Varsity

Ruck me up rugby style

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By Tyler Kidd

When Carson Brown first discovered rugby, she was in the stands watching her brother play. She was only 12 years old but she knew she didn’t just want to watch. She looked into a local club team.

It’s been seven years since Brown first embraced the sport. Since then, she has represented Ontario at the national championships and even played with Team Canada. She’s playing now for the Algonquin Thunder.

When Brown started training this year, she was finishing her recovery from breaking her arm – the most significant injury she has sustained play rugby.

She says she likes that rugby is a contact sport, that she likes to “get in there.”

Women’s rugby does see less contact than men’s rugby in the OCAA. Because the women play in teams of seven, and the men play in teams of 15, there’s just more open space to run into. However, playing sevens means there’s roughly half the people to share the ball with. Brown says it’s more about the respect shown when you compete.

“I don’t think it’s a dangerous sport if you’re playing smart and your opponents are playing smart,” says Brown. “When I was growing up I was told that rugby was a bit of a gentlemen’s game or a high-mannered game. You just have to have respect for each other.”

Brown is serious when she says you need to play smart. The OCAA rugby season is short. It starts in September and is over by early November. Practice time at the start of training camp is valuable. Even still, Brown says it’s important not to overlook the very basics of the game.

“I have always said, ‘I don’t mind taking the first couple of weeks just to go over the basics of tackling’,” she says. “Because I would rather my teammates be safe than to have a teammate be rushed into certain styles of the game that they don’t understand.”

Rugby is a demanding sport. Its athletes need to be in excellent shape, they need to trust each other on the field and they have to strike a delicate balance between the aggressive physical nature of the sport and their own well-being.

Rowan Stringer was a 17-year-old rugby player at John McRae Secondary School in Ottawa. She died in 2013.

After her death on May 12 of that year, it was revealed that she had suffered two concussions in the days before her death. Though she had shared concerns with her friends, she didn’t report her symptoms to her coaches or trainers. The coaches or trainers didn’t recognize her symptoms either.

Rowan’s Law, known officially as Bill 193, was passed by Ontario in March. It requires athletes and their parents to be made aware of the signs and symptoms of concussions. It also forces groups like the OCAA to have policies amongst its leagues to remove athletes from the game if they are suspected of suffering from concussion. The legislation is the first of its kind in Canada.

The law shifts the burden from the athlete to the community. Instead of requiring an athlete who may be suffering from a concussion to report their symptoms, entire organizations are being educated on how to recognize when something is wrong.

“It’s great to see the progress that the province especially is making with regards to concussions,” says Kaylin Fraser, athletic therapist and strength and conditioning coach at Centennial College. “It’s unfortunate that it took the passing of Rowan Stringer for the province to get on board and pass all the legislation but is great that it is happening now.”

“It’s unfortunate that it took the passing of Rowan Stringer for the province to get on board and pass all the legislation but is great that it is happening now.”

– Kaylin Fraser, Athletic Therapist at Centennial College

While Centennial College doesn’t have a rugby program, the athletics department started the conversation about concussions on day one. That’s the point with Rowan’s Law — all athletes are legally required to be aware of risks that exist.

“Responsibilities of taking care of the concussion things around return to sport, return to school and the steps you need to take if you do have a concussion or if you suspect that a friend or family member, or teammate as well.”

Students are provided with a video explaining what to look for and students must sign off saying they acknowledge the risks. They also are agreeing to report these symptoms in themselves or on their teammates.

“It’s a ten-minute educational about signs and symptoms of concussions,” says Fraser.

Thunder men’s coach Geoff Tomlinson has been in rugby for 40 years, playing and coaching. He has witnessed the firsthand evolution of the sport. It’s gone from a sport where referees turned a blind eye and players got even on the field to a well-organized sport where players trust the officials to keep them safe.

“I come from an era where the game was far more violent,” says Tomlinson. He says it’s not just the game that’s changed – the athletes are also bigger, at all levels of the game.

“People are bigger, I wouldn’t say fitter,” he says. Tomlinson sees a direct link between fitness and injury.

“That’s where all the injuries occur – well, not all, but most. It’s fitness based,” he explained. “If you don’t take pride in your fitness, which I believe is a core skill of rugby, you are going to get injured.”

Even though Fraser isn’t currently working with rugby athletes, she has in the past.

Fatigue leads to two problems in sport: poor decision-making and weakened muscles. This is made worse if athletes aren’t physically ready for the rigors of a sport like rugby.

“[One problem] especially in female rugby, is the lack of upper body and neck strength to protect the spine and the head from those body on body collisions,” says Fraser.

The sport, especially to those unfamiliar with it, can seem brutal. Athletes slam together – seemingly head-on at times. However, there are strict rules.

“In rugby, you have to go down with the person or it’s a penalty. You can’t just clothesline someone and get away with it. That’s not the point,” says Andrew White, a captain with the Algonquin men’s team. “And there’s a safety aspect. It’s tackling properly. I have learned so many techniques I have taught other players.”

In the rugby community, players understand they face risk. They know that you could get hurt with any play. So, they have a vested interest in sharing their knowledge to make the game safer.

Rugby is very much a close-knit community, and it seems those that get involved with the sport tend to stick around a long time. Despite the aggression and violent nature of the collisions, there’s a bond amongst the players. And Brown says she loves that it’s just her and the other athletes on the field.

“I love how it’s no padding, just strictly your body and your body is your protection,”

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