More than 600 kids came out to the Vancouver launch of the Rookie Rugby Jamboree on March 1, and had the opportunity to share the field with world-class athletes.
Among the pro rugby players sharing their passion for the game with the next generation was Squamish's Jamie Cudmore, who formerly represented Canada at four World Cups and has helped train the men's Canada sevens team.
"It's where the sport starts — grassroots," Cudmore said. "If you don't have kids falling in love with the game at an early age, as they move up in age and move up into different sports, it would be very difficult for us to resource rugby teams and clubs around the Lower Mainland and across the country. So having kids play from six to 10, 12 years old, is the perfect age to get them in the sport, get them enjoying it and hopefully they stick with it.
"For me, in my role, that creates more athletes at a higher level and helps me better resource a national team later on."
Of course, many in Squamish know Cudmore got his start with the Squamish Axemen in the mid-90s.
"It was a really great outlet for me, a big rambunctious young boy who had quite a bit of energy which sometimes went the wrong direction. Rugby kind of gave me an outlet to that."
He said the sport is inclusive, played by both men and women, with positions on the field for every body type.
"It's all the different facets of sport we love: community, a bit of contact and that team spirit of trying to pull together 15 people at the same time and work together," he said.
For the kids, Cudmore said, "It's great for them to see guys like myself, and all the girls as well. Ghislaine [Landry] and Bianca [Farella] being there, showing them there is a pathway if they want to go to university and play rugby at that level and go on to play rugby professionally."
When asked if he ever imagined those early Axemen games would lead to a career in rugby, Cudmore said, "Not in a million years. To start off, I didn't even know it was possible to play rugby professionally at that time."
Cudmore spent 20 years of his career in France, and has since returned to Canada to coach. He said the game has grown exponentially in the last few years. Now, Cudmore is looking forward to watching rugby sevens in the Olympics this year.
"Tokyo 2020 is obviously that pinnacle event. Hopefully, there will be no issues with the coronavirus," he said.
Seeing so many kids on the field on March 1 with a nearly 50-50 representation of boys and girls, Cudmore said, "It's a great vision for the future, hopefully, for rugby in Canada."
His advice for those interested in the game is to reach out to a local club.
"I've never forgotten my roots, starting with the Squamish Axemen many years ago. It's kind of what started me on my path and forged a lot of great relationships for myself and definitely how I carried myself and played the game around the world," he said. "I can thank the club for starting me on that path."