Savannah Wheatley of the Lockview Dragons girls rugby team smiles as the face-painter finishes up the “Let Us Play” message on her face at the rugby rally, which was quickly organized following the NSSAF’s decision to remove the high school sport. (Healey photo)

BEDFORD: The high school rugby season is back on for the remainder of the 2019 season, with Rugby Nova Scotia looking after it with the support of the NSSAF.

At a meeting May 7 in Truro, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Nova Scotia School Sport Athletic Federation (NSSAF) met to discuss the issue that saw the sport canned, then back on, then on hold again.

“We worked together on a plan for student-athletes to keep playing rugby safely,” said a release from both parties issued shortly after 2 p.m.

Rugby Nova Scotia has agreed to manage the rest of this rugby season, including regionals and provincials, with the support of NSSAF, the release said.

“Over the summer, NSSAF will work with government, Rugby Nova Scotia, medical experts and others on safety in sports,” the release said. “The NSSAF and the department will also work together to review the memorandum of agreement over the summer on how it can work best for student-athletes and everyone else involved.

In a release on May 3 Zach Churchill, Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development said the decision the NSSAF made to abruptly end high school rugby, the NSSAF contravened the terms and conditions of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in that it neglected to inform the department of its intent to communicate it’s decision on May 2, 2019., and furthermore, made the decision without appropriate consultation with school communities.

“Further, the provincial Medical Officer of Health, along with other respected physicians, have expressed strong concerns about the decision, and they’ve cited Canada-wide data,” said Churchill. “Given the perspective offered by the province’s Medical Officer of Health, I have called on NSSAF to reinstate rugby for all high schools immediately for the duration of the season.”

In a memo dated May 5, the NSSAF said the issue remained unresolved.

“Any school playing rugby, like any other non-NSSSAF sport, is at the discretion of the principal,” the memo said. “The NSSAF will provide updated information as available.”

Before the two sides finally sat down and met, rRugby players across metro HRM and the province are disappointed and heartbroken, along with feeling blindsided by a decision by the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation (NSSAF) to can the sport.

The players—close to 100 from high schools in Metro Halifax and HERH in Milford—gathered inside Ice Patch Hallow in the Sunnyside Mall in Bedford in a quickly arranged rally on May 2, with a goal of sending a clear message to the NSSAF that they were not happy. That was clear as the players chanted “Let us play! Let us play!”

Lockview High player Brooklyn Peyton, who has aspirations to play at the university and national level, says the removal of a sport she took up just a year and a bit ago has left her devastated.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Peyton, of Waverley, on her reaction to the news. “Rugby is my life. It’s really changed my life, and they’re taking family away from me.”

Abby Tramble, of Fall River, said it’s frustrating.

“Some of the girls are just getting into it and they’re having so much fun,” said Tramble. “It’s heartbreaking hearing this news. It’s not what any of us expected.”

In an internal memo, obtained by Global Halifax, the NSSAF, the governing body for high school athletics, said they came to the decision after a “thorough review of incident report data provided by the School Insurance Program.” In that data it showed that there have been 158 insurance claims as a result of soccer; 162 insurance claims as a result of football; 187 claimed as a result of hockey; and 454 claims under rugby.

In an interview with CBC N.S., Stephen Gallant, the federation’s executive director, said the decision was made at the organization’s first board meeting of the year.

“This was not a knee-jerk reaction today. This has been an ongoing discussion for the board after last May,” said Gallant.

The incident Gallant refers to from May 2018 saw a PEI student die after suffering a head injury during a school rugby game at a tournament.

However, many gathered in Bedford did term the removal as a knee-jerk reaction by the NSSAF in interviews.

Lydia Ramsay said the NSSAF should have thought of modifying the rules before jumping to a conclusion that canning the sport altogether was the only option.

“It’s not fair for us girls who have worked so hard, our coaches, and for the teams at the top that could make provincials, them taking it away it’s just horrible,” said the Oakfield resident.

For Peyton, she is training to play at a higher level.

“Lockview was what got me into liking rugby,” she said. “It’s a gateway to get into professional rugby. Now we don’t have that opportunity.”

Parent Nathalie Wheatley, whose daughter Savannah plays with LHS, works in healthcare. She was shocked at the news.

“I think for all the boys and girls in the high school league they weren’t given an opportunity to discuss this … to come up with a better solution than just removing the sport of rugby,” she said.

HERH Tigers player Raymond Hazell said the news upset them.

“It kind of blindsided us,” said Hazell of Elmsdale. “We had no idea there was even talk of this happening.”

Hazell said the NSSAF should have discussed their decision with those impacted before making it.

“We know when we step on the field the consequences that the game can bring,” he said. “We’re fully aware of what can go on, but we still get on the field; we still love the game; we still enjoy ourselves while doing it.”