Toronto ready to embrace rugby
Toronto is perhaps best associated with the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays and Raptors when it comes to sports, but in a city where sport is king and major summer team sports sparse, rugby is about to take centre stage.
On Saturday, the largest city in Canada will deliver the stage for a little bit of rugby history as Canada and USA lock horns at the BMO Field to determine the first direct qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2015 in England, rugby’s global showcase event.
Rugby is growing in participation and appeal in Canada, boosted by the Olympic effect and a broadcast deal that guarantees nationwide coverage. New boys and girls are joining the fold and players are being attracted to the sport before high school, which is a major sea shift.
By the time Rugby World Cup 2015 kicks off, Rugby Canada hopes to have attracted, engaged and inspired a new generation of fans and the signs are that the strategy is working.
And with Brian Burke, the former NHL executive, and a major name in North American sports, having joined Rugby Canada’s Board of Directors this week, the sky appears to be the limit.
While Burke will bring his considerable sports entertainment experience on the long-term development and reach of a sport he “loves”, having played rugby in his formative years, the immediate focus is on this weekend’s match and a historic moment for North American rugby.
“I am very excited that the first direct qualifier for Rugby World Cup 2015 will come from North America,” said IRB Council Member Bob Latham.
“It reflects our ambition, our desire to be truly competitive on the world stage and also gives us a great exposure platform to show the world what rugby in this region is all about.”
IRB figures suggest that there are now more than 5.5 million registered rugby players worldwide, an 18 per cent increase in the last four years. A fifth are women.
That growth is mirrored, indeed exceeded, in North America where USA has experienced a 25 per cent increase in rugby participation and USA Rugby exposed one million boys and girls to the IRB Development Award-winning Rookie Rugby programme.
All of this despite significant geographical, climate and squad assembly challenges that make domestic elite competition difficult.
“The IRB is also playing its part. Targeted investment programmes, a structured competition schedule – Canada and USA competed in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup for the first time in 2013 – and an exciting Tier Two schedule means that our teams are getting exposure to more regular, highly-competitive matches. They also assist with player release,” said Latham.
“That in turn is attractive to broadcasters and sponsors and exciting for audiences as we are welcoming teams to our shores such as Ireland in June and the Maori All Blacks who arrive in November when we will also play the best in Europe. Definitely exciting times.”
Genuine medal opportunity
Rugby is a sport that continues to break new frontiers and bring people together through the character-building values of solidarity, passion and respect. These two nations have been at the fore of that movement.
“Canada and the USA have embraced the opportunity that Olympic inclusion has given this sport,” said Latham. “Canada have secured government support and both Unions have NOC support. Both are attracting new boys and girls to the sport in record numbers.
“Both are on upward performance curves in men’s and women’s Sevens and Fifteens programmes. And excitingly, both have a genuine opportunity to win a medal in Sevens at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.”
Back to Toronto and a big crowd is expected at the BMO Field to see history being made. They love sport in Ontario’s capital and in high summer, it is the perfect opportunity for locals to find out what the sport is all about.
The qualification dream will not be over for the loser, but the winning team on aggregate will be able to immediately focus on preparing for England 2015 and an opportunity to showcase the best of North American Rugby to a global audience of four billion.
“Whatever the result on Saturday, the match will allow rugby and its character-building values to reach new audiences across this vast continent,” said Latham.