From unlikely beginnings, the Prince Rupert rugby program has found two more diamonds in the rough in Jason Rioux and Dionte Stephens.
The two athletes were scouted last fall by the Thunder Rugby program, a program that places importance on Indigenous athletes.
John Lyall works as an athletic director of the Thunder program, and he stresses the importance of recruiting First Nations athletes across the country.
“Indigenous involvement in rugby is well noted throughout the world, and for some time Canada may have had an absence there,” Lyall said, “Our First Nations athletes and kids need role models and sports, rugby specifically, is a great example. Get yourself involved in rugby and you have a second family for life.”
Coach of the Thunder, Clayton Panga, made the trip from one island to another as he came from Victoria to Prince Rupert last fall.
He was immediately impressed with what he saw in both Stephens and Rioux.
“Very evasive and fast and just a very exciting all-around athlete,” Panga said when asked about Stephens.
While both athletes may be naturally gifted at the sport, neither of them saw rugby as their specialty. Stephens was a track and basketball player, while Rioux wasn’t a fan of team sports.
“Figured I was a solo sports kind of person, and I saw one game of high school rugby and I was hooked,” Rioux said.
“I wish I was as good at basketball as I am at rugby naturally,” joked Stephens.
Stephens, in particular, didn’t have his sights set on rugby, but because of a post on social media, he decided to head to down to the field.
“I didn’t really plan on going, there was a post in our basketball Facebook group about it so I went down to watch,” Stephens said.
“I didn’t even have cleats, I just went down to watch and someone gave me cleats. I put them on, then coach Clay noticed me.”
Panga has a keen eye for spotting talented rugby players, and he has been playing since he was four.
He was born and raised in New Zealand and said that rugby there is equivalent to hockey here, and New Zealand’s Maori All Blacks national team are made up entirely of members of their Indigenous community.
Panga played on Canada’s national rugby team for years, and he sees the need to nurture the relationship with Canadian First Nations and rugby,
“We are trying to build the connection between the rugby community and the Indigenous community. We want to engage those athletes with rugby, and show them there is a pathway,” Panga said.
Both Rioux and Stephens also recognize the importance of showcasing our Indigenous athletes at all levels.
“It’s important. I take pride in being able to be a part of these things. It gives First Nations athletes the opportunity to be seen at a higher level,” Rioux said.
“It was a really cool opportunity, I can’t properly explain it, it was something I feel really good about, it’s super important. You don’t see a lot of First Nations athletes getting the spotlight, “ Stephens added.