There’s no gentle easing into rugby.
The sport’s learning curve is built on bloody noses and hard shoulders into the midsection.
Which is why the coach of the Riverside Rapids senior boys team thinks a tough ruck is the perfect jolt towards normalcy for his young athletes who’ve been isolated on the sidelines for the past two years because of COVID-19 public health restrictions.
Evidently, some of his charges see things the same way.
Only four players on Riverside Secondary School’s first rugby team since 2019 have played the sport before.
The rest are like Cole Jacobsen, a Grade 10 player taking his first crack at the sport; they’re looking for connection after two years of being disconnected from much of their extra-curricular opportunities.
“Finding a good group where everyone is dedicated to the same thing is so important,” said Jacobsen, who previously played basketball..
Or Luca Prante, a Grade 10 exchange student from Germany where rugby is a niche sport, who thought coming out for the team would be a good way to make friends in his new environs.
He said at first he was nervous, but at 6'2" he knew he had the size and strength to be able to compete physically even though his previous sporting experiences were in sailing, soccer, volleyball and basketball.
"It's not as tough as I thought," Prante said, with a smile.
Rapids coach Darren Mackenzie said the 30 or so young men who answered his initial call for rugby tryouts in January were “shadows of themselves,” lacking confidence and belief in their own abilities without the feedback and affirmation school sports can give them. Physically, they were also paying the price for two years of relatively few opportunities to scratch their competitive itch.
Whipping them into game shape, Mackenzie said, has been no small challenge. Aside from rugby’s physical requirements of speed, strength and stamina, the sport requires quick decision making, usually under duress of a hulking defender bearing down to knock them over or strip them of the ball.
“It’s about trying to teach them to be winners, how to work as a team and how to work hard,” Mackenzie said of the goal he sets for each of the two or three practices he’s been conducting every week.
Eli Silveira, a senior who’s played soccer and volleyball but never rugby, said it was tough to get his stamina back after two years of relative inactivity, but he relishes the sport’s physicality.
Josh Granville, a grade 11 student who’s played rugby at the club level and for Team BC, said the sport teaches life lessons that extend beyond the pitch, like the value of performing with heart and perseverance. As one of the side’s few experienced players, he said he tries to pass on those lessons in the scrum.
“A real bond has developed,” he said.
Mackenzie said the Rapids’ indomitable spirit was apparent in their 27-22 upset of the Terry Fox Ravens in the season-opener for both sides. The team subsequently defeated Burnaby Central 21-10 and played its first match on its home pitch last Thursday.
Mackenzie said the victory over the crosstown rivals showed Riverside’s players just what they are capable of if they push themselves beyond their own perceived limitations.
“At first they didn’t believe they can do it,” he said. “They’ve essentially been locked away for two years and psychologically they were drained.”