Sports

Late starter turning heads on the pitch

Gino Paolella (with ball) is off to Scotland next week to play for Canada at a Rugby 9s competition. Paolella captained the D.W. Poppy Redhawks senior boys rugby team to the first-ever Fraser Valley AA championship in school history this past season. - Gary Ahuja/Langley Times
Gino Paolella (with ball) is off to Scotland next week to play for Canada at a Rugby 9s competition. Paolella captained the D.W. Poppy Redhawks senior boys rugby team to the first-ever Fraser Valley AA championship in school history this past season.
— image credit: Gary Ahuja/Langley Times

A lot has changed in two years.

Back then, Gino Paolella found himself in a back brace after he fell through part of the roof on a barn, falling about 15 feet to the ground and fracturing two vertebrae.

The injury required three weeks at Langley Memorial Hospital and then three months wearing a brace on his back while he healed.

Factor in the physiotherapy, and it was a six-month recovery period.

And it was a long lay-off for the always-active Langley teen.

“The first thing I thought of was when can I get back,” admitted Paolella, who turns 18 next month.

“After about a day and a half of doing nothing, you get pretty sick of it.

“It (the accident) makes you think a bit more about what your actions can do. It makes you appreciate what you have and you have to take advantage of the period of time you have to play these sports because it is a fairly short window.”

Needless to say, a fully healthy Paolella has made the most of being injury free.

Fast forward to now and next week (June 23), Paolella departs for Glasgow, Scotland as part of a Canadian Rugby League U19 9s team, which will compete at a Commonwealth Games competition.

Canada will play in a pool with England, Papa New Guinea and South Africa, while the other pool features Australia, Wales, Scotland and Jamaica.

In this version of the sport, teams play nine players aside with a few differences than the traditional 15-player a side game. The games are also shorter, which allows for the competition to be completed over a single day or weekend.

The Commonwealth competition runs June 27 and 28 and it is being staged as a demonstration sport, with the hopes of gaining full status for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

This is the first time Paolella will play for his country.

“It will be something to represent them,” he said. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it will be eye-opening playing.”

The Canadian side is made up of 15 Lower Mainland players and will be coached by Andy Blackburn, who has long been involved in the sport at the club, provincial and national level.

Blackburn also coaches Paolella with the B.C. Rugby League U20 B.C. Bulldogs and at the club level with the Bayside Sharks, who play out of South Surrey Athletic Park.

Blackburn first saw Paolella a few years back at a U16 evaluation camp for a provincial team.

“For him to come out of nowhere … on a team that was one of the weakest at the competition, and to standout, that was quite an accomplishment, especially considering some (of the other) kids had been playing rugby for quite a few years,” the coach recalled.

“What caught my eye was his strength, his speed and his toughness.

“He was a raw talent with all the natural attributes you need to be successful.”

Paolella, who is five-foot-ten and 210 pounds, only took up the sport the year before in Grade 9 when he joined the D.W. Poppy Redhawks rugby program.

His dad and two older brothers had played the sport, but up until then, Paolella had concentrated on soccer, playing at the Metro level with Langley United.

In soccer, Paolella used his speed to beat his opponents to the ball. But his style was better suited to rugby.

“I played a hard, physical game in soccer and that is kind of why I drifted to rugby,” he explained.

And after shifting his focus to the sport, Paolella has blossomed.

“With his size and skill in his Grade 10 year, he was one of the more dominant players on the pitch,” said Kyle Barry, one of his high school coaches at Poppy.

This past season, the Redhawks captured the Fraser Valley banner for the first time in school history and placed eighth at provincials.

Paolella — a team captain — was a big reason for that success.

“Gino is pretty much everything you want as a coach,” Barry said.

“He is that top player you can depend on to make a play, to win a ruck.

“And he is there at practice coming up to us with new drills he want us to do to show the boys.

“He lives and breathes the game of rugby.”

Paolella also credits working out with trainer Nate Beveridge of Hybrid Athletics, not only for helping him recover from his injury, but for staying in shape.

Paolella’s play has also landed him a three-month tryout with the Auckland Rugby’s High Performance Academy in New Zealand, which begins in August.

Paolella did some research knowing he would likely have to go overseas for a better chance of pursuing his rugby dreams. He found the program, applied and was accepted. He will be reevaluated following the three-month stint.

The fact Paolella put so much effort into finding something to better his game illustrates his level of commitment, Blackburn said.

“He is willing to go to greater lengths to improve his game,” the coach said.

“This is what may help him get to the next level and differentiate himself from the competition.”

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