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Written By: Brock Smith
Relentless. Tenacious. Formidable. Resolute.
These are just a few of the words often used to describe Jane Kirby, characterizing both her level of play while on the pitch, and her passion for the sport while off it.
After amassing 30 caps for Canada’s national women’s team over a stalwart five-year spell, the 28-year-old native of Brampton, Ontario caught many off guard when she recently announced her retirement from international rugby, putting a bow on a career that included two stops at the Women’s Rugby World Cup.
Though few knew it at the time, her final match came in Canada’s triumphant fifth-place play-off at the 2017 World Cup in Ireland.
By the sound of the final whistle - unbeknownst to friends, family, and many teammates - Kirby had made her decision.
“There were so many athletes on our 2017 team that I had played with at the 2014 World Cup, and we’d worked so hard coming up through the ranks together over the previous six or seven years,” says Kirby, recalling the moments immediately following that match. “When that game was over and our captain, Kelly Russell, brought us together to say the final words to us, I knew it was the right moment.”
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m so happy to be with these people in this moment. After all we’ve accomplished together, this is where it should end.’”
While Kirby made the decision to hang up her international boots right then and there, she kept her choice private until late February, with her retirement announcement taking a number of those in Canada’s rugby community - former teammates included - by surprise.
“I’ve received nothing but support from the rugby community, which has been fantastic,” says Kirby. “But right after I’m congratulated, I typically hear ‘But you’re still so young! You can still be playing! You can still do all this!’ I know I could push myself to continue, but at this point, I’m ready for my next chapter.”
Still relatively unscathed from the rigours of the game, Kirby understands that her decision to retire while hale and hearty is a choice that many rugby players don’t often get the chance to make.
But she’s making it nonetheless.
After all, for 10 years she was all-in, giving everything she had to the sport.
And now, more than a decade later, she’s leaving the competitive game on her own terms, entering the next phase of her life with a well-earned appreciation for her achievements [of which there are many], as well as a deepened, profound love for the sport that gave her so much in return.
Kirby began playing rugby as a Grade 10 student at Mayfield Secondary School in nearby Caledon, Ontario, and describes her ascension into competitive rugby as a result of being “in the right place at the right time.”
“When I was in Grade 12, a few of my high school teammates were going out to provincial tryouts, and I hadn’t really considered joining because I had never played competitive sports growing up,” recalls Kirby. “There happened to be an extra seat in the car with my teammates on the way to tryouts, and the rest is history.”
“I got in the car, went to tryouts, made the provincial under-18 squad, and fell in love with the sport.”
Kirby and her Ontario teammates won the under-18 women’s national title in 2007, and the hooker’s standout play at the tournament was noticed by national scouts.
“From that tournament, I was selected to try out for the under-18 national team, and that was an eye-opener for the elite rugby that could be out there for me,” she says. “As the years went on, I kept playing provincials, then rising through the national junior program to play at the Canada under-20 level, and eventually played at the University of Guelph. Every program I was involved with was a little more specialized than the last and provided with me new and challenging opportunities. It kept my fire burning.”
On top of her provincial team duties each summer, Kirby continued training at annual national program camps as a means of honing her burgeoning skills. After being nationally longlisted in 2007, those long, behind-the-scenes hours paid off in 2013 when Kirby received her first senior cap – she started in Canada’s 29-25 victory over England in the (now-defunct) Nations Cup.
The highlight of Kirby’s playing career came one year later, when she helped lead Canada to a best-ever second-place finish at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
“Entering the tournament, we always thought of ourselves as contenders, and then when we started to dominate games and compete with the top nations that were practicing every week together, that’s when it started to sink in that our goal was to win the World Cup.”
Kirby dressed in four of Canada’s five World Cup matches in 2014 [and would dress for five more in 2017], notably starting in the resounding 42-7 pool round victory over Samoa. She called her experience in Paris unlike anything she’s ever been a part of, especially considering how the tournament helped raise the profile of women’s rugby in Canada.
“When we landed in Toronto after flying home from Paris, we were standing at Pearson Airport, waiting for our bags, and we looked up, and we were the highlight on the 8 a.m. news,” she said. “We were all jumping up and down, so excited that we were the biggest news story back home, and I don’t think women’s rugby had ever had that exposure before. We were so proud to be those trailblazers, and that the general public began to take notice.”
Kirby has no hesitations when asked to identify her role model in the rugby community, noting that she always points to University of Guelph women’s rugby program head coach Collette McAuley.
