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Q&A: The Toronto Arrows’ new partnership hopes to empower youth through rugby

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This season, the Toronto Arrows have announced a partnership with local non-profit organization Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation (TIRF), which aims to provide children with greater access to rugby and use the sport to empower youth. The Arrows are the first professional rugby club to feature a non-profit organization as their lead partner, and will wear the TIRF logo on the front of their jerseys throughout the season.

“We’re trying to help young people imagine a pathway and a future that they might not have dared dream, whether that’s a lifelong career in the sport of rugby, or if that’s post-secondary, or just finishing high school,” TIRF executive director Amanda Neale-Robinson told The Shift. “Our name on the front is just opening up everybody’s eyes.”

Neale-Robinson spoke with The Shift about the organization’s partnership with the Arrows, the sport of rugby and how they hope to use rugby as a tool for social good.

Hi Amanda, thanks for doing this today. What is your role at the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation and what does that entail? 

Amanda Neale-Robinsion: So I’m the executive director of TIRF, the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation. We’re a small team, so I wear many hats. Sometimes I’m updating websites, and sometimes I’m doing some human resources work, but it’s mostly driven in supporting Youth in Sport. 

Can you talk about what TIRF does for those who may not know the organization? 

TIRF is a non-profit organization. We use rugby as a tool for social good. So we’re a sport for development non-profit organization. We support children through Ph.D. curriculum, flag rugby programming and free flag rugby programming across the city. 

We support high school-aged youth through subsidized club rugby experience and access to personal and professional development as well as employment scholarships and rugby bursaries. A lot of our work is centred around leadership development and leadership through sport as well. 

The big news coming out of TIRF and the Toronto Arrows is that your organization is the first not-for-profit organization as the lead partner in all of pro rugby. What does it mean for this organization to kind of hold that title in a sense? 

It’s surreal, it’s really gratifying and it’s emotional. Everyone’s just so proud because everybody’s part of TIRF’s story and TIRF’s success. Everyone’s feeling really grateful for the opportunity, really excited, really proud to see the letters on the front of the jersey. It’s a nod to the legacy and everybody’s stories that have been so impactful in driving change in the community.

Can you talk about the relationship that the organization and the Toronto Arrows have? Obviously, there have been some members from the Toronto Arrows that have come up through TIRF. 

Bill Webb has been a tremendous supporter of TIRF since its inception. He’s always been an advocate, ally and supporter in making sure that there’s equitable access to sport for everyone.

With regards to Youth in Sport, and the Arrows since their inception, we’ve been best friends. We’ve had two of our members join up and go up through the ranks. That’s Marcello Wainwright and Kyle Lagasca, in the developmental–the first year that the Arrows were testing in the market. 

Since then, with the Arrows Academy, there’s been a large number of TIRF young people that have gotten a chance to go up and train. What’s so amazing about the opportunity is that the dreams are within reach. You can see it and you can touch it, it’s so close now you can imagine yourself down that pathway. We’re trying to help young people imagine a pathway and a future that they might not have dared dream, whether that’s a lifelong career in the sport of rugby, or if that’s post-secondary, or just finishing high school, or whatever it is, just trying to imagine a future outside of what’s currently in their worldview. Our name on the front [of the Arrows jersey] is just opening up everybody’s eyes.


via Toronto Arrows

In addition to the jersey branding that you mentioned, TIRF and the Arrows are also going to work together on community initiatives. Can you just talk about those?

I think it’s really important to note that it’s not just a name on the front of the jersey, it’s a much deeper long-standing relationship. The Arrows have always been supporting us through fundraisers, ticket sales–encouraging season ticket holders to donate any unused tickets–so TIRF family, friends, alumni and participants get a chance to go and experience an Arrows game.

We’re looking to do some more activations. We’re looking to get more Arrows players out. Arrows athletes typically come out to some of our rising stars clinics, which are free indoor winter training sessions for high school-aged youth. So there’s going to be a lot more of us doing rugby in public together, playing in public together and making sure that we’re making the sport accessible and getting a chance to get folks to touch this funny-shaped ball. 

Can you also just touch upon the support of the fans in the community since this announcement?

Like I said, it’s been surreal. This is the work that we were compelled to do, every day. Since this announcement, we’ve had a lot of folks reaching out, finally hearing about us. I keep saying we’re Toronto’s best-kept secret.

It’s been really nice for us to imagine what other possibilities are out there for us to be able to amplify our impact or provide even more opportunities for the young people that we’re connected with, whether that’s through trying to get them internships, or job placements in something that’s of interest to them as well.

The rugby community is a very supportive community, it is very different than any other sport. If you play rugby, and you find a rugby club anywhere in the world, they’ll welcome you in. I’m not sure that you can say that with with other sports so consistently. 

Now knowing that there’s other folks in the Greater Toronto community that are seeing our work, wanting to celebrate with us, wanting to raise our young people up on pedestals and celebrate them and their achievements as well.

I want to touch upon just that rugby community, why do you think it’s more community oriented than other sports?

I think, first of all, it’s probably the values of the game. So we’re driven by union values, which are discipline, respect, integrity, passion, and solidarity. Those are the World Rugby values. Those are the values that TIRF embodies and we embrace. They guide all of our decisions and all of our programs, and we live and breathe by those.

As far as the sport goes, it’s really a team sport. You can’t really play by yourself and it’s hard to practice by yourself as well. So you really need to have your team there. I think also if you’re playing contact rugby, you get it all out on the pitch, and then afterwards, you’re hanging out, and you’re celebrating. Then there’s all that communication that happens because you’re thinking about safety as you’re playing so it’s just a beautiful game.

Is there anything else you want to say about this historic announcement, TIRF, the Toronto Arrows or anything you want out in the world?

If you haven't picked up a rugby ball ever, just do it. It’s fun. We teach flag and we’re saying that anyone can play and you can. One of the great things about the game is there’s a position for every single body type. There’s constant revisions around the rules trying to make it more accessible for all folks. 

We’re doing work in regards to making it accessible for our friends that are living downtown and inner-city children and youth. We have folks that are doing it through an Indigenous lens. We have folks that are doing it through an accessibility lens.

There’s a spot for you on a rugby team, we could use you on a rugby team and we could use you in the rugby community. So come out and play.