The Northern Ireland Executive project, funded through the T:BUC Cross Community Programme, was delayed by the Covid pandemic but since getting off the ground in September the project hasn’t looked back with City of Derry RFC reaping the rewards.
“Our aim is to raise awareness that rugby is a sport everyone on this island can play together regardless of background,” explained Neil Forester, Lead Community Outreach Officer at City of Derry and one of three coaches who has been taking the programme into local schools.
“I’m in the likes of Good Shepherd Primary, Pennyburn, Drumahoe and Lisnagelvin while Tom and Stacey are in places like Oakgrove Integrated. We want to work together with schools and kids and allow them to play rugby in a fun, safe and inclusive environment. Hopefully they will stay on into their adult years as players and coaches and contribute at a level they feel comfortable with, all the while building friendships with kids from across the city.”
Forester, along with City of Derry player Tom Cameron and the club’s Ulster Ladies star, Stacey Sloan, have been visiting north west primary and secondary schools every week since the programme’s belated start and says it’s impact has been remarkable.
“The kids absolutely love it, even in schools which would not traditionally have had rugby as a sporting option,” explains Neil, “Off the top of my head, in Drumahoe Primary there has been five or six players who have joined City of Derry after the starting in the programme and it’s the same with Pennyburn.
“What I find is that kids only need the opportunity to try a different sport. If you give kids an opportunity to play sport, regardless of what it is or if they are boys or girls, they take it very quickly. A lot of the time it is only really soccer in the schools and that might not suit every young person. If you give them a chance to try something else they jump at it.”
"So far the project had provided 950 pupils an opportunity to play rugby in 12 primary schools and six secondary schools with more being added in the new year. A Year 8 blitz between some of the schools at the end of November was a huge success with 90 boys playing rugby at Judges Road. For many it was their first experience of a rugby game and again, players joined the City of Derry off the back of those games.
Schools taking part included Foyle College, St. Joseph’s Boys, Oakgrove Integrated, Lisneal College and St. Columb’s College with an aim to have girls’ matches up and running in the new year. Indeed Forester believes rugby can provide an option for many kids who previously weren’t involved in sport.
“To me, rugby is a fantastic way of bringing kids from different backgrounds together,” he adds, “I went to Oakgrove Integrated myself so Integrated education was always part of my make up anyway. That’s the beauty of the rugby, it does appeal to everybody, to both sides of the community.
“There’s also the body shapes rugby involves. Rugby trends to lend itself to every time of body shape in a way other sports maybe can’t so it can appeal to young people who haven’t taken up another sport. All of a sudden these guys find themselves very important on the rugby field.
“It caters for all abilities, sizes and shapes and that’s a very important part because we’re not necessarily looking to pick up players who already have another sport. Those players are very welcome, of course, but there are other kids who maybe didn’t get involved for one reason or another. There are a lot of kids in Derry who don’t take part in any sport whatsoever so this is another chance to pick up a sport for life.
“The schools have been fantastic, the love it. We are dealing with a lot of schools who maybe haven’t had rugby coaching before. The secondary schools in particular have absolutely loved it. The Year 8 blitz was a huge success. At St Columb’s and Lisneal, their numbers have been growing at training every week.
“St Joseph’s Boys is probably the biggest success story of all, you’re seeing a team of 15-20 boys coming down from Creggan to City of Derry to play rugby which is fantastic.”