By: Mike Anderson
When Lillian Villecco first told her family that her nine-year old daughter Virginia was going to play rugby for the Georgina Griffins, there were some raised eyebrows. After all, rugby is a rough and tumble sport.
But the Georgina Griffins Amateur Rugby League Football Club (ARLFC), based in Keswick, isn’t your typical rugby club.
Not only is it the first junior rugby league club in Canada, it’s also the first to introduce a non-contact version for kids that’s similar to flag football.
“Her brother plays football for the York Region Lions, so she likes the type of sport but didn’t want to play contact,” says Ms. Villecco. “ She has tried a lot of other sports, gymnastics, T-ball, soccer, and this is the one she really enjoys.”
Known as “Tag rugby” or “OZ tag,” the program started in Australia and quickly spread to rugby-loving countries like Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
According to club president and coach Mark Forde, the goal of tag rugby is to teach girls and boys, ages 4 to 16, the basics of the sport, while removing their fear of physical contact and the risk of possible concussion.
That’s a big deal for Tim Lavender, who’s son Jaxson, 8, also plays for the Griffins.
Mr. Lavender, who used to play high-school rugby, says he started worrying about head injuries, after his god-daughter suffered a severe concussion playing university rugby.
“It makes you aware that it’s a possibility,” says Mr. Lavendar. “But if you’re coached soundly, and you start young enough, you can learn skills that can help eliminate the likelihood of that happening.”
Mr. Lavendar also thinks the club does a great job of encouraging all kids in the sport, regardless of size or gender.
“There were a couple of girls that initially said ‘I’m not very fast, the boys will be better than me,’” says Mr. Lavendar. “But they have achieved a level of confidence they never would have achieved without this club. You watch them now, and they’re scoring tries, walking tall. “
The club attracted 55 kids in its first season, but Mr. Forde expects that word will spread and more kids will join next season.
“The feedback we’ve gotten has been fantastic. It’s a much more interactive game for the kids,” says Mr. Forde. “They all get their hands on the ball which keeps them more engaged. And it’s a great thing for fitness, because they are running constantly.”
Mr. Forde also sees a big future for rugby league play in Ontario, with a club starting up in Caledonia this year, and another two or three coming aboard next year.
“This will allow us have inter-club competition, or at least festival play on the weekends,” he says.