On the eve of the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup retired Canadian team hooker Kim Donaldson reflects on the growth and success of rugby in Canada
Aside from Canadian’s coveted National Women’s’ Hockey Team, female sports are not widely followed in Canada. Nor is the sport of rugby a national past time. It’s a bizarre game where an oddly shaped ball is passed backwards and there are an awful lot of people running into each other. The pairing meant that, until recently, fifteen-a-side women’s rugby in Canada has not been given much attention. On the backs of supportive clubs across the country, women’s rugby has grown exponentially over the past decade. Women are more skilled, faster, and stronger at a younger age, helping raise the level of play. Canada enters the Women’s Rugby World Cup on Wednesday ranked 3rd in the world. Canadian rugby is changing and the world is watching.
Since the inaugural 2012-2013 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, Canada’s ranking has never dipped below 3rd in the world.
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Canadian women’s rugby teams have been consistent competitors for decades, but have recently become leaders in the sport. Of the past 5 World Cups, the lowest ranking they have placed is 6th. Canadian rugby is known for consistency and resiliency, but not flashy play or stand out performances. This made Canada a dark horse in the 2014 World Cup, surprising rugby nations the world over with dominating pool play and upsetting France in front of 20,000 of their own fans in the semi-final. Sports networks repeatedly aired one particular play of Magali Harvey’s speedy, bow-legged, 80 metre run, after the forward pack had stolen the ball from France in an impressive display of scrummaging power on their own try line. High level of play has helped build the popularity and support for our senior women’s national teams. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broadcast his well wishes bilingually, acknowledging the women’s’ already impressive finishes at the 2014 XVs World Cup and in Sevens at the 2016 Olympic Games.
READ more of Kim’s blog – The Offload
The Influence of the Sevens Game
Although Sevens Rugby was just recently adopted into the summer Olympic Games, the effect it had on Canadian women’s rugby started several years before. In 2012, female athletes were centralized in Langford, British Columbia and Rugby Canada sought out funding from Canada’s Own the Podium (OTP) program (a not-for-profit organization that financially supports teams on track to the Olympics). The best female rugby players were recruited from the existing sevens and fifteens programs, as well as from universities around the country. Since the inaugural 2012-2013 World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, Canada’s ranking has never dipped below 3rd in the world. The circuit has grown to hold six stops, including Canada’s own tournament in Langford, British Columbia. Women are now recruited for the National Sevens Program from universities, colleges, and even high schools, helping develop skills, professionalism, and team cohesion from an early age. An early start in preparation led Canada to a bronze medal performance in the debut Olympic Games even last year, attracting thousands of new fans and players to the sport.
At the urging of loose head prop Marie-Pier Pinault-Reid, the team switched their version of the national anthem they sang to include in both languages, making it more representative of the Canadian squad
Female rugby players now have more access to their role models than ever before. Social media is a large part of this. Seven’s all star Jen Kish has over 10,000 Twitter followers (@jen_kish) and Fifteen’s veteran Andrea Burk has her own branded website (anreaburk.ca). Fans can follow athlete’s daily trainings or book their favorite heroine to speak at an event. In recent years TSN has aired Canadian women’s fifteens games, while Canada’s Olympic women’s Sevens team became celebrities on CBC during the Olympic Games. For several weeks after the 2014 World Cup, Magali Harvey’s run was aired in sports highlights. Harvey is also one of four female faces to take the cover of leading rugby magazine Rugby World for the first time in the magazine’s 57-year history (www.rugbyworld.com). Inside the issue, Canadian prop gets a shout out as an “engaging character” for her interesting switch to rugby from pairs figure skating. Fans around the world want to learn more about Canadian athletes.
The main pathway for female rugby players to reach the world stage is by playing in university competition (U Sports). The influx of national team alumnae coaching university teams (Colette McCauley, Maria Gallo, Jen Boyd to name a few), means that aspiring athletes can learn directly from their role models and get first hand knowledge of what it takes to make it to the top, as well as be placed in an environment that supports their athletic development. For the 2017 university season more names big names join the U Sports coaching roster as Harvey will head McGill University and Sevens superwoman Ashley Stacey will join Neil Langevin at her alma mater, the University of Lethbridge, furthering this trend. As competition raises, so do budgets and scholarship opportunities for female athletes (the University of Ottawa’s operational budget is over $100,000), making rugby a viable option as part of a woman’s scholastic experience. Also being recognized internationally, the 2016 university national championship was watched by over 16,000 viewers from over 20 different countries.
Current and alumnae national players work to promote women’s rugby in other ways. Current national team flanker Barbara Mervin runs a internationally successful women’s’ rugby clothing line, Aptoella (aptoella.com) allowing, “women and girls to look and feel incredible while splaying the sport they love.” Alumna Steph White chairs the Monty Heald National Women’s Team Fund, which has ensured that the Canadian XVs team has not had to pay out of pocket for their road to the upcoming World Cup in Ireland. National team players continue to promote the sport and community they have already given to so richly.
Diversity and Unity
The Canadian Women’s XVs rugby team is also representative of both Anglophone and Francophone cultures. At the urging of loose head prop Marie-Pier Pinault-Reid, the team switched their version of the national anthem they sang to include in both languages, making it more representative of the Canadian squad, a third of which (including head coach Francois Ratier) have lived à Québec. Incredible people, both on and off of the field, Canada’s female rugby athletes are strong role models, making it easy to attract fans both at home and abroad.
2017 World Cup Preview…
Kim Donaldson is a retired Canadian team front row player. She participated in two World Cups, accumulating 45 caps over her ten year career and has since turned her attention towards coaching. She coached the Concordia Stingers for three years helping them climb to a fourth place national ranking, and has worked with the Canada U20 Women for the past two years. Recently Kim has relocated to Victoria, BC, where she has landed with the University of Victoria Vikes.