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Written By: Mark Janzen
Photos By: Ian Muir
Kelly Russell is set to become a Barbarian!
The veteran No. 8, who has represented Canada in three World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympic Games, will be part of a history-making contest this fall. She is going to don one of rugby’s most famous and sought-after jerseys – the shirt of Barbarian. In a recent announcement, Russell was one of seven players initially named to the first-ever Barbarian women’s team that will take the pitch on November 10 in Ireland.
Already one of Canada’s most recognizable names in the women’s rugby game, Russell, 30, will join a group of athletes from at least seven different nations who will face Munster in the historic match at Thomond Park in Limerick.
With the ever-increasing rise of women’s rugby worldwide, and on the heels of a successful Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland (which set tournament records for television viewers), the launch of the first-ever Barbarians women’s side comes at the perfect time.
“Obviously the women’s game is gaining popularity, and people are watching our game and understanding it and realizing that it’s just as exciting and entertaining as the men’s side of things,” says Russell. “This is another great step in the right direction for women’s rugby.”
Russell’s rugby-playing highlights already include a second-place finish at the World Cup in 2014, a gold medal, in rugby sevens at the 2015 Pan American Games, and a bronze medal, again in sevens, at the Rio Olympics. Joining the famed Barbarians – an invitational side with a history that dates back to the exclusive club’s inception in 1890 – will no doubt soon slot in as a memory not soon forgotten. It's an historic event that all Canadians should be extremely proud of.
“I think it’s going to be a really neat experience,” Russell says. “It’s great to see that they’re involving women, and hopefully they can build a great tradition with this. I think it’s a great opportunity to play with people from around the world and learn from them.”
Just as the men’s Barbarians Team has for the better part of the last 130 years, this year’s women’s contingent will see a bevy of stalwarts from around the world all playing in the name of fast-paced, attacking rugby.
In their inaugural outing, Russell will be joined by the likes of New Zealand’s three-time World Cup winner Emma Jensen, former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan, and Megan Goddard and Claire Cripps from England. All told, there are 440 international caps among the first seven players named to the team.
Perhaps these aren't household names to the casual North American fan, but those who know the Barbarians know that the men's side that will trot out to play the All Blacks on November 4 will be an international cast of rugby success-stories. To know the rich history of the Baa-baas is to know that the heart and soul of the sport will be on display. It is the 125th anniversary of the New Zealand All Blacks and their 11th meeting with the Barbarians. Popular international referee Nigel Owens will oversee the proceedings at rugby's powerhouse stadium Twickenham in London, England.
An impressive side will greet the world number one All Blacks: “You hear about them growing up through the rugby community,” Russell says of the Barbarians. “I think it’s such an awesome opportunity to play in these sorts of games and for these sorts of teams. It’s fun and exciting, but it also breeds a great culture between anyone who plays the game. They really try to play an exciting brand of rugby, so it’ll be fun.”
For the women’s team, the BaaBaas will aim to carry on the tradition of the Barbarians while looking to further develop the women’s game around the globe. With the team expected to announced fixtures against international sides later this year, the Barbarians' inaugural women’s match could very well be the start of something special. Like the men’s side, who consistently field offensively-driven teams chalk full of elite-level talent, the Barbarian women will run out with one goal in mind: put on a show.
“There’s not a lot of pressure, so I think you’re going to see some exciting things,” says Russell, whose rugby-playing plans beyond this particular match remain up in the air. “It’s fun to be in a new environment with new people, and I think the energy will be really high.”
Recent Canadians to suit up for the Barbarians include the likes of James Pritchard in 2015 and Jason Marshall and Sean Duke in 2014. Other notable Canadians who have played for the Barbarians over the years are former Canadian captains Gareth Rees, Al Charron, Jamie Cudmore, and Mark Wyatt.
Russell joins a prestigious line up, and as the first Canadian woman named, an honour that's for the history books.