From T-shirts to Champions
High School Rugby was becoming popular in rural Ontario so teachers Rob Majdell and Ray Heffernan thought they would start a rugby program in the spring of 1993. St Mary’s Catholic Secondary School (SMCSS) was still a small school of about 400 students. The expectation was that 20 firm participants would be needed at every practice, at every lunch, to continue with this program.
The other local high schools with their bigger population bases (around 800 students each) had already established rugby programs. For the betterment of rugby they agreed to play St. Mary’s new team in exhibition play for the first 3 years. These teams included Trinity College School, Cobourg East and Cobourg West.
During the first 2 years, players wore only t-shirts as jerseys. In year three, after the team became established, the school ordered and bought keeper jerseys. The fellas thought they were too nice to wear for games, so they decided to keep wearing t-shirts. The team began playing in the Kawartha league in 1996 and as they say, the rest is history.
In 2000, Greg Conway joined the coaching staff. The team rebranded itself as the Thunder RFC and began to enjoy more success on the pitch – more coaches meant more skill development for the players. By 2003, the team had its first player selected to Team Ontario – Sandy Sweet. His skill and attitude started to turn the tide towards a more competitive approach by the players.
The coaching staff had also added Drew Quemby to the fold. This was massive as Rob Majdell had moved on to become a Vice-Principal at another school. The team began showing potential, competing with or even defeating powerhouse teams from Lindsay and Peterborough – teams that only 2 or 3 years prior had been winning by 70 points!
In 2004, the team embarked on the first of many Rugby Tours. The island of Bermuda was chosen. The destination, along with amazing experiences like playing against the Bermuda U-18 team on the national pitch, drew even more athletes out to the team. Touring became a mainstay and was the turning point in prying male athletes away from the mindset of only playing hockey. The team now prides itself as a touring side, having embarked on 13 ruby tours to places like England, Hawaii, Barbados, Scotland, France, New York City and even the Rugby World Cup in 2015. The opportunity to go on these tours has attracted many more athletes to try the sport, which has resulted in a very competitive side moving forward.
St. Mary’s has held the Saxon Cup (Northumberland championship) since 2005, after Port Hope won the inaugural competition in 2004. The Junior Boys are the sole winner of the Junior Saxon Cup, winning it every year it has existed. The Thunder take the local rivalry very seriously – the only loss by either the Junior or Senior team since 2002 to a local team came in the Saxons Cup final in 2004 to Port Hope. Keeping the streak alive is taken to heart!
In 2005, the team qualified for its first COSSA Championship after making its first Kawartha Final in team history. 2010 saw the team win its first COSSA medal – a Silver – after toppling powerhouse Centennial from Belleville in the Semis. They would lose a very tight COSSA final by 2 points and miss out on OFSAA.
In 2011, the Junior Boys won the team’s first Kawartha Championship. 2012 saw the team compete in its first OFSAA Championship – as host school. Though ranked in the bottom half of the 16-team tournament draw, the team finished 5th overall! That success was further demonstrated the following year, as the Senior Boys won their first Kawartha title in 2013.
The team had entered a new competitive phase – regularly competing for Kawartha titles and qualifying for COSSA. They also had athletes not only competing for Ontario, but also being selected to represent Canada. Brandon McLeod, or “The Missile”, played internationally on the Canada Sevens development team 6 times. Owain Ruttan represented Canada for their U-18 and U-20 teams a total of 11 times, scoring two tries, including one against Wales!
2016 saw a Junior Team unlike any before at SMCSS. They captured the Kawartha title and the team’s first COSSA Gold. That same team won COSSA Gold again at Senior in 2017, 2018 and 2019. During that run, they produced 4 more Canadian players – Josh Barss, Keagan Read, Adam McNee and Mason Flesch.
In 2018, the Senior Boys team reached new heights 25 years after the first team started play. They toured Hawaii and defeated the powerful Kahuku – Hawaii state champions. They returned home and won the Kawartha Championship as well as the COSSA Championship. All that remained was OFSAA.
They entered as the #1 seed and dominated the tournament leading up to the final. In a hard fought Gold Medal game, the Thunder prevailed 26-19 to capture its first Provincial Championship. They outscored all opponents at OFSAA by a margin of 200-24 and finished the season a perfect 16-0.
The 2019 team was not to be outdone. That team won Kawartha and COSSA again, and went on the win the OFSAA Championship, becoming only the third school to ever repeat as Champion. History was made however as St. Mary’s won the 2019 title game 40-0, which is the largest margin of victory in any OFSAA Boys Rugby Championship Final.
It has taken almost 30 years to reach the pinnacle. They began in t-shirts and running shoes, losing by 70 or 80 points. They have since seen the world and risen to the top, with back-to-back OFSAA Gold. The coaching staff has grown as well – additions Tim Linehan, Adam Janssen, Shawn Carmichael have all played a part in the team’s growth and success. As a coaching staff, we are excited to see where the team can go next!!!
Greg Conway - Head Coach, Thunder RFC
Updated August 2020