Oh, it’s a chicken.’
“I think it’s more of a distraction technique, honestly. She’s calm, but fierce. She’ll give you that look with her eye and she’ll chase you down the field if she has to.”
Gertrude was carried to the Cookes’ driveway on Monday night to take questions from KTW. Her responses weren’t exactly poultry poetry.
In fact, she refused to answer the first query, replied with a death stare to Question No. 2 and the third question prompted her to throw a fit, during which she batted her wings wildly, escaped Cooke’s grasp and defecated on the driveway.
The Titans were much more receptive earlier that day after practice on sunny Kamloops Rugby Field in Exhibition Park.
Foster Wynne: “Gertrude showed up during Rugby Fest. He’s been our good luck charm ever since. Wait, is Gertrude a rooster?
Team: “No, she’s a hen!”
Wynne: “Well, having a fine female chicken on the sidelines, you’ve got to impress her. It puts a little pressure on us, but I think we’ve been performing a lot better since she’s been around.”
Sheldon Gerlib: “I’d say a good half of our team has never even played rugby before this year. Tristan brought his chicken, our mascot. She brings the hype in before the games. This chicken is kind of like a cat. You can carry it, pet it.”
Kayden Gauthier: “A lot of them kiss the chicken. A lot us just pet the chicken. It depends on how comfortable you are with the chicken, I guess.”
The Titans, ranked No. 5 at AA provincials, will square off against No. 4 Byrne Creek of Burnaby in Round 1 on Wednesday in the City in the Country.
Also at the tournament are No. 1 D.W. Poppy of Langley, No. 2 Sir Charles Tupper of Vancouver, No. 3 LV Rogers of Nelson, No. 6 Glenyon Norfolk of Victoria, No. 7 Windsor secondary of North Vancouver and No. 8 Alberni District.
Here is the Kamloops squad’s dilemma: If good-luck Gertrude is their golden hen, their cluck is in danger of running out.
Cooke is a graduating South Kam student, but is pursuing his welding ticket at Thompson Rivers University in a program that requires him to be at school from Monday to Thursday
“I reached out to the school and explained it’s a big thing to go to provincials and this is his last chance,” Eising said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to him if he wants to risk getting marks taken away for not being at school.”
The Titans’ prop does not expect to be at provincials on Wednesday. No Cooke likely means no Gertrude.
“I don’t think she would survive it down there — oh, there she goes, she’s clucking, she’s fine (this is when she pooped on the driveway) — but yeah, I don’t think she can make it to provincials, sadly,” said Cooke, who delivers pizzas for Domino’s. “Unless we can ship her down there in a crate. It’s been a busy semester.”
Team members are not panicked. Gertrude has not been present at every match this season. Work ethic — extra practices, three- and four-hour training sessions, some of them in the rain — is the real backbone of the team.
But this is a brood that peacocks when its hen is handy, plays champagne rugby when feathers are flaunting.
And this is no time to lay an egg.
“She’ll be there in spirit. We have photos of her,” Mierau said. “Yeah, I’ve kissed the chicken.
“I’m hoping that Gertrude can make it, but I don’t know if she will.”