Rugby can be an intimidating sport to the casual observer. It’s fast, it’s physical, and at higher levels it involves repeated collisions between large and muscular athletes who forgo the protection of helmets and pads. An exciting game to watch, but not necessarily a parent’s first choice of recreational activity for their kids.
Stephen List, head coach of the Axemen Rugby Club, wants to dispel these impressions. He has played all around the world, from Canada to New Zealand to his native United Kingdom, and he knows that rugby is much more than just a violent contact sport contested by physical specimens weighing well in excess of 200 pounds.
In fact, rugby involves a great deal of technicality and teamwork: skills that would benefit newcomers of all ages, no matter how competitive or recreational they choose to be. The Axemen are committed to growing their sport locally, and so far they’ve introduced more than 950 primary and secondary school students to rugby through their Connect to Club program.
“We want to come out and showcase that rugby is far more than what we see in the highlight reels of people getting tackled,” said List.
Tag, you’re it
Axemen coaches understand that the physical side of the game can be a barrier to entry for some. That’s why they introduce school-aged children and youth to tag rugby: a prevalent non-contact form of the sport where players try to pull Velcro tags from the belts of their opponents rather than executing tackles. Outside of that factor, tag rugby accurately simulates most of the rules found in its physical counterparts of rugby union and league.
“It’s a really, really good introduction to the core fundamental skills involved in the game,” List explained.
From April to November of 2022, the Axemen visited schools across the Sea to Sky corridor, including Myrtle Philip and Spring Creek in Whistler, Signal Hill Elementary in Pemberton, and Brackendale and Howe Sound Secondary in Squamish. There, they acquainted pupils from Grade 2 all the way to high school to non-contact rugby in various hour-long sessions.
These rugby crash courses were incorporated into normal Physical Education classes at each school, allowing club members to introduce the sport to all students rather than just the ones interested enough to linger after the school day ends.
In addition to their Connect to Club initiative, the Axemen were involved at Whistler Secondary School (WSS) through a different project funded by the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) last fall, preparing Grade 8 and 9 students for competitive rugby matches against Vancouver schools. List estimates that 95 per cent of youth that the club trained at WSS had no prior rugby experience, yet they were able to put on a lively contest against St. George’s Senior School, which has an established rugby program.
Moreover, the Axemen have also brought their sport to First Nations communities in Squamish via youth programs hosted by Totem Hall.
By and large, the club’s outreach efforts have been warmly received.
“We had [plenty of positive comments] from the kids, like; ‘I really loved playing rugby,’ ‘I want to do more rugby,’ ‘will you be coming back?’” List said. “Those are the things that stick out to me.”
‘A lot to get excited about’
Meanwhile, the Axemen’s competitive squads have also returned to action. The club moved up to BC Rugby’s Division 1 after winning the Division 2 title last May and is rolling with the challenges presented by lengthier road trips and more talented competition. Despite three straight losses to the Surrey Beavers, Bayside Sharks and Port Alberni Black Sheep, the Axemen remain on the cusp of a playoff spot, and their next few matches will be pivotal.
In any case, List isn’t fazed by how the season has gone.
“I think it’s actually helped build the club and strengthen our bonds,” he said. “We’ve gone on some long away trips, which have [provided] good quality time together. We’re getting more in attendance [for Thursday night training] than we ever have at this time of year—regularly 35 to 40 people.
“On the whole, the guys have responded in a very admirable fashion. We’re facing some tough opposition—clubs that have been around for over 40 years, and we’ve been around for just about eight years. So we’re playing teams with a rich heritage, but the positive thing is: we’re still building. There’s a lot to get excited about, for new people and for regulars as well.”
Both the Division 1 and Division 3 teams tend to have more away games earlier in the season, but get to finish their campaigns on home soil. Now is a good time of year for fans and curious minds to visit Brennan Park in Squamish and experience what a competitive 15-per-side rugby fixture is all about. Moreover, the Axemen’s youth section resumed training on Feb. 26, providing a handy opportunity for local youngsters to get involved.
“Our youth program will teach children how to safely tackle and introduce contact to their game,” List said. “The main emphasis for our community is [facilitating] safe and engaging experiences for all ages.”