Do you know how to play rugby? If you are not English or Australian, chances are that you do not, but teens at Phoenix House Academy in Los Angeles recently learned how to play. On Easter Sunday morning, April 20, 2014, the rugby team from the high school at Wesley College in Perth, Australia, volunteered to teach the youth how to play rugby and played a demonstration game at our facility. The 26 young men are on a tour throughout California, and their mission is to teach emerging rugby countries how to play the sport. Since it was announced that rugby will become an official sport in the Summer Olympics in 2016, they were particularly excited to embark on this excursion in the USA and fulfill their mission.
If it seems as though this interaction happened by chance, in reality it did not. Howard Meitiner, President and Chief Executive Officer of Phoenix House, played rugby with Peter Sinden, the Forwards Tour Coach, in Hong Kong some years ago. There they formed a close bond that holds until this day. Peter Sinden now coaches rugby teams comprised of students from the 7th to 12th grade at Wesley College. While living in New York City in 2013, he and Tour Manager, Wendy Sinden, met Howard and Phoenix House clients in the Bronx. It was then that they developed the idea to conduct a training session at Phoenix House with the Wesley College high school team when they toured in 2014, as part of the team’s regular community service. Indeed, it was a great idea and everyone really enjoyed sharing this special time together on Easter Sunday. The teens were accompanied by Leon Felton, Tour Coach, Peter Sinden, Assistant/Forwards Tour Coach, Wendy Sinden, Tour Manager, and Annette Davoren, Tour Medic, as well as some parents of the team members.
The Wesley College Rugby Tour traveled throughout California, from San Francisco to Sacramento, and as far south as San Diego – training, sightseeing and playing five games against such opponents as Dixon High School, Jesuit High School, San Luis Obispo, Oceanside High School, and North County Barbarians. Along the way, the teenagers had time to explore San Francisco, visit Alcatraz, Hearst Castle, USS Midway Museum, and Universal Studios, as well as attend a NBA basketball game. They even managed to meet the USA 7s Team and train at Chula Vista, the Olympic training facility in San Diego. At the sports field near Lake View Terrace the 26 Wesley boys were joined by volunteers from the residential treatment program at the Academy as the visitors taught the various elements of the game, while parents of both groups watched on. Afterwards, everyone had lunch together and shared some Easter eggs.
For those who do not know much about rugby, it is an invasion game, similar to American football, in that the ball has to be carried past the end line. But in rugby the ball also has to be literally ‘touched down’ on the ground to score. The players wear soft pliable helmets to protect their ears, mouth guards to protect their teeth, and padded vests under their shirts to protect their shoulders, injured most often. In fact, they do not have nearly as much gear as American football players.
While on the tour, according to Wendy Sinden, their Tour Manager, and also the Dean of Campus Administration at the 1,300-student private school, they “eat well, train, and have fun, under the watchful eye of their coaches and medic. They do not eat any fast food, sodas, or salty snacks; instead they have lots of water, protein, fruit and veggies – and they do not complain about it as they soon find out how much energy is needed to play the game at a high level!”
The importance of playing team sports goes beyond the games and victories. Youths learn to control anger, deal with their emotions, interact properly with their peers, be fair and show good sportsmanship on the field. Character counts! For instance, they are taught various ways of controlling anger, including signals for themselves (snapping fingers) or others (a gesture or touching an elbow). They practice these behavioral techniques along with sports drills. This aspect of learning composure and to be in control of yourself is something that these teens had in common with the residents of the Phoenix House Academy. Another shared characteristic is the emphasis on success: just as teens at the Academy are rewarded for motivation and success in treatment, Wesley College students qualify for the annual tours on the basis of their grades.
Frank Sanchez, the Acting Director at the Phoenix House Academy of Los Angeles, reminisced,
“Our boys were very excited to learn about rugby and many asked if we could have a team here. It was refreshing to see how our boys and their boys coming from very different backgrounds could meet and unite by throwing a ball around the field. Everyone contributed to the game and the event. I am so happy…our boys met [their] team and shared this experience together.”
Overall it was an excellent collaboration and it taught the teens how to play a new game and speak a new language of Australian rugby. The Australian accent was fun to listen to, especially when compared with the British accent of Phoenix House Recreation Counselor Rob Regis (a former professional soccer player from London). The visit was friendly and easy-going. One of the team members, Jarrod Bryant, even modeled the soft rugby helmet for us.
With the donations of boots, jumpers, drink bottles and training kit left by our new friends, rugby can now a part of our weekly repertoire and the young men will be eagerly awaiting the moment they can run outside to play. With knowledge of the rules, Phoenix House team players are ready to throw, tackle, and scrum outside while creating lasting friendships under the warm sunlight. Who knows how far this game of rugby can spread amongst the Phoenix House community throughout the USA?