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Rugby rucks to the top
By Sean Maraj
It's the biggest thing around in New Zealand and South Africa. It's huge in Ireland. It's a major force in the sporting world of various countries world wide. The game is rugby and it's one of the fastest growing sports in Canada.
Rugby has been growing exponentially in the past few years, as the sport is getting more media coverage and more public attention. This growth has led to several world cups for both men and women and will culminate this year on June 17 with a game in Toronto between the Canadian national team and their Irish counterparts.
"It's flourishing because of the overall exposure of the sport nationally. More younger people are becoming attracted to it. Younger people are more aware of it regionally and nationally," said Western head coach Gerry Slattery, whose team won an Ontario University Athletics championship last fall.
In January 1999, Rugby Canada conducted a technical survey of all of its provincial unions. Mike Smith, a spokesman for Rugby Canada, confirmed the survey found the sport was experiencing a greater appeal among younger athletes. The survey "revealed an average national age of 28.8 and 23.1 for males and females respectively."
Natascha Wesch, head coach of the Western women's rugby team and a member of Canada's national team, said the inexpensive aspect of rugby contributes largely to its appeal, especially for younger people.
"It's inexpensive, there's no equipment involved. It gives whoever's interested the opportunity and a chance to play a contact sport," Wesch said. "For girls especially, that's not available. This gives them a contact situation and helps them feel more comfortable with their bodies."
The role of women in sport was also examined by the Rugby Canada survey and Smith confirmed it was apparent women's rugby is continuing to develop in all provinces.
Slattery emphasized the need to play the sport, especially at younger levels, if rugby is to continue its growth into the future.
"Rugby has to be played more in the junior ranks as a non touch sport by both male and female athletes," he said. "We have to keep pushing the regional sides, so we can keep producing successful national teams. We also have to keep the media's attention, but overall a lot of things are starting to move along."
Another important factor in rugby's popularity has come from the use of big games such as the world cup and the media coverage that can come from these events.
"Every year there's a world cup, there's more media coverage and the more popular it gets." Wesch said.
For Wesch, the growing popularity of the sport will be highlighted this summer in a game between the women's national team and the American national team; the game will be televised throughout the country by the CBC.
"The media coverage brings more people into rugby and gets people more interested. The women's team will be playing the U.S. this summer, this will be the first time on national television."
Slattery said the game against Ireland on June 17 is also indicative of the growth of rugby.
"It shows the importance of how Canada is viewed by the teams overseas. Ireland sees Canada as a competitor to organize a tour. It shows you the impact of the game," he said.