If Donald Mhlaba arrived in Corner Brook about two years earlier, he would have been seriously disappointed.
An avid rugby player since his days in primary school back in his hometown of Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England, the now-42-year-old found himself moving to Corner Brook this past August for family reasons.
The sport has been, for the most part, non-existent in this area, despite its immense popularity in nearby areas such as the east coast of the province and in Nova Scotia.
That was, until St. John’s native Steve Bennett arrived in the city in 2017 and, with the help of a few likeminded individuals in a similar circumstance, formed the Corner Brook Touch Rugby group. The group trains from 8-9 p.m. every Wednesday night at the Corner Brook Civic Centre Studio.
Mhlaba did his homework before arriving in the city and actually ended up living near Bennett. His involvement with the rugby group was inevitable, as he now helps run the training sessions.
Mhlaba sports an impressive resume in the sport: a former member of the Westcliff Rugby Club, a team that plays at a National III level, which is just three tiers below the top standard of the Premiership.
“I love what it offers,” he said. “The friendships, the enjoyment, the skills.
“Just a love of the game.”
He was obviously playing the full-on tackle version of the sport back home, but he isn’t out of his element playing touch, since it’s used for training purposes back in the U.K..
“To bring other skills up, like evasion and spatial awareness,” he said. “We use it as a warm-up.”
He laughs when asked if, during a game here in the city, he might lose himself in the moment and go in for a hard tackle.
“With the hard floor, you sort of always keep that in mind,” he said. “It’s basically just friends running around, doing what we love.”
The group is now seeing about 20 people per week gather to practice and learn the finer points of the sport, which Mhlaba believes is a good turnout considering the population and lure of other sports in the city.
The inexperienced who attend — and he says there’s usually a newcomer every other week — catch on quick.
“Rugby is simple and complicated at the same time,” he said.
He says drills mainly consist of learning how to run lines, pass, and reach the try line on the other side of the floor.
“I don’t think anything is difficult,” he said. “It’s just getting used to the rules of the game.”
Everyone is coached based on their own skill level, with reasonable goals set for everyone.
“People are sticking with it,” he said. “We assume people are having fun.”
All that is required is to show up with indoor sneakers, proper training attire (shorts and a T-shirt) and a bottle of water.
For more information, check out the Facebook page Corner Brook Touch Rugby or email Bennett at email@example.com.