At a Meraloma mini-rugby game, children learn to tackle safely under the direction of coaches.
When awareness and caution about concussions is at an all-time high, proper technique, supervision and lots of practise can help prevent head injures said the youth league’s director Davin Carter.
This month, boys and girls aged five to 12 can register for the Meraloma winter league and try out the sport on the cusp of its Olympic debut. The focus of once-a-week practices at this stage isn’t elite competition, although bi-monthly jamborees — or tournaments —rotate between Lower Mainland rugby clubs. Carter said the Meraloma’s goal is to encourage fun, teamwork and a love for the sport.
And there’s something else that keeps the kids interested.
“They absolutely love the contact,” said Carter, who played the sport for nine years but has since hung up his boots to focus on developing a new generation of rugby players.
“It’s one of the few sports where they can get a bit of contact and bump up against each other and it may not be as pressure-oriented as some other sports they’re playing.”
The club follows the B.C. Rugby Union’s safe rugby guidelines and uses a graduated introduction to contact. Tackling doesn’t start until Grade 4, and Carter said the Meraloma’s 12 coaches are trained and experienced in these techniques.
One of those coaches, Kat Cureton, has played rugby for over 10 years. She said the frequent games ensure children develop continuously as they learn new skills, techniques and rules.
“Getting right in there and playing games is the best way for kids to figure out rugby,” said Cureton, who coaches Grade 3 boys. “We see the players getting better and better each week.”
The so-called hooligan’s game played by gentlemen is surging in popularity, said Carter, thanks to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and the inclusion of rugby 7s in the 2016 Rio Summer Games. (Rugby 7s counts seven players per side, opposed to the traditional two teams of 15.)
Rugby has a strong foothold in Vancouver and the Meraloma’s mini program, established in 1997, typically includes more than 80 kids.
“They see these world-class athletes, a lot of whom are from Canada, some are from the Meraloma club, and that’s something for them to strive for,” said Carter, adding that the sport is very accessible because it requires minimal gear.
Diana Sarantidis knew nothing about rugby before her 11-year-old son Nikolas decided to play two years ago.
“He just loves his rugby,” she said. “The ball is always live. So he not only gets to run around, but there’s tackling, there’s moving sideways and you’re always having to think about where you are.”
Sarantidis’s son also plays rep hockey and she said rugby offers a break from aggressive rink-side parents and mornings that dawn at 4:30 a.m. The sidelines at rugby games and practices foster a strong social community among parents and the children, she said.
The Meraloma club celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, and Carter said the sports inclusively and community focus means everyone is welcome. One family even has three generations of active Meraloma members.
“In some of the other sports, it’s a bit more restrictive in what body types, what type athletes can thrive, but with rugby really there is a place for every different kid,” Carter said.
Practices are held every Sunday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at Connaught Park starting Jan. 13, weather permitting. Interested parents can contact the Meralomas by visiting meralomarugby.com.