Youth rugby teams in the Comox Valley start season after months of uncertainty

Participants in Rapids Rugby's spring program are seen in this photo from the Comox Valley Athletic Association website. (cvathletics.ca)

Several new youth rugby teams in Vancouver Island's Comox Valley held their first practices of the fall season this week, after months of waiting to see if they would clear administrative hurdles.

It's a milestone that was far from a certainty for the fledgling Rapids Rugby program, which offers boys and girls teams for players of various age groups, but is currently composed largely of female players. 

The group played flag rugby in the spring, but waited for months to find out if it would be approved to join youth leagues this fall.

At issue, according to coach Mimi Applebe, was the fact that the program isn't affiliated with an existing rugby club, something she said is by design.

Rugby in B.C. is run primarily by rugby clubs, many of which focus on adult men's competitions, rather than youth programs, Applebe said.

One of the goals of Rapids Rugby is to present the sport in a way that is familiar to parents and puts the focus on youth teams, an approach Applebe believes will increase participation.

"Parents don't always understand the club thing," Applebe said. "They think it's kind of different and they don't really get it, for the most part. So, I feel, very strongly, that the only way that we will get the sport to grow is if we make it look and feel like every other sport that parents sign their kids up for."

Rapids Rugby is affiliated with the Comox Valley Athletic Association, rather than the local rugby club, the Comox Valley Kickers. Applebe said she and other coaches from the program have worked with the Kickers in the past, and have approached the club about collaborating in the future. So far, their discussions have not been fruitful, she said.

CTV News Vancouver Island reached out to the Comox Valley Kickers by email, but did not receive a response.

Annabel Kehoe is the CEO of BC Rugby, which is the governing body for the sport in the province. In order to compete in a youth rugby league in B.C., a team has to belong to an organization that is a member of BC Rugby.

Applebe said Rapids Rugby submitted an application to become a BC Rugby member in April, but had heard very little from the organization since then, until learning that the application had been approved earlier this week.

Kehoe acknowledged the lengthy wait, explaining that all of the organizations involved are run by volunteers, and that BC Rugby's professional staff are a small team.

Beyond that, the application was more complicated than it would have been if the program was being run under the auspices of an existing club like the Kickers.

"This is a group that ultimately want to be known as the Rapids Rugby program, who are not yet a legal entity in their own right, and so they have partnered with the Comox Valley Athletic Association," Kehoe said. "So, that examination took a little bit longer than having a straightforward application from an entity that was a rugby entity and established in their own right."

Kehoe told CTV News BC Rugby's bylaws place limits on the admission of new members based on geography and demographics. In other words, if a region is already served by an existing rugby club - as the Comox Valley is - a new applicant might not be admitted and allowed to compete.

Kehoe described the situation as "a balancing act."

"As a team sport, we need opponents," she said. "So, you actually do want to have neighbouring clubs to play games against. There's no use, really, trying to have a huge monopoly over a geographic area, because that would mean that to find an opponent you're going to have to travel farther afield."

At the same time, however, rugby teams require a "critical mass" of players to be able to compete, Kehoe said.

"There's a balancing act between having a critical mass to put forward a team consistently, week in, week out, and having opponents that are close by so that you're not asking - particularly parents - to travel farther afield to access those games."

Applebe said her goal is not to start a new rugby club, adding that Rapids Rugby has no intention to field adult teams.

The goal is just to get more kids interested in playing the sport, and to make it as easy as possible for parents to find programs and sign their children up.

On that front, she said, the program has been a success so far. More than 50 players wanted to participate in flag rugby during the spring season, but the program was limited to 50 because of COVID-19 rules, Applebe said.

At the first practice this week, roughly 40 players participated.

Now, with months of uncertainty resolved, the teams can start preparing for their first competitive matches, another milestone that both Applebe and Kehoe will celebrate.

"The objective always was to resolve this ahead of the season starting," Kehoe said. "We do not want to sideline children from accessing the sport. That is counterproductive, counterintuitive to everything that we're about, but we had a responsibility to do our due diligence."