New face at Northland rugby keeps primary schools involved

The changing face of Northland rugby means new positions are being fielded at the game's most primary level, the region's junior schools.

One of the new local faces, Grace Cooper, has been taken into a brand new role in the Northland Rugby Union's team, as primary schools regional development officer.

The union is putting its money where its mouth is. There has been talk in the national rugby scene in recent years about how the sport has disconnected from its foundations, becoming a top-heavy, professional player-focussed big business.

Sure, national, international and premier levels entertain the spectators, stir a ``stadium of four million'', thrill the die-hards and provide lucrative business deals, but is the brand that rugby has become still cheering on the kid who dreams of running on to the field in a Black Ferns' or All Blacks' jersey?

And given the capital R for Rugby emphasis on the big boys' game, is that a level playing field? Okay, so Grace Cooper isn't about to get into a debate on rugby politics, and good on her for that.

Her focus is on the development of in-school rugby and its neighbour ``ripper rugby'', the sport's new kids on the block, an unaffiliated, informally arranged sport, and potential nursery for club rugger.

Ripper rugby is a kiddy-friendly game; not quite touch rugby and determinedly not the bone-breaking tackling game. Ripper refers to the sash ripped off the player with the ball (and quite possibly for ``you little ripper'' or whatever other support is cheered from the sideline).

Northland union operations manager Greg Shipton also won't get drawn into the national/regional game vs grassroots debate, other than to agree it's never too late (in fact, he says, it never stopped being a main focus) to boost the sport at its youngest or new-player level.

``Let's be honest, all codes want to do that.''

The idea of the union paying for an in-schools development officer has been warmly received. Shipton says it's unrealistic to expect schools to organise and coach their own sports teams _ ``We're trying to take a bit of heat off school staff.''

Obviously a lot of kids who will be part of the new in-school drive already play ripper rugby, he said. But developing any junior sport isn't all about growing the code: ``We're trying to get the kids off the couch.''

He predicts we'll all get a big fright in about 10 years when today's young couch potatoes turn into tomorrow's failed New Zealand sports stars.

Back in the fun zone, among the pupils charging around with a rugby ball at lunchtime, after school or during PE, Cooper expects her ``dream job'' will blow the whistle on an old adage about all work and no play. Her work will be play, she laughs.

When we first spoke before the school term started, Cooper hadn't yet connected with potential new recruits for the game, and still hasn't done any on-site work with the kids.

But she has been busy building relationships with primary schools. Her initial sign-up target of 10 or 12 schools _ most of which already feed into clubs _ has been met, with four others interested, in a district that stretches from Wellsford to Kaitaia.

Fortunately Cooper is used to driving Northland's's long and winding roads. She has lived all her life in Russell, other than during the degree years at University of Otago where she gained a Bachelor of Physical Education.

Netball was her game, through all age-group representative levels in Northland and premier in Dunedin. She played rugby once and a bang on the head put her off the field.

But not off the game. Applying for the job at the union and waiting for the result was nerve wracking, getting the gig was a thrill.

``It's my absolutely dream job,'' says the newbie who majored in ``exercise prescription'' and sports development for her degree.

At junior level, rugby is facing a lot of competition from other sports. She's happy to see kids get active, and any sport is a good sport _ but, well, rugby's her thing.

``I'm an avid rugby fan, I always have been, and I love kids. Initially I was going to go teaching, but sports won me over.''

She will be doing a bit of teaching _ at least, training _ in her primary schools role. In any active game, kids need to learn how to position their bodies, minimise joint impact, maximise movement, she says. These skills can be carried into a healthy physical future, whether it's rugby, walking, or whatever.

``Personally, I have concerns about the levels of fitness and diet among kids ... in the whole population, in fact.''

It's a movement. So to you rugby-keen kids out there, those days on the couch could be numbered _ your country needs you.-->


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