Amanda Neale-Robinson is the Executive Director of the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation (TIRF). Joining TIRF in 2017 as a communications officer, Amanda found her way to rugby as a spectator.
Growing up in Bermuda, Amanda had the opportunity to attend the Bermuda Rugby Classic on numerous occasions, watching former international players represent their country in the spirit of fun and a love for the game. Spending more time on the sidelines in her communications role, Amanda was entrusted with capturing stories and moments to share on behalf of TIRF, watching participants grow and develop overtime. It was from here that her love for rugby really began to blossom.
As Executive Director, Amanda’s favorite part of her role is imparting her passion for the game on the young people of Toronto. “Young people give me so much hope. They are, without a doubt, the best part of my day.”
TIRF’s mission is to transform the lives of young people through rugby. This is done by imparting rugby’s core values on to the participants, with a focus on developing active citizenship, empathic leaders, and future stewards of sport. “We endeavour to meet young-people “where they’re at”; treat them with respect; create safe-welcoming-spaces; and engage youth through a follower- centred leadership style and peer-to-peer learning ethos. We are fortunate to have caring and compassionate adults, and young adults, as volunteers and coaches that embrace the values of the game and want to help young people succeed in rugby and in life.”
As women’s rugby has grown in popularity, Amanda has had to be one-step ahead in ensuring that TIRF remains open and welcoming to all who want to participate. “When TIRF first started out, programming was often directed at catching the attention and getting participation from male athletes in high school. But slowly over time, we’ve been able to create great opportunities for female athletes to participate in the game. In 2014, we engaged female athletes in performance rugby and there were 75 female club players at that stage. We’ve actually been quite consistent in that being the number of female athletes that typically access the sport through TIRF programming and services.”
The TIRF program serves to nurture young female athletes, deepening their engagement with the sport, their love for rugby and their commitment. In addition to developing talent, TIRF is also setting a precedent by ensuring that they are providing a space for these athletes to compete, offering a Rising Stars Program and a TIRF Select Team to participate in 7’s tournaments. In addition, TIRF hosts a 7s Tournament to provide urban female athletes with the opportunity to play. The necessity to create a space for female rugby teams to participate has even extended into the Toronto high schools, with the TIRF Cup Tournament, created to provide a day for women to play, while also catering to the high school men’s teams.
While rugby programmes have been established in Toronto’s high schools, Amanda is hopeful that branching out into the city’s elementary and middle schools will yield an increase in engagement. “Where we see an opportunity to build true love for the game, is through the soft-introduction in elementary school and middle schools here in Toronto with our engagement within the TDSB and TCDSB. We’re seeing almost 50/50 engagement from female and male athletes within the sport from grade 1 through grade 8. There is a drop off in female participation in grades nine and ten, but then it picks at up again in grade 11, 12 and beyond.”
Amanda is proud of the growth TIRF has seen in the female space over the past several years and is hopeful that TIRF will continue to have a positive impact on the lives of its female participants. “Especially around the high school age, it’s really about creating safe spaces for female athletes to communicate, share, and even communicate with their bodies. Rugby is such a physical sport and for some folks, it’s a way that they can get out their emotions and aggressions in a way that feels like it’s actually moving something. It’s empowering as a female athlete in particular, to physically move your obstacles out of your way, and as a racialized female athlete, or racialized young person in general, there’s a lot of obstacles, systemic and otherwise that are unnecessarily placed in front of you. It’s really about leadership, strong female leadership, and caring adults.”
While playing is often at the forefront for many of TIRF’s athletes, they are often encouraged to seek out leadership opportunities in employment, volunteerism, scholarship, and bursaries.
In addition to growth in the female game, TIRF is thriving the in the Canadian Sports space. “Rugby in Canada is particularly special. It’s not a sport that is widely introduced at an early age. There are a lot of expectations for young people that they already know how to play basketball, hockey or soccer. Those sports are introduced quite early on to a large majority of Canadians. Even newcomer Canadians are often first introduced to these sports when trying to find a community.”
