Friday was a big night for Canadian Rugby. The first game against a visiting Maori All Black team on Canadian soil and a record attendance for an international rugby fixture in this country. But for a group of children and teenagers, Friday was about something even more special.
The Thunder Rookie Rugby program gives kids from First Nations communities the chance to engage with rugby through their local cultural centres. From a small pilot, the program has now expanded to six different locations between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. As part of this year’s Fall program, over 80 participants from across the program were given the unique opportunity to be part of the halftime show during the match at BC Place.
On Friday afternoon, groups from Musqueam, Saanich, Songhees and other First Nations congregated at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre in East Vancouver. As they boarded the buses to got to the stadium, the noise and chatter grew. Stickers and temporary tattoos of maple leafs and Canadian flags were plastered on faces and arms. The excitement levels were palpable.
At the stadium, the 100 strong group of kids, coaches and chaperones made their way to their seats amongst the massing crowds of Canadian and New Zealand rugby fans. The concourses were buzzing with enthusiastic chatter and anticipation. The fiery fanfare that heralded both teams as they made their way on to the field only served to raise the atmosphere further.
After passionate renditions of each team’s national anthems, led by the impressive vocal talents of McKinley Bourne, attention turned to the centre of the field for the Haka. Some of the children in the group had already had a taste of this famous war cry, during visits by Maori All Black players to cultural centres in Vancouver the day before. Now though, was a chance to see the full squad perform in all its glory. Seeing aboriginal heritage being proudly displayed on a grand stage, and receiving such adulation from the crowd, doubtless resonated with some of the children. Despite the national flags waving in their hands, no one could blame them for feeling a connection with the Maori players on the pitch.
The game kicked off and the crowd roared into gear supporting their teams. With the roof on at BC Place Stadium, the noise bubbled and boiled like a cauldron. About 20 minutes into the first half, the group had to get ready for their big moment. Filing out of their seats and down through the bowels of the stadium, the excited chatter from the kids echoed off the concrete walls.
Gathered at the mouth of the east tunnel, a hurried transformation unfurled. Cleats were laced and rugby strips donned as the seconds ticked away in the first half. Necks craned to get a view of the pitch and the crowd beyond. Soon that would be their platform and their audience. Bright eyes and smiles sparkled in nervous anticipation. The halftime whistle blew and moments later, an excited sea of children swarmed out on to the field.
Returning to the east tunnel, the young players received rounds of applause and high fives from the watching crowds. Excited chatter and laughter filled the air. “Did you see that try?”. “I can’t believe you made that tackle!”. “That was so much fun, I want to go back out!”.
Thunder Rookie Rugby programs will return Spring 2018. Talk to your local cultural centre for more information or contact Tony LaCarte. Thank you to all of the coaches, parents and helpers for making Friday such a fantastic experience.
If you are interested in finding a Rookie Rugby program for your children in Spring 2018, check out our Find A Club page. Here you can see which rugby clubs near you provide rugby for young children (also called Minis). If you have more general questions about rugby and how to get your children involved, contact Rugby Development Officer for your area.