Thank goodness the shock, the distress, the disbelief and the anger that dominated the front pages and newscasts lasted for only a few days. Less than a week.
School rugby was back where it belonged.
The girls and boys who love playing the sport for their high schools – from one end of the province to the other – were back on the pitch doing their athletic best, scoring points, making tackles, happily participating in an outdoor activity.
There had been some anxious days following the Nova Scotia School Athletic Association’s decision to ban rugby at the high school level. It was an announcement that came suddenly and unexpectedly.
Take your gear home and don’t bring it back to school seemed to be the message delivered to the players who were in mid-season, holding practices, playing games, enjoying themselves.
I was as shocked as anyone when the federation jumped to the fore and pronounced that rugby would no longer be a school activity.
A controversy erupted – which was no surprise.
The furor started when the federation, in a brief memo to school principals, ordered the sport to the sidelines. Within 24 hours, thousands of Nova Scotians, including hundreds of the teenagers who play the game, were signing petitions. Good for them. That was carrying the ball in the right direction.
It became one of the province’s ugliest sports debates I can recall.
Little was being said to explain why a ban was happening. Injuries, though, were unofficially being blamed for the decision. Yet as far back as I can recall, injuries were no more common in rugby than in other contact sports such as hockey and football.
Even the chief of the Halifax Infirmary’s emergency room, Dr. Sam Campbell, was explaining why he felt the ban was “unwise.” He put an important message out there for everyone to consider.
Like many, many Nova Scotians, the federation’s action shocked me instantly. Then it angered me. Then it had me wondering, what the heck is going on here? Will hockey or football or some other activity be the next victim?
Then the sport got political.
Enter Zach Churchill, the 34-year-old Liberal MLA from Yarmouth and the province’s minister of education for a couple of years.
Though I spent some years covering politics, including my years back in Pictou County, and a two-year assignment in the press gallery at the Nova Scotia Legislature, I didn’t know much about Zach Churchill. I don’t believe I would recognize him if he were having coffee at the next table in a Tim Hortons.
Anyway, rugby had moved onto the political field, a place where I usually try not to tread these days. On this matter, though, I couldn’t help myself.
My own kids – all multi-sport participants in their school days – are well into the workplace. Two granddaughters in Cole Harbour play competitive minor hockey and soccer among their athletic endeavours. But they’ve never tried rugby.
Yet I couldn’t help but sympathize with children and families involved in the game.
In much less time than it usually takes politicians to make things right, there was our education minister speaking out, trying to quell the fire before it spread further. Give him credit for that.
Churchill’s hope was to return rugby to the pitch faster than Perry Mason used to solve his many murder cases.
At least that’s what the minister’s intention seemed to be as the weekend arrived. Young ruggers could dig their equipment out of their closets, head for the fields and play their games. At least that’s the impression I got.
But opposition parties were having their say, too. Shirtsleeves were being rolled up as government opponents began tossing in their two cents worth.
It looked as though it could have become a long verbal battle – with the 2018-19 school year moving into its final weeks.
Luckily, wiser heads prevailed.
A meeting in Truro, with Deputy Education Minister Cathy Montreuil and federation president Stephen MacNeil performing in their key roles, turned a bad situation good again.
Agreement was reached that Rugby Nova Scotia would supervise the sport for the remainder of the season.
The kind of news we all wanted to hear.
But before leaving the sport to the players, coaches and their fans, I want to ask one question: Do you have rugby memories?
I was introduced to the sport when I entered New Glasgow High in September 1952. Athletic director John (Brother) MacDonald, the rugby coach, asked me if I would come to practice.
Rugby was a major autumn school activity in those days. It remained so through the rest of my school time and well beyond. It’s become even bigger, with the girls now just as involved as the boys.
In the county in the 1950s, boys rugby was played at NGHS, Pictou Academy, Stellarton High, Westville High and St. John’s Academy. With Colchester County Academy included, there was a competitive six-team league.
My own “tryout” didn’t last as long as the recent controversy – just two or three afternoons. Life in the scrum wasn’t something I cherished. Brother agreed.
I didn’t go far, though. I was soon assisting the coach in his other job – sportscaster at the local radio station. By grade 11, I was writing sports for the Evening News – covering an NGHS rugby squad that won five provincial A rugby championships in seven years.
Some of the school’s leading athletes were ruggers. Guys like team captain Bobby Wadden, George Manos, George Harper, Francis Desmond and Wayne Dickson carried their rugby memories with them when they graduated.
Those were good times.
When I reminisce, I think of the school players I talked to many years later. I don’t remember any of them ever mentioning problems, controversies, or reasons for a major dispute.
They simply loved playing the game – just like today’s kids.