The Melbourne Rugby Club and the Victorian Rugby Union (VRU) hosted a function in Stonnington recently to celebrate the diversity of Rugby and to honour two home-grown athletes who recently returned with gold medals from the Rio Olympics and Paralympics.
Guests of honour were Ellia Green, from the successful women’s Rugby Sevens team, the Pearls, and Jason Lees from the men’s Wheelchair Rugby team, the Steelers. The audience heard stories from both athletes and what it took to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sports.
Green, who was born in Fiji and grew up in Melbourne, spoke of the inspiration she drew from her mother Jolanta and the support she has given her throughout her career. As a young girl she dreamed of representing her country in track and field at the Olympics and was an outstanding junior athlete holding numerous State and National sprint titles.
Her only knowledge of Rugby was through supporting the exploits of her brother Mitchell who played local club Rugby in Melbourne.
Upon the announcement of Rugby Sevens as an Olympic sport in 2012, Green was one of over 120 women who attended a talent identification day run by the VRU and ARU to find female athletes from across a broad range of sports who would be interested in the chance of representing their country at the Olympics. The rest, as they say, is history. Like most of the all-conquering Pearls squad, within four years, Green went from being a novice in the sport to an Olympic gold medallist.
Green’s story is one of self-belief and dedication. The pursuit of gold and joining the National squad meant leaving home and taking up residence permanently in Sydney with the rest of the team. The sense of camaraderie within the squad was clear from the anecdotes Green told. What was also clear was the great humility shown by the girls and the pride they had in representing their country. They are great ambassadors for the sport of Rugby and role models for young girls. Green is keen to see more girls take up the sport and she sees Viva 7s as the perfect way for novices to learn the basic skills of the game.
Lees is a local Melbournian who, like all the members of the Steelers, has turned adversity into triumph. After being confined to a wheelchair from a motor sports accident in 2000, his first exposure to Wheelchair Rugby was watching it on TV at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000. He eventually took up the sport in Melbourne and became part of the organised competition run by Disability Sports and Recreation who have been at the forefront of promoting Wheelchair Rugby in Victoria. In fact, more than half the Steelers squad come from Victoria.
Lees was a member of the gold medal winning team from the London Paralympics and going back-to-back in Rio means he now finds himself as part of that unique group of dual Paralympics’ gold medallists.
The gold medal match was a cliff hanger with the Steelers defeating their long term nemesis the USA. However it took two lots of extra time to clinch the gold. When asked whether he would commit to a third gold medal chance in Tokyo, Lees was a little circumspect. He became a first time father a mere three days before flying out to Rio and so life has become a lot busier. The level of preparation and time commitment needed to succeed at this level is considerable, so making any predictions four years out would be difficult.
The stories and achievements of Green and Lees are an inspiration to all. They also reflect the commitment of the Melbourne Rugby Club and the VRU to further embrace diversity within the game of Rugby.
The growth in women’s participation at all levels – Sevens, Fifteens and Viva 7s – is a key strategic priority for the Melbourne Rugby Club and the VRU. The Melbourne Unicorns field a successful women’s Senior team and are building on this platform to introduce both Youth Girls and VIVA 7s.
The recent alignment of Disability Sports Victoria with the VRU sees Wheelchair Rugby teams partnered with existing VRU affiliated clubs, like the Melbourne Unicorns, which will help raise the profile of both sports.
Add to this the already rich cultural diversity that exists in the game and the fact that the Melbourne Chargers recently won the World Gay Rugby club championship in Nashville, there is ample evidence of the Melbourne Rugby Club and the VRU’s commitment and success in bringing Rugby to the broadest audience possible.