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United Rugby lets the girls play

United Rugby Club is offering girls a chance to learn the sport through a unique program that keeps them playing together as soon as kindergarten age.

Rugby’s not just a boys’ sport.

A unique program at United Rugby Club is giving girls as young as eight years old in the Tri-Cities and New Westminster the opportunity to learn the game, train and play matches with other girls. Most clubs in the province develop youth players in a co-ed environment until they’re juniors.

Mike Gosselin, who runs United’s minis program that introduces rugby to young players, said separating the genders at an earlier age gives girls a chance to forge a stronger connection to the game.

“It’s a tough sell to play with the boys,” Gosselin said, adding the club noticed a significant drop-off of its young female players when they hit Grade Six.

“It’s just the psychology of it; when they hit that age, the boys don’t want to pass to the girls.”

Keeping the girls together allows them to develop in their own way, at their own pace.

Meghan Henery, 12, said she was starting to get discouraged playing co-ed because the boys often just pitched the ball to other boys. She said learning the game with other girls has allowed her to form a tighter bond with her teammates and given her more confidence on the field.

“It’s fun when people underestimate you.”

Gosselin said the girls’ program also allows the club to be more inclusive as it eliminates the physical disparities between the genders as they grow into adolescents.

“There’s a position for everybody, it doesn’t matter if you’re tall or short,” he said.

That can pay off with positive benefits on young girls’ self-esteem at a critical point in their lives.

“It teaches them how strong their bodies can be,” said Renata Hamana, whose nine-year-old daughter, Sylvie, is part of the United program. “It shows them how resilient they can be.”

Gosselin said while rugby may appear to a casual observer to be more rough and tumble than, say, soccer or field hockey, teaching the girls proper tackling techniques allows them to work out their aggressions in a controlled way that respects their physical capabilities and those of their opponents.

“It makes the game more safe,” he said.

As well, rugby offers a unique sense of camaraderie on both sides of the ball.

“It’s like going into battle together,” Gosselin said. “You always have your teammate’s back.”

Still, challenges remain.

United is looking for more young players to fill out its girls program this season as some have graduated to the junior level. And the lack of organized girls’ teams at other clubs means matches are often ad hoc, pulled together at jamborees or club days by combining interested players and picking sides.

That doesn’t diminish the fun, though, said Penelope McKee, 12, who started playing minis when she was four.

“We get to tackle each other,” she said with a smile.

• United rugby kicks off its season Sept. 12, but interested girls can register for its girls mini program through the early fall. For more information, and a link to register, go to unitedrugby.ca or email minis@unitedrugby.ca.

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