Young stars take on new rugby challenge

Cali Martinez, Nick Collett, Drew Coles, Christian Haldane, Nick Wright, Tim Stephens and Matt Gallagher (as well as Gino Paolella, missing from photo) are headed to Scotland. - Don Wright photo
Cali Martinez, Nick Collett, Drew Coles, Christian Haldane, Nick Wright, Tim Stephens and Matt Gallagher (as well as Gino Paolella, missing from photo) are headed to Scotland.
— image credit: Don Wright photo

With an eye towards one day competing at the Commonwealth Games, a handful of young Peninsula rugby players are heading to Scotland, to compete in a nine-a-side rugby league tournament.

Later this month, eight South Surrey players will suit up for Canada’s U19 nine-a-side rugby league team, which will compete June 27-28 at 2014 Rugby League Commonwealth Championships.

The eight-country tournament – which in addition to traditional rugby powerhouses like England, Wales, South Africa, Australia and Scotland also includes Jamaica and Papua New Guinea – will act as a pre-amble of sorts to the Commonwealth Games, which being in late July.

Of the 15 players on the Canadian roster, 13 are from B.C. and eight have Peninsula ties. Earl Marriott Secondary’s Cali Martinez and Nick Wright, Semiahmoo’s Matt Gallagher, Elgin Park’s Christian Haldane and Southridge’s Drew Coles, Tim Stephens and Nick Collett are all on the squad, as is Gino Paolella, a Langley resident who plays club rugby for the Bayside Sharks.

Head coach and chief organizers of the team is South Surrey’s Andy Blackburn, while Mike Jamieson – a teacher and rugby coach at Elgin Park – and Don Wright will serve as the assistant coach and manager, respectively.

The tournament aims to help boost the sport’s profile in advance of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which are set to be hosted by Gold Coast, Australia; Australian organizers want rugby league added to the roster of official sports four years from now.

“We’re the early part of the Commonwealth Games, basically. The whole purpose of this trip, in the bigger picture, is to get rugby league played four years from now,” said Blackburn. “The same way that rugby sevens got accepted into the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, we’re trying to follow suit with rugby-league nines.”

Rugby league differs from rugby-union play in that there are no scrums or line outs, and is similar to football in that each team has six attempts to move down the field and score. After the sixth attempt, the team with possession is forced to kick the ball away.

And while this incarnation of the sport has only been played in Canada for about five years – and just three in B.C. – Blackburn thinks it’s something that will catch on among the province’s top athletes.

“Canadians are made for rugby league. It’s an easier-to-understand version of rugby, with elements of CFL and NFL football in it,” he said. “Rugby union… can be daunting if you’ve never played before. Rugby league is more speed and toughness oriented. I think it would appeal to a lot of this country’s top-tier athletes who are maybe playing hockey or football.

“It really is an enjoyable sport to play because they get to run the ball as much as they want, they can make as many tackles as they want, whereas in rugby union, those opportunities may not exist depending on what position you play.”

Though the players he’s taking with him to Scotland are all accomplished on high school, provincial, even national, rugby pitches, Blackburn does expect some growing pains at the tournament, especially considering the competition will be fierce. It’s why ‘coachability’ was high on Blackburn’s list when he was selecting players for the team.

“The guys we picked were selected based on two things. One, they’re pedigree in rugby union – all these guys have represented their province at some stage, so they have rugby skills,” he said.

“Being coachable is important too, because we obviously have a pretty short time to teach them a new game, and we’re going up against England in our first game – these guys are getting thrown into the proverbial deep end.”

Canada will also be among the youngest teams taking part. Even though it’s a U19 event, Blackburn specifically chose players who were under-18, so they’d all be eligible to play next year, if a similar tournament is held.

Also, if rugby league is added to the Commonwealth Games for 2018, it will be a U23 tournament – which means the current players would all be eligible.

“Our goal here is to look ahead. What we achieve this year, hopefully we can build on in the year’s to come,” Blackburn said.

“The success story with this is literally just the ability to put a team together, and get one a plane and go to a Commonwealth tournament like this, with guys who’ve never played the sport before. But the second level of success will be determined by how much we improve.

“It’s going to be a hell of an experience, but a big, daunting task.”

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