April 16th, 2024

Canada Selects look to help showcase rugby league as Australia’s NRL visits Sin City

By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on February 28, 2024.

Nicholas Mew is renewing his wedding vows with Carrie, his wife of 30 years, on Friday in Las Vegas in front of an Elvis impersonator in an intimate rugby-themed ceremony.

Then the 55-year-old elementary school teacher from Barrie, Ont., plans to put on his boots and play in the masters rugby league festival he helped create.

It’s all part of the hoopla surrounding the start of Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) season, which kicks off Saturday with a doubleheader at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders, as the Manley Sea Eagles take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs, whose ownership group includes actor Russell Crowe, and the Sydney Roosters face the Brisbane Broncos.

The three-team masters festival is just one of the events around the NRL’s visit to Vegas, the opening salvo in the Australian league’s five-year plan to open North American eyes to the lesser-known 13-player version of the rugby code.

After Mew and the Canada Selects team takes the field Friday in masters play, the Canada Wolverines meet the USA Hawks in a men’s rugby league international at a different venue.

The week also features clinics for coaching and officiating rugby league. And there is the Vegas 9’s Rugby League Festival on Thursday and Friday, showcasing the nine-player version of the game.

People like Mew are doing their bit to give rugby league a bigger platform, something sorely needed in North America after the 2020 folding of the transatlantic Toronto Wolfpack and the decision to reduce the field of the next two men’s World Cups to 10 teams from 16, leaving little opportunity for teams like Canada to join the fold.

Some, like Mew, are members of the Ontario Greybeards masters team, based in Brampton, Ont.

The Canadian masters entry in Vegas draws 13 players from the Greybeards (one of whom flies in from Saskatchewan for practices), two from the Georgian Bay Titans (a rugby union side in Collingwood, Ont.), two from Manitoba and four from B.C. It will play sides from U.S. and Australia.

Wolverines manager Paul Buchanan is a member of the Greybeards but will be attending to his national team duties Friday.

The Selects includes a civil engineer, tow-truck driver, several teachers, a vice-principal, university professor, commercial building inspector, electrician, master cabinetmaker, accounting firm partner and several retirees, among others.

There is a father-and-son combination in Chris and Scott Bond. Not to mention, a lot of experience.

“Because we’re all 35 and over – some of us much older — what we bring to the game is not necessarily the on-the-field product because masters is supposed to be a social version of the sport, but it keeps people connected to the game,” said Mew. “And for some of us who had perhaps more experienced in our own careers “¦ they can reach out to sponsors and they can open doors that a 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kid can’t.

“So we have the respect that comes with the age. By getting older players involved and engaged in the sport, we hope to use that to benefit all levels so that it’s not just about us.”

There is no shortage of expertise on the roster.

Australian-born Josh Knight is a former president and current board member of the Canada Rugby League Association. English-born Daniel Tate (vice-president) and Bob Jewett (director at large and former president) are also on the CRLA board.

All the Canadian players, masters and internationals, will be taking in Saturday’s NRL doubleheader.

The entry age for masters rugby league is 35, with players wearing different-coloured shorts and socks denoting their age and degree of contact.

Those in their 30s wear white while those in the 40s wear black, with both groups engaging in full contact.

Further up the age spectrum, those in their 60s wear gold shorts with Velcro tags and are considered tackled if an opposing player grabs the tag. The 60-somethings just have to tag an opposing player to register a tackle.

“For our experience, there’s nothing that pisses off a 35-year-old with a head of steam more than a 65-year-old guy just reaching in and tagging him, because that’s the end of the play,” said Mew.

The score is supposed to be secondary, said Mew, who calls it “rugby for people who have to go to work the next day.”

In Vegas, each team will play a total of 80 minutes, spread across two games with sides from the U.S. and Australia also taking part.

Mew says the masters’ festival is gaining momentum with England and Wales looking to field teams next year. Ireland and New Zealand are also interested.

Mew reckons the trip is probably costing each player about $2,000, with his bill exceeding that given he and his wife are going.

On Friday, they will have three couples as guests at the wedding chapel, with the men wearing rugby jerseys.

“We’re making it as tacky as possible, just for the sheer entertainment value of it,” Mew said cheerfully.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on X platform, formerly known as Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2024

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