While rugby isn’t quite at the forefront of sports in Canada, it does have something to offer that many other sports don’t. “What I like about rugby and what I think makes it so attractive is the invitation to participate. What we often hear is that it’s often just a coach, a teacher, or another player that says “hey, you’ve got a quick step have you thought about playing rugby? I think you might enjoy this sport you should come try it out!” If there’s a real invitation to participate and to create a space for someone where they can actualize and use their skills as well as be recognized for them, it’s a great thing. Everyone plays a particular role. All body types are welcome and have a role and can contribute to the success of the team. I think that’s really attractive. Everyone’s looking for love and belonging, and it’s the basis for how we look at a lot of our programming. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We’re always thinking of how do we make sure we’re addressing the psycho-social needs of young people, so that they have a good sense of love and belonging. This is so that they can self-actualize reach their full potential, and rugby really provides a lot of the opportunity for that.”
In addition to offering a sense of inclusivity, rugby also serves as a disrupter to the sports space. The way that cities are built is to cater to what’s popular at the time of construction. Looking at this in terms of sports, Toronto doesn’t suffer from a lack of hockey rinks, soccer fields or basketball courts, but it is lacking in inner-city rugby pitches. The standout potential for rugby, allowing for participants to pick a different sport from their peers, is also positively impacted by the lower entry cost. Considered a more affordable sport, rugby offers a lot of possibilities to those who aren’t looking or able to take on a costly hobby, while still providing the potential for travel and educational scholarships.
It’s through this essence of inclusion that rugby can serve as a vessel to really reach at risk youth and provide them with a sense of accomplishment and belonging. “Unlike a lot of sports where you practice individually, there’s not a lot you can do as an individual in rugby without a team around you. As a young person from the inner-city or any kind of young person, having a team supporting you, whether that’s your classmates, your peers, parents, adults, teachers, coaches, mentors, you start to think about building a positive team environment around you. I think it’s a wonderful analogy for life.”
Additionally, rugby can provide young participants with a sense of purpose and direction. “There’s just something so beautiful in the game in the way that how we play really mirrors the way of what we should be doing in life. The way we push past and through our obstacles, we keep going harder. If we fall, we try to fall forward, we try to push through and get ourselves back up. The fact that when you score it’s called a “try” is amazing, What an amazing analogy for life. The fact that ball usually has to get through so many hands to make it across, it takes a real team effort.”
Looking to the future, Amanda has ambitious goals for TIRF. Her list includes athletic prospects, such as provincial and national rugby teams becoming more inclusive in terms of diversity, particularly through the talent that lays in Toronto; the ability to offer life changing employment opportunities, specifically within TIRF; and sports education prowess, arming teachers with the tools and equipment to deliver non-contact rugby programmes within their schools.
In addition to these changes, Amanda is optimistic that the future will bring more opportunities for youth to engage with rugby at their comfort level, removing the need to opt-out of playing all together. This would require the implementation and upkeep of multiple rugby offerings within the program including contact, non-contact, touch, and flag, among others. Looking to the future of coaching, Amanda is passionate about getting more young people trained and qualified as World Rugby Level One Coaches who can get into high schools to provide leadership and inspire the next generation of players. She’d also like to see TIRF athletes following high-performance pathways, such as national level programs.
While looking to the future, Amanda also sees a lot of the past and the positive impact that TIRF has imparted over the years. “What I think is really rewarding is when I look at our alumni, many of them are champions in their communities still. They’re still embracing world rugby values like discipline, respect, integrity, passion and solidarity. They’re still embracing the values of civic engagement, civic pride, activism, and advocacy that TIRF promotes through its programs. They’re working in their communities in the way that makes sense for them. It might not be through rugby, a lot of it isn’t through rugby, but you can definitely see the imprint of TIRF on young people doing that. I think the more that we can provide young people with leadership opportunities and safe places to fall and pick themselves back up and try again, the better society is going to be. We’re going to make a better world, we’re going to make a better Toronto, and we’re going to make a better Canada by giving more young people opportunities like this to train, to play, to learn, to fail, and to grow.”