BOW VALLEY – A new rugby league pilot project will debut on Banff's pitch this May, replacing the contact and tackling aspect of the game.
Amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns, Rugby Canada has deemed that the earliest clubs and leagues would be able to return to contact is mid-August.
“With that in mind, we as a club, have chosen to forego joining any type of competitive inter-club league,” said Oli McKay, president of Banff Rugby Club.
“In its place, we’re going to actually be running a pilot project that’s debuting across the country this year and it’s called rush rugby.”
The five-on-five, non-contact version of the sport has players wearing a flag belt around the waist, similar to flag football, and the Banff club will feature two mixed gender leagues for ages 10 to 13, and 14 and up.
McKay, who will coordinate the 14 and up league, said even if you haven't played rugby before, this is a no-skill required situation.
“It’s a super accessible version of the game that will allow for people who have been maybe turned off by the contact of it to engaged in it,” said McKay.
“There are no practices; everyone will come down on Wednesdays and each team plays every team … it allows us to play a round robin tournament every Wednesday.”
The 12-week program will start at the end of May and finish mid-August. Registration starts mid-April, and will start as a 50-person cohort – five teams of 10 – and if demand clamours for more, additional 50-person cohorts would be added.
McKay said rush rugby will help players get a feel for the game without the likelihood of close contact.
Rush rugby is played in two five-minute halves and has rules such as no kicking the ball, five downs in a rush and no tackling.
Like rugby, points are scored when a player earns a five-point try after crossing the opposing team’s goal line and touching the ball to the ground.
A free pass from the centre of the playing field will restart play.
When four teams in the league are playing, the fifth team’s players will officiate the two matches.
Due to the facelift at the Banff rec grounds, matches will be played at the high school and elementary school fields in town.
McKay added an important aspect is getting the younger crowd involved in rugby again.
“A big concern is it’s been two years since any of these kids have played rugby at the absolute minimum,” said McKay. “Next year, coming back, if we are able to have a high school season … obviously safety is paramount. If they have at least a little bit of a feel of what rugby feels like flowing, that’s one of the big steps for us.”
The local rugby club will also train younger players aged 10-13 to grow the ranks for the next generation at Banff Bears high school rugby and beyond, which has already produced local standouts such as Holly Phillips of the U.K.'s Bristol Bears, and University of Victoria Vikings trio Ashah Payson, Jalen Payson, and Mitchell Wainman.
The program will be spearheaded by Jeff Langer-McIntosh, junior development officer for the Banff club, who'll teach the technical elements from scratch.
"For me, I've always seen a need for a junior program to feed the high school team," said Langer-McIntosh, who coaches the high school boys team. "What we're finding is the high school season is so short ... and there's quite a lot of information to take in. Maybe as a result, injuries happen because some of the kids aren't as prepared as they could be."
The younger players will practice twice a week starting May 25, with the program ending July 29. Registration opens mid-April.
Helping run it are McKay, and Banff high school girls coach Lee Garrett, who all are passionate about continuing to grow rugby in the mountain town.
"We wanted to keep the kids doing something," said Langer-McIntosh. "If there is a club-based system where we can have a small cohort and keep people safe and follow the guidelines, then I think we can still have sport activities and keep kids fit and active, even during a pandemic."