Plenty of hard work and planning have paid off for the Bayside Sharks rugby club and its members.
Last week, on the heels of BC Rugby’s announcement that its COVID-19 return-to-play plan had moved into Phase 3 – which allowed for limited on-field contact, among other things – the South Surrey-based club announced that a 10-week touch rugby season was ready to hit the pitch.
The new co-ed program began this week, and includes a variety of divisions, each playing within their own 50-players-or-less bubble. An elite division is for older, more advanced players – members of Bayside’s senior men’s and women’s teams, as well as its older junior athletes – while a social division allows for competition that is a little more relaxed. Various junior divisions are available for the club’s high school-aged players, and a mini-rugby league is for elementary-aged players.
In total, there are seven divisions, with the option to add more if demand increases.
“Our elite division filled up fairly quickly. Within a few days, we had 48 people signed up,” said Bayside’s junior director Andrew Fiddis, who is one of the club’s executive members at the helm of the new program.
“We have a lot of guidelines to follow now… but it’s pretty exciting to finally get back out there.”
The new program will feature teams of 12 players, with six on the pitch at once; players will sub on and off in a rolling fashion – “Like hockey,” Fiddis said – and the field will be half the size of the usual game.
For the last number of weeks, Bayside and other B.C. rugby associations have been in Phase 2 of BC Rugby’s plan, which allowed for players to be on the field together for training purposes while maintaining a two-metre distance from one another. Phase 2 – dubbed ‘Rugby Re-engage’ in July by BC Rugby – also mandated that the only shared equipment could be the ball, which had to be thoroughly and consistently sanitized.
Phase 3 allows for limited on-pitch contact between players, while players on the sidelines must continue to stay two metres apart.
“Because it’s touch rugby, it’s basically keep-away, so the idea is literally not to be close to anybody – that’s the point of the whole game anyway,” said Fiddis.
Other protocols include contact tracing at every session; no on-field contact between the different bubbles; and a health questionnaire that is required to be filled out by each participant weekly.
Bayside was able to launch its program immediately because, as Fiddis points out, they planned for weeks in anticipation of the move to Phase 3. It’s the only program currently up and running in the province, he noted.
Bayside was one of a few clubs used as test cases, of sorts, for Phase 2, he noted – Bayside hosted a two-day junior-rugby camp earlier this summer, during Phase 2, “to sort out the bugs and the hiccups.”
“We worked closely with (BC Rugby officials) to get it up and running safely, and we’d been going on the assumption that Phase 3 would be approved … so we could get out of the starting gate right away.”
In its news release announcing the move to Phase 3, BC Rugby acknowledged that “many die-hard rugby players may still feel like this is still too much of a compromise,” but Fiddis said buy-in from Bayside members has been unanimous. It’s even attracting players from neighbouring clubs and former Bayside players – and even Canadian national program alumni – who are excited by the idea of returning to the sport in a format that is less physically demanding.
“Physically, rugby is very demanding and obviously (the traditional game) can take its toll on you,” he said.
“It’s not secret, and the (BC Rugby Union) would tell you the same thing, that this has the potential to be even bigger than the regular rugby product because it’s so inclusive. It’s open to a lot more people and it’s what a lot of people are looking for.”
The creation of a touch league has always been on Bayside’s agenda, Fiddis said, but it took the total shutdown of the sport due to the COVID-19 pandemic to finally bring it to the forefront.
“We all talked about it, and realized it was something we needed to do, but normally, we’re all busy with our own leagues and our own programs. But the (pandemic) provided us with some time to stop and reflect and realize this is a good opportunity to get it up and running, and give people a chance to enjoy rugby.”
Bayside is planning to run three seasons a year – spring, summer and fall – and hopes to continue the touch program long after the traditional game is allowed to return, whenever that may be.
“We’ve built it so it can be sustainable going forward. We think it’s going to be super popular,” Fiddis said.
More information on Bayside’s touch rugby program can be found at http://baysiderfc.com