Six months after winning the BC Rugby Men’s Division 2 Provincial Championship, the Axemen Rugby Club has broken new ground once more.
Club standouts Blake Mahovic and Josh Michalik were selected to join the Canadian National Men’s Rugby League team for an international match on Nov. 5 against the USA Hawks. The Canada Wolverines prevailed 22-10 against their American rivals in Tampa, Fla., making a goal-line stand in the final 10 minutes to preserve the win.
First-year Axemen head coach Stephen List is ecstatic that two of his players got to wear the Maple Leaf.
“I’m exceptionally proud,” List said. “For [Mahovic and Michalik] to represent their country is no mean feat. It’s something that we should all celebrate.”
The achievement is doubly impressive because Mahovic and Michalik had to adapt to a different code (or style) of rugby. The Axemen, who represent Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton, play rugby union, which differs from rugby league in that it has 15 players per side and more stoppages of play. Many well-known Canadian rugby athletes like Al Charron, Nathan Hirayama and Jen Kish played union during their careers.
In comparison, rugby league features only 13 players per side, fewer stoppages and a limit of six tackles per offensive attempt. Get tackled six straight times without scoring a try and you turn the ball over to your opponent. Rugby league features different tactics from union, and is more demanding in terms of cardiovascular fitness—which Mahovic and Michalik successfully acclimated to.
The two national team debutants have walked different paths to reach this point. Mahovic hails from the north of England, where he originally played rugby league before picking up union in Canada with organizations like BC Rugby, the Canadian Classics and the Axemen. Meanwhile, Michalik is from Ontario, and was introduced to rugby league last year by Blake Stewart, head coach of the Whistler Wolves.
Mahovic is known as a well-rounded inside centre, both a tenacious defender and an elusive attacking threat who consistently puts up big scoring numbers. Yet his impact off the pitch may be even greater. The Englishman has served for three years as Director of Rugby for his club and is a lead defensive coach on Thursday nights. Furthermore, List credits Mahovic for “living and breathing” the culture of community and inclusion that the Axemen strive to build.
If you ask List, he will say that Michalik, meanwhile, is a much-improved athlete who was honoured with the club’s own Players’ Player of the Year award in May. An outside centre, Michalik runs with blistering pace and is particularly adept at exploiting gaps in the opposing defence. Off the pitch, Michalik is known as an energetic social dynamo who helps organize post-match entertainment at local venues like The Fitzsimmons Pub in the Upper Village (which also sponsors the team).
Mahovic and Michalik’s recent achievements parallel the continued rise of their club as a whole. After claiming the Division 2 title 30-15 over the Surrey Beavers on May 7, the Axemen declared to move up into BC Rugby’s Division 1. So far, they hold a 3-6 record against high-level opponents from across the Lower Mainland. The climb in competition naturally presents hurdles, as does an increased commitment to travel for away games in places like Kamloops, Kelowna and Vancouver Island.
But these are obstacles that the Axemen relish.
“They’re good challenges when it comes to the competition,” List said. “They’re challenges that we want, that we as a club will grow from.”
Established in its current form in 2014, the Axemen were once a Division 3 team that steadily built momentum on and off the pitch. Today, they field rosters in both Divisions 1 and 3, which allows them to welcome both high-level athletes and recreational players or those new to rugby. Committed to reaching the next generation, the Axemen also offer a women’s team and a vibrant youth rugby program in Squamish.
Moreover, the club received a grant from the Resort Municipality of Whistler at the beginning of this academic calendar to support rugby at Whistler Secondary School. Axemen coaches helped establish a rugby program for youngsters in Grades 8 and 9, which culminated in a competitive game against St. George’s Senior School in Vancouver.
“We’re not expecting [youths] to just find us, but we’re actually getting into schools and introducing rugby as well,” said List. “If we’re a community club, then we want to accommodate all areas of the community, so having something for the women, the youth, etc., to flow through is essential. That’s how we view success, really.”