Indigenous rugby teams gear up for national tournament
Indigenous Spruce Rugby teams are sending boys and girls teams to compete in national tournament this March
Two rugby teams made up of players from Indigenous communities across New Brunswick will take on the best young rugby players from across the country next month.
After including the sport in the 2017 New Brunswick Indian Summer Games, there was a push on to grow the sport.
In less than a year, coaches from across the province recruited Indigenous players and began developing two under-18 teams to compete against Canada's best in Vancouver in March.
On Sunday, the boys and girls teams were at the Moncton SportsDome practising before the 2018 Canadian Rugby Sevens U-18 championship.
Ask most of the young players, like 14-year-old Hannah Vicaire from Listuguj, what they like about rugby and you'll hear a common answer — the tackling.
Vicaire was inspired to try the sport last September because her mother used to play.
"I didn't know I was going to go this far in rugby at all," she said.
Now, being part of a squad made up solely of young Indigenous players, she said she's privileged to be a part of it all.
Fifteen-year-old William Cassell from Rexton said he was excited to get an invitation to be on the team.
"I didn't expect it," he said.
Cassell said being part of a squad made up of players drawn from Kingsclear to Elsipogtog is special because there wasn't a team before.
National tournaments usually see teams representing provinces or territories, but this year Rugby Canada agreed to allow the extra teams, developed through Aboriginal Sport and Recreation New Brunswick, to compete as Indigenous Spruce Rugby.
Assistant coach Blake Edwards said that aside from hockey and lacrosse, he thinks this is the first national tournament where teams made up of only Indigenous players will have competed. He said the significance of this is "huge."
Edwards hopes it will help create a positive experience for the kids involved.
He has decades of experience in the sport as both a player and a coach. He said the vision for the program is to continue to develop Indigenous rugby in the province.
For now, Edwards said the focus is on developing the skills to compete in British Columbia. He thinks putting together the teams in such a short period is already a success and to win a game or two would be a bonus.
"I think it's just great that we're sending 24 kids, 24 athletes out to Vancouver to compete on a national competition," said Edwards.
Vicaire said there have been some obstacles.
"It's kind of hard because practices are only once every two weeks, so it's definitely frustrating if you don't get enough practice in before, like, a big tournament," she said.
Edwards said while it's important to put up a good fight, the focus is on continuing to develop the program.
"Give it a couple years and we'll be right there," he said.
With files from Radio-Canada's Francois LeBlanc