Olympic exposure has potential to kick start Canadian rugby

Olympic inclusion could be the catalyst Canadian women’s rugby needs to increase funding and drive participation.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) delegates voted 81-8 in favour of rugby sevens inclusion and the sport will re-enter the Olympic fold at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games after a 92-year absence.

The delegates were gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark to vote on both rugby and golf.  For Chris Rudge, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, rugby is ideally poised for Olympic success.

“I think it’s an excellent sport to be added to the (Olympic) program,” Rudge said. “It’s highly accessible, it’s gender equivalent now around the world and the IOC looks for sports that attract both men and women.”

For the Canadian women’s team, currently ranked fourth in the world, Olympic inclusion will potentially go a long way to securing increased funding.  Sport Canada, a division of the Department of Canadian Heritage is the organization responsible for funding decisions, under the guise of programs such as Own The Podium.

“No meetings have taken place and no decisions made but that money is targeted towards the sports that have the best chance of reaching the podium,” Rudge said. “In that context women’s rugby, given the world ranking (fourth) would certainly fall on the radar in terms of being a potentially targeted sport for funding.”

The funding though may change the current emphasis on the more traditional 15-a-side version of the game. Pearce Higgins, a member of the Rugby Canada board of directors, remains cautious.

“On balance it’s a good thing; money will come from new sources,” Higgins said. “However I have some concerns that the focus on rugby might switch from 15’s to sevens as the Olympic money will only be for sevens. The whole picture changes in terms of the funding from Sport Canada.”

Fifteen a-side rugby is the traditional form of the game and is where the majority of funding is currently directed. Players are amateur in this country but receive some financial help through Sport Canada.

Higgins thinks the level of funding should increase but the amount of players able to use it may decrease as only half the number of players are required for sevens.

However in terms of participation and the development of the game in this country, Higgins was bolder in his predictions.

“It’s enormous, young kids will pick up rugby balls far more often now,” he said. “It will be much easier for our development officers to go into schools and get kids excited about the sport when they know its in the Olympics.”

Toronto mayor, David Miller, a 22-year rugby veteran, agreed with Higgins. He felt that rugby’s inclusion would help kick start growth and draw children back into the game. He scoffed at the idea that rugby was too violent a game for children.

“There is nothing wrong with a contact sport,” Miller said. “Its good, you need to teach kids how to use their bodies properly and the skill in rugby is beautiful.”