“I was in my rookie year at Guelph when Collette took over as head coach of the women’s program, so it’s been a bit of a running joke that myself and [my national teammates] Jacey Murphy and Britt Benn are her ‘rugby babies’ that have gone through,” she laughed. “Since our time at Guelph, she’s always been involved in my career, and has pushed me to be the best player, and person, that I can be. On top of being one of the strongest proponents of the women’s game in Canada, Collette is the type of coach and leader that pushes athletes, and I needed that push to reach the levels I wanted to reach.”
McAuley made such an impression on Kirby that the Guelph grad returned to her alma mater in 2015 to serve as an assistant coach with the school’s women’s rugby program - a role she continues to hold today.
“During my time as a player at Guelph, I began to appreciate that at the end of the day, rugby is just a game. We’re just playing a game. We’re here because we’re part of a team – a family – that cares about each other, and this powerful aspect of rugby is greater than anything else. The playing is amazing, and being on the field is incredible, but being a part of the rugby team culture, and actively engaging with your teammates and the community you build, is the single-most enriching quality of the sport.”
Kirby’s involvement at the University of Guelph goes beyond just her rugby coaching commitments; she’s also well into her first year of teachers’ college, marking the gateway to a post-national team career that will see her land in the classroom.
“All throughout my time in rugby, I’ve always been in some sort of teaching environment. When I played at Guelph, I participated in travelling coaching clinics, where we went from school to school and ran practices. I’ve also been involved with Rugby Ontario, helping out the junior teams, and I’ve now been coaching at Guelph for the past few years. I’ve loved every opportunity. To be in a position to educate others has been food for my soul, and it helped reinforce decision to head back to school.”
While her time with the national team may be over, Kirby has no plans to keep off the pitch for good.
“I’m really excited to play for my club, Highland Rugby,” said Kirby, eager to spend more time with her Fergus, Ontario-based club after national team commitments limited her time back home in recent years. “In the past two years, I’ve played only 60 minutes of a club game, which sounds so terrible to say out loud!”
A major proponent of club rugby and the community-driven values for which it stands, Kirby is keen to transition to a more “social style” of play this summer.
“I’m really excited to play rugby for the fun of rugby, and not go into it with a mindset of ‘This is my job. This is what the outcome has to be. Did I complete my tackles? Did I go for it with the ball?’ and have to review it all afterwards,” she says, remembering what it was like to play club rugby while splitting time as a national team athlete.
All this said, here’s a word of warning to all her soon-to-be opponents:
“By ‘social,’ I don’t mean ‘not competitive,’ she laughs. “…because I’m still a very competitive person!”
Kirby will also be diving into the administrative side of the game. She’s just been named Highland Rugby’s director of rugby - the first female in club history to hold the position.
“It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve realized the experiences I’ve had can be brought back into a grassroots club level, and what I can share with coaches, and what I can do for the club,” says Kirby. “After so many years of being so busy as a player, I’ve now had to transfer that energy into being busy as an advocate for rugby. I can’t wait to make that transition.”
Among her many planned club initiatives for the summer months, Kirby will be launching a high-performance rugby academy for students aged 13-15 that includes a high school physical education credit. Student-athletes will obtain their credit through a combination of online, in-class and on-field training sessions.
After reflecting upon her rugby career to date, Kirby doesn’t have to spend much time thinking about whether or not she’d do anything differently, if given the chance.
“You only get so many opportunities to pursue something like this. The fact that I’m 28 years old, I have a World Cup medal sitting on my dresser, I’ve been capped for my country and played on international stages with some of my heroes, and I’ve been able to travel the world… I don’t regret a single decision. Each memory has been worth every ounce of effort, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Accomplished and fulfilled, Kirby now finds herself with regular opportunities to serve as a role model for young women entering the game. After years of serving as one of Canada’s most recognizable women’s rugby players, she’s often asked to provide advice to young female athletes aspiring to becoming an elite-level player.
Here’s how she responds:
“Rugby can offer you so many opportunities, and it will connect you with so many wonderful people. Regardless of the level you play, the sense community that you’ll feel is unlike any other sport.
“The relationships that you can build, and what you can learn about yourself, and the confidence and empowerment - especially for young women - that you can feel about yourself and your body, these are things that I have truly learned through rugby and through playing with powerful women, and I think it’s just an experience you can’t get anywhere else. So if you want to try it, or if you’re thinking about trying it, dive in head first.
“…and if you can, bring someone along with you!”