Young rugby enthusiasts across B.C. have been working hard this summer to spread the word far and wide about their beloved sport, and the Cowichan Valley has been a focal point of their efforts.
After the BC Grassroots Rugby Foundation connected with 400 kids in 2020, its first year of existence, it set the goal to impact 5,000 this year. It appears to be well on its way, with 465 by the second week of operations this summer, and Cowichan group is the leader among the foundation’s five constituencies in the province, beating out units in Port Alberni, Nanaimo, Victoria and Kelowna.
“It’s a testament to how Cowichan is,” said Ciaran Breen, one of the coaches in the Cowichan unit and veteran of international and professional rugby. “Sports are important here, and rugby runs deep.”
The BC Grassroots Rugby Foundation started with 10 employees in 2020, and has increased to 45 this summer. The employees, all high-level players and coaches, get out in the community to generate interest in rugby through a variety of initiatives including camps for a wide range of ages and abilities, and Pop Up and Play sessions.
Pop Up and Plays see coaches from the foundation drop by local parks and teach kids between the ages of 5 and 12 about rugby on a drop-in basis, with no experience required.
“The best thing about Pop Up and Play is that even if we have three kids come out, that’s three kids who when they get a bit older might be interested in rugby,” said Breen. “We’re planting that seed.”
Grassroots Rugby has also run several camps this summer, from a high-performance camp in Victoria to a series of smaller camps at locations like Queen Margaret’s School in Duncan or at the Kerry Park Recreation Centre in Mill Bay. Cowichan constituency assistant manager Siôn Griffiths, who, like Breen, has international experience, helped lead a recent camp at Hornby Island that attracted 15 kids, another example of the foundation’s outreach into communities that don’t get a lot of exposure to the sport.
They’ve also been working closely with the Cowichan Rugby Football Club, going to touch rugby sessions on Thursday evenings and helping to promote mini rugby at the club. During the last school year, coaches did sessions at some elementary schools in the Cowichan Valley, and they are looking at doing that again this year.
Grassroots Rugby has also worked with Thunder Rugby, which promotes and develops the sport with First Nations youth, on camps in places from Shawnigan Lake School to Prince George and Prince Rupert. The Cowichan group also works regularly with athletes from the Malahat First Nation.
As much as the coaches love rugby, it’s not just the sport that is driving their efforts. They want to help get kids active, especially after a year and a half of COVID-19 restrictions that have prevented many from being involved in team sports.
“It’s a good opportunity to get out there and make new friends, get active and try a new sport,” Griffiths said.
Giving back to the community is also vital to Grassroots Rugby’s mission. The end of every week is “Service Friday,” which sees coaches do something of value to the community — often not directly related to rugby. So far this summer, they’ve done things like clean-ups at Mill Bay Beach and the Cowichan River, and this week they are volunteering at a local food bank.
Grassroots Rugby is the brainchild of Clay Panga, a former member of the Canadian national team. Born in New Zealand, Panga moved to Canada when he was young and eventually played for the BC Bears and Prairie Wolfpack, earning six caps for the senior national team along the way. When he retired from international competition, he wanted to set up a program geared toward getting more young people involved in rugby.
Many of Grassroots Rugby’s coaches have played at the highest levels of the sport, including Breen and Griffiths, who have both represented Canada internationally in U20 rugby and are now training with the senior national sevens program in Victoria.
Breen played professionally in France the last two seasons, and will be heading back there this fall. Griffiths will stay with the national sevens team until at least December, and if he doesn’t continue with them after that will join the XV academy.
Both players tout the benefits of starting in rugby at an early age.
“It’s the difference between a good pass and a great pass,” said Breen, who started playing the sport in Grade 5. “You can get to that point when you start later if you work hard, but it’s easier if you start younger.”
Griffiths started in high school after excelling in several other sports growing up, and still feels something like Grassroots Rugby would have helped his progress.
“I wish there were programs like this so I could have started younger,” he said.