Field of concrete dreams for LA youths

Source:AFP Published: 2015-9-18 5:03:02

Playing rugby provides possible routes to future

Nia Toliver, a senior student at View Park Prep High School in Los Angeles, California, tosses the rugby ball with friends during a break on campus between classes on September 11. Photo: AFP

The eyes of the rugby-playing world will turn to Twickenham this week when the World Cup kicks off before a global audience of millions.

But thousands of miles away, in a sun-baked concrete corner of Los ­Angeles, another group of rugby ­players will be contemplating their own personal fields of dreams.

For 17-year-old Nia Toliver, the goal is ambitious but tantalizingly close: a place in the United States women's rugby squad at the Rio Olympic Games.

For other students at View Park High, a charter school situated in gritty urban South Los Angeles, playing rugby represents a possible route to college, further education or an opportunity for travel.

Toliver, a prodigiously gifted athlete who was named to the first-ever All-American girls' high school team earlier this year, says the physical nature of rugby has given her an outlet other sports cannot provide.

"I used to play basketball but I always used to get fouled out because I was so aggressive. So rugby's the perfect sport for me," Toliver says with a smile.

Toliver was drawn to the rugby program after seeing the experience of her elder sister, who took part in a school tour to South Africa, one of several overseas trips the school has organized.

"When she came back from that trip to South Africa, she had a totally different outlook on life. And that made a big impression on me."

Getting anger out

Desiree Smith, 17, meanwhile says she hopes rugby can help her land a place at college.

"I want to study to be a history teacher and a rugby coach," she said.

Like Toliver, Smith says she was drawn to rugby's innate physicality.

"It's another way to get anger out," she says.

"I get frustrated a lot."

Part of the Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF), the rugby program began in 2003 under the direction of Stuart Krohn, a larger-than-life former Hong Kong international forward.

Krohn, who enjoyed a nomadic ­rugby-playing career which included stints with French giants Toulouse (1984-85) and New Zealand's North Shore club before eventually landing in Hong Kong, says the program's purpose is to broaden the horizons of students, who are predominantly African-American.

With an initial grant from LA84, the body set up to distribute funds from profits made during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Krohn started a flag rugby program while teaching English and history.

As the program expanded over the course of the following decade - it now covers 10 schools within ICEF and reaches an estimated 2,500 students each year - Krohn's rugby role became full-time.

A small team of coaches oversee lessons, comprised of drills and flag rugby, which take place on concrete surfaces.

School representative teams play on grass or synthetic turf during the ­rugby season, which runs from ­December through to early spring.

Building character

The program has also given students the opportunity to travel to all corners of the globe, with ICEF rugby teams playing in several countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, and a trip to Brazil planned for March 2016.

Krohn says while the rugby program has tangible value in helping direct students towards college, the sport's core values - camaraderie, teamwork, respect for opponents - are helping build confidence and ­character.

"We're a character-based program," Krohn says, citing the example of high school teen Smith.

"When I first met Desiree, I didn't think she was going to make it," Krohn says.

"She was like a wounded bird, always looking for a way out. And I thought to myself, 'She'll quit.' But she never did, man, she just kept coming back and coming back. Now? She's strong. She's one of our main players."

Smith, meanwhile, talks in awe as she recalls her participation in the team's recent tour of Japan in March.

Yet Smith says her best rugby memory came not during her trip to Asia, but when she suffered an ankle injury soon after taking up the sport.

"My first year I got hurt and all the boys and girls joined together to help carry me off the field," she said.

"Never seen anything like that before."

Olympic hopeful Toliver meanwhile will likely be supporting Fiji when the South Pacific islanders open the World Cup against England at Twickenham.

"We don't have cable TV but my dad and I watch the games on a rugby website," Toliver says.

"The first time I saw proper rugby live was at the Hong Kong Sevens - Fiji are awesome."

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