Rookie Kyle Richardson receives a pass during a Vernon Jackals men's rugby workout at Grahame Park. The Jackals

Rookie Kyle Richardson receives a pass during a Vernon Jackals men's rugby workout at Grahame Park. The Jackals

Jackals get jump on rugby season

If the new guys can impress in the exhibition season, imagine what they’ll do when they start playing for real

If the new guys can impress in the exhibition season, imagine what they’ll do when they start playing for real.

It’s a rebuilding year for the Vernon Jackals men’s rugby team. Everything from a new player/coach, to the return of “old dirt,” to raw recruits.

The Jackals begin their Okanagan Rugby Union regular season Saturday, April 23, with a home game against the Penticton Harlequins (1 p.m., Grahame Park).

In two-preseason games, the rookie-laden Jackals have lost 32-14 to Kamloops and 39-38 to Kelowna, teams that play in a Coastal rugby union and have been on the field for a couple of months already.

“Rugby’s a tricky game when you first start and you only get better by playing. That’s why we schedule so many exhibition games before the start of the season,” said Jackals inside centre Bryan Cragg, in his third year with the squad.

“You should have seen the team in Kelowna, playing a team that’s been on the field for nine weeks while we’re in pre-season, and we lost by one. I’ll take that. The guys were great.”

The Jackals are trying to line up one more pre-season tilt next weekend against league rivals Salmon Arm/Enderby Manthers.

After recruiting hard, the Jackals have 20-to-25 guys attending twice-a-week practices under the watchful eye of player/coach Cragg, and head coach Grant Kissling, originally from New Zealand where rugby is to Kiwis like hockey is to Canadians.

This season, there are a lot of new faces who will have to learn the tricky game.

They will be aided in their learning by veteran forward Don Deane and the return of a player Cragg calls “old dirt,” outside centre Michael DeBoer.

“He’s one of the guys who played, then aged out but still hung around,” laughed Cragg, 29, a plumber at Vernon Jubilee Hospital. “But we love having him back.”

Also helping out with practice and being recruited heavily by the Jackals is former player and Team Canada member Garth Cook.

Gone after more than 20 years with the Jackals is player/coach Mike Scheller.

“Mike did more for this organization and game than anybody I know would have been capable of,” said Cragg, who played high school rugby in Vernon for the Seaton Sonics. “He’s left us in great shape. We couldn’t be in a better position.”

New players are still welcome to join the team, which practices Tuesday (Polson Park) and Thursday (Grahame Park) at 6 p.m.

The Jackals, Manthers, Harlequins and Merritt Barbarians will play for the Union’s berth into the B.C. championship weekend in September in Penticton, playing against representatives from the North, Coast and Kootenays.

“Our goal is to get to that playoff tournament in Penticton,” said Cragg. “I think we have a realistic chance to get there and we hope to make a good run.”

n Four North Okanagan secondary schools are fielding rugby programs this spring.

The North Zone Senior AA League starts Monday with the Fulton Maroons hosting the Vernon Panthers at 4 p.m. at Grahame Park. The Kalamalka Lakers round out the three-team loop which sees each school play the others in a home-and-away schedule.

The Lakers host Fulton Thursday at 4 p.m.

Fulton, Armstrong’s Pleasant Valley Secondary and Salmon Arm Secondary will field teams in the North Zone Junior League.

Play starts Wednesday with the Saints hosting the Salmon Arm Golds at 4 p.m.

Fulton plays its home opener Monday, April 18 against Salmon Arm.

Fulton, Kal and Shuswap Middle School of Salmon Arm will play a Grade 8 Boys 7s league. Games start Tuesday in Salmon Arm.