Sports

Rugby gets a league of its own

Silver Star elementary student Jessica Watts tracks down an incoming pass during an introductory rugby league session Wednesday afternoon. - Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star
Silver Star elementary student Jessica Watts tracks down an incoming pass during an introductory rugby league session Wednesday afternoon.
— image credit: Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star

Silver Star elementary school students were at the forefront of a B.C. sporting movement this week.

Children in Grades 5 to 7 were the first ones to be introduced to the sport of rugby league, which is undergoing a resurgence in Canada. Rugby league is a close cousin to rugby union, the form of the sport most Canadians are familiar with.

Vernon’s Iain Scott, formerly of York, England (Northern England is the birthplace of rugby league), is working with the B.C. Rugby League (BCRL) to revive the sport in Canada.

“There’s been various attempts, dating back to the 1980s, to bring rugby league into Canada,” said Scott, who met with the kids on Wednesday, and again on a soggy Thursday morning, to go over the rules of the sport. He then invited them to play a fun game of touch rugby.

“The last two days were absolutely fabulous,” said Scott. “We made history. I told the kids ‘Go home and tell your parents you made history today.’

“They seemed pretty stoked about that and I got some good feedback from the teachers as well.”

Scott, an accredited rugby league coach who works as a financial consultant, plans to promote the sport at a grass-roots level by introducing touch rugby to elementary schools in the local school district.

“I’m a guy who has played all his life but never coached, so I’m on a learning curve,” admitted Scott. “I’ve never played professionally, but when I moved to Canada (with his family in 2007) I just missed rugby league.”

Silver Star principal Harry Adam feels touch rugby is a good fit for elementary school sports.

“It’s non-contact and it can be a co-ed sport,” he said. “And it teaches the basics of running, jumping and throwing.”

Rugby league shares similarities with both union and football, but there a fundamental differences that set it apart. In league, the attacking side has six completed tackles (similar to downs in football) to progress the ball down the field. Unlike union, there are no rucks or lineouts, and scrums are not contested, which adds to the speed of the game. Also, there are only 13 players a side as opposed to 15 in union.

“Rugby league is a working-class sport,” said Scott. “It stretches across boundaries and communities. There is no person walking on the streets of Vernon that couldn’t play rugby league. It doesn’t matter their size, their shape...there’s a position for everybody.”

Once the sport gains traction in the Okanagan, Scott would like to see inter-district youth touch rugby games. He says it will also be important to host coaching and skills camps.

“There’s lots of ideas floating around to expand the exposure of the game, but the grass roots is really important. That’s what will distinguish us from rugby union,” he said.

Even though rugby league is relatively new to Canada – the sport was rekindled in Ontario in June 2010 – the national team, called the Wolverines, is ranked 21st out of 27 countries in the world (more than 40 countries have national squads).

League is also making inroads at the provincial level, with the first-ever senior league starting up in May. The B.C. loop will feature five teams – four from the Lower Mainland and one in Kelowna. They will be affiliated with those cities’ union clubs. The Kelowna Crows will host their first home game Saturday, June 2 at Parkinson Rec Fields.

Scott says it is essential to hold the league season around the union schedule to avoid conflict, and to give players the opportunity to play both styles of rugby.

“We’ve got to place it outside the union season. We’re promoting the game, getting people interested and exposing the game to the nation,” said Scott, who will be an assistant coach with the Crows.

“We’re giving guys the opportunity to play 12 months of the year.”

Andy Blackburn, head coach of the B.C. Bulldogs representative squad, will host an evaluation camp, Saturday, May 5, in Kelowna. He will run a morning session for students from Grades 10 to 12, followed by an afternoon session for adults.

Players will have the chance to be selected to play in representative games this season.

“The pathway to the national team is so clear cut,” said Scott. “You’ve got a genuine opportunity to pull the national jersey on. There’s not many sports where you can say that.”

The Bulldogs will play in Kelowna on Saturday, Aug. 18. BCRL is looking for sponsors for the event.

Anyone interested in the sport should visit the league website at www.bc.canadarugbyleague.com., or e-mail Paul O’Keefe at paulo@canadarugbyleague.com.

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