Thompson-Okanagan PRC teams were very competitive in the Provincial Regional Championships last weekend, with the U18 Girls winning the gold and all other teams moving up in performance. However, it was the Thompson-Okanagan U14 Boys PRC team that got the pundits talking. How is it possible that an interior U14 Boys team could reach a semi-final and, although they lost 19 - 17 to the VRU North, be a legitimate contender for the gold medal game?
The answer begins in 2010 when George Curran assembled a motley crew of 20 U6 and U8 kids to take part in the first year of the Crows Mini-Rugby program. Those same players were joined by more and more players throughout the years that followed. The 2017 minis program featured more than 150 players at the U6, U8, and U10 levels.
In 2011, Ken Boe started the SD23 Elementary Touch Sevens League for U12 players. Funded by a grant from Columbia Bottles and Recycling, Ken wrote a set of lesson plans for elementary educators to introduce touch sevens in their schools. This gave grade 5 and 6 players a place to learn basic rugby running, passing, and team defense skills. Within a few years, those kids from the mini-rugby program were participating in this school league. Their skills were noticeably better if they had played mini-rugby.
In 2013, the elementary touch sevens overflowed into the community, as CORE offered a U12 community league to give players one more day to play this fun, fast, fitness-oriented game. In that same year, Barry Ebl started the CORD Academy, an off-season opportunity for U14 and U16 players to add 20+ hours of rugby skill development to their rugby resume.
In its early years, the Academy struggled to get players, always working with 12 - 15 enthusiastic rugby youth. In 2016, the PRC Coordinator position was co-funded by CORE and the City of Kelowna. The job is to work with schools throughout the Thompson-Okanagan area to recruit and retain U14, U16, and U18 players to the PRC program. In the second year of this program, PRC Coordinator Kevin Low recruited 30+ players to the CORD Academy, many whom went on to play for the 2017 U14 and U16 PRC sides.
The Central Okanagan rugby development infrastructure is very strong from U6 to U14. It is made up of the parts described above, and it, along with the quality coaching and skilled athletes, contributed to a bronze medal at the PRCs for the U14 side this year. For some, the U14 Boys PRC side seems like an 'overnight sensation' but that is far from the truth. Like all things in life, our achievements are a by-product of our good work over time.
The Central Okanagan rugby infrastructure for U16 to O40 is not as effective. As a result, our best athletes disappear into other better organized sports. This hurts our performance at provincial high school championships, our capacity for quality U16 and U18 PRC teams, our local university and adult 15's and sevens rugby programs, and even the relative size of our local rugby community when compared to other sports.
We have many of the parts required to be successful after U14. However we lack the will and the volunteers to make it happen. Our biggest challenge is grade 9 rugby; our athletes have nowhere to play in schools or community. School rugby coaches have dwindled away; even a school sponsor teacher for a community coach is tough to find. Other challenges exist - no U20 program for graduating local rugby players, the complete absence of a girls youth rugby program, and some silly and out-dated infighting between rugby programs.
However, there is a light at the end of this Central Okanagan rugby development tunnel. Three local businesses (Capri Insurance, Code Three Emergency Services, Columbia Bottles and Recycling) have each committed $3,000/year to develop the sport of touch rugby from U12 to adult by 2020. This will provide a solid rugby development baseline for our sport at all ages. The SD23 middle and high school rugby programs have a volunteer (Marshall Corbett) to resolve our grade 9 problem. He'll also work with the Crows to find coaches for our disappearing middle/secondary school rugby programs and to establish a U20 program for graduating players. Most significantly, all seven Central Okanagan rugby organizations (SD23 elementary, SD23 middle/secondary, UBCO, Crows, Vicars, ORRS, CORE Programs) have agreed to work collaboratively through the CORE Society to streamline the player and coach development trajectory from 5 to 55+. These are all good signs.
The U14 players and coaches should be extremely proud of their achievements last weekend. Those of you who volunteer or contribute financially to the emerging Central Okanagan rugby infrastructure - you should be proud too. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it also takes a whole rugby community to produce high quality players and competitive teams. Well done, everyone. Let's see if we can continue with our success.