When the Canadian men took to BMO Field on Saturday for a rugby test match against Scotland, Michael Appiah-Kubi was watching intently.
He was looking at how players prepare for contact, and especially how wingers — that’s the position he plays — judge what’s happening up field and find space to squeeze through to score a try.
The Toronto teenager played for Ontario last year and hopes to make the under-19 team this year, but like most athletes he dreams of playing for the national team.
“People keep telling me if I put my mind to it, I can do it,” he said. “That’s my ultimate goal.”
He sounds almost surprised to hear himself say that. That’s because Appiah-Kubi, 18, put on a rugby jersey for the first time just a few years ago. As a long-time soccer player whose older brother played football, he wasn’t at all sure about the wisdom of trying arougher sport with no protective padding.
“I was a little anxious. I didn’t want to be tackled all that much,” he said, recalling his start in 15-a-side rugby. “(Now) I enjoy every second of it every time I’m on the field.”
He’s part of an initiative to help the sport grow by focusing on schools in and around Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods, where kids are not likely to have rugby roots.
Since 2011, the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation, or TIRF, has been recruiting high school players and giving them the chance to develop through subsidized training camps and club-level play. And for those with the skills and drive, it provides financial support to play on provincial teams and pursue the dream of representing Canada someday.
This year, taking a page out of hockey and basketball playbooks, the group is starting to recruit younger players. It’s also expanding the pool of coaches, referees and volunteers.
It’s only one program in one city — reaching about 500 players this year — but it’s ticking a lot of the boxes that any sport looking to grow needs to check off.
Flip through any sport federation’s long-term development plan and there’s bound to be a pyramid in there somewhere.
The base needs to be full of players and dedicated coaches, officials and volunteers. It centres on accessible facilities, affordability and fun — to draw kids and families off the couch and into the sport. As players go up the pyramid there is more focus on skill development, talent identification, stronger competition and ideally, for the elite athletes, a clear path to the highest level on a national or professional team.
“What we’re trying to do right now is grow the base of the pyramid and create a pathway up for kids,” said Bill Di Nardo, the TIRF director who came up with the idea after spotting untapped potential on his son’s high school rugby team. “There is a foundation here to accelerate the sport.”
Down one of the hallways at David and Mary Thomson Collegiate in Toronto, there are two enormous bulletin boards plastered with everything there is to know about rugby. There are photos of the school’s most prominent players, posters of Canada’s national team and international results. It’s designed to both inform and inspire.
“No other sport in the school does anything like this,” said rugby coach Mike Winter. “They don’t have to.”
But his challenge isn’t just to whip a team into shape during a short season. He has to motivate kids to try out for rugby in the first place.
“The kids get here and they don’t even know about rugby,” he said. “You have to market it.”
It’s working. He’s even lured kids from the school’s popular cricket team. This year he had 22 boys try out for Grade 9 rugby sevens — the faster form of the sport, making itsOlympic debut at Rio 2016.
But the faces of top players on the rugby board aren’t easily recognizable in Canada. There’s no Sidney Crosby here, no Vince Carter — the American-born star credited with putting Canada on the NBA map and inspiring a generation of local players.
“We don’t have any true heroes yet,” Winter said. “It’s starting.”
Paul Myers, coach of TIRF’s select team program (a stepping stone between club rugby and provincial rep), is at Thomson to talk to Winter’s junior players about how the program can improve their game. He just can’t get enough of that rugby wall.
“I love that wall,” Myers said.
He knows the first step in Canada, for any sport not called hockey, is to get kids to decide they want to play and recognize that, if they’re good enough, it’s a sport that can take them places.
“Rugby matches are few and far between on TV in Canada. You have to get kids to see people they want to emulate and say, ‘I’d like to be like him or her when I grow up,’ ” he said.
Pickering’s John Moonlight is one of the best rugby sevens players in the world, but most Canadians don’t know about him.
“You go to other parts of the world (where rugby is big) and they would know who John Moonlight is. They would know who the greatest Canadian rugby player is,” Myers said.
Rugby may not be one of the highest profile sports in Canada, but its fan base is growing. International test matches like Saturday’s at BMO Field attract sellout crowds.
The sport’s profile in Canada, and the Americas in general, is about to take a leap forward with its Olympic debut in Rio, following men’s and women’s sevens tournaments in Toronto at the 2015 Pan Am Games.
The chance to go to the Olympics is a big draw for top athletes and nations have already been pouring money into the sport in an effort to win a medal.
Canada’s chances for Olympic and Pan Am medals in women’s sevens are particularly strong. They’re ranked third while the men sit sixth, a dramatic improvement in the last year, and are the Pan Am defending champions.
At Thomson, Winter managed to corral 35 Grade 9 and 10 boys during lunch hour to hear about rugby.
“How many of you want to play summer (club) rugby,” asks Judy Fung, assisting Myers with the recruitment spiel. Three-quarters of the hands go up.
“How many of you would play if you had to pay $250 or more?” All but one hand goes down.
“What if you only had to pay $40?” Most of the hands go back up.
The coach stands at the back of the room and nods. Winter remembers when he first started a team at the school more than a decade ago. He sent two of his most talented Grade 9 kids to provincial tryouts and they made the team.
It wasn’t until months later than he realized they weren’t playing. When he asked why, he was told, “Sir, it was $2,500 to play.”
The boys, who knew their families couldn’t afford that, didn’t say anything to anyone. They just walked away from the opportunity.
The next year he sent them back after lining up a friend, “an ex-rugby guy with lots of money,” willing to pay the fees if they made it. One of them, Colin Brown, made that team. He would go on to play for the Canada 15s and earned a couple of national sevens caps.
“Rugby changed my life,” said Brown, who runs an online pharmaceutical business in Vancouver.
TIRF has already helped a half-dozen players make provincial teams, and the coaches think Kyle Lagasca, a talent in sevens, and Appiah-Kubi, in 15s, have national team potential.
The goal is to make sure “skill and desire are the only limiting factors” in how far a player can go in the sport, Di Nardo said, adding that rugby needs “the best athletes and most committed players, not just the ones that can afford it.”
Reprinted from the Toronto Star.