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Over the last five years, youth rugby has grown tremendously in the Atlanta metro area and it has become a model for other cities to follow. We caught up with current Atlanta Youth Rugby (AYR) President Anton Forbes-Roberts to discuss the impetus for creating the program and their vision to have 2,000 kids join AYR by 2020.
How did the idea for Atlanta Youth Rugby Program come about?
In 2012 our founder Stewart Haddock's son showed an interest in rugby. Haddock decided to gather a few kids together, watched some YouTube videos, and started AYR. The first coach (and AYR Director of Coaching) Paul Raio saw the kids practicing one day, and as an ex-club player brought his own son and some rugby experience to the table. Then through a connection with Life University Athletic Director Dan Payne (now USA Rugby CEO), Life University player and now head coach, Colton Cariaga joined us as our first student athlete coach.
I came aboard as a parent, coach, and administrator in 2014 and have helped grow the club from about 35 kids to around 130 in our core seasonal program. Plus, we now reach about 500 kids in our after-school programs using student-athletes from Life University, Kennesaw State and the University of Georgia as well as experienced youth development coaches.
What are some of the values and goals of the organization?
AYR is built around three things.
First, we instill the traditional rugby values of teamwork, camaraderie, and inclusion. So character is a big focus. Our motto at AYR is 'Cor Unum' - 'One Heart', and it applies whether we are playing after-school touch, U19 Sevens, or 15 together Union at U14 and U16. Paul Raio ensures all our coaches understand our Core Values and how to deliver them on the field. Our annual surveys consistently show more than 90 percent of the kids feel very much like they are part of a team.
The second element is fitness. Rugby is a fluid game that accommodates all body types and everyone touches the ball. The kids get a workout.
The third is fun! We have a great time on the pitch, with touch programs up to U10 and safe tackling U12 to U19. We have space for everyone with coed, boys and girls divisions.
How do you approach teaching rugby?
We worked closely with Life U Head Coach Colton Cariaga and Life U Coach Laura Miller to build a common U8 to U19 Curriculum for all teams in the state; alongside eligibility rules, playoff formats and so on in a common Handbook developed with the other youth clubs in Rugby Georgia.
We have a commitment to safety through our SafePlay program, which all coaches, referees and players are bound to. With a focus on education, injury prevention and training, the SafePlay program ensures the highest possible standards of youth rugby safety through the annual implementation of a multidimensional, best practices curriculum.
Both the curriculum and SafePlay began as an AYR effort and are now adopted by Rugby Georgia, our youth State Rugby Organization (SRO).
Do you get support from the local rugby community?
We do indeed! Life University is definitely our premiere partner on the college side of things. Through Rugby Georgia we also work with Kennesaw State the University of Georgia, and that is slated to expand with Morehouse, Emory, Georgia Tech, and others.
On the adult club side, the Atlanta Old White are hosting a couple of tournament days for us and other area clubs this year. Bob Taylor of the Atlanta Renegades and owner of the pro team Atlanta Rhinos is also a big supporter of youth rugby around the Metro.
How did AYR become an official after school sport in Atlanta?
We partnered with Centers of Hope, an after school program in Atlanta that is designed to keep kids active and healthy by providing a safe, supportive and structured environment. That took about 18 months of door-knocking, introductions, after-school and tackling clinics, and a meeting with the USA Rugby Youth Development Director.
Now the program is run by Rebecca Martin, AYR Director of Community Programs and a current women’s' rugby coach at UGA. She has 15 coaches, many of whom are trained in developmental psychology and other valuable skills, as well as obviously having rugby knowledge and skills. We are hoping to expand year-round programs to 10 Centers of Hope by the end of 2018.
Clearly Atlanta Youth Rugby has built a strong rugby infrastructure that is resonating with the local community. With a strong vision and solid plan, it appears AYR is well on its way to reaching its goal of serving 2000 kids by 2020.