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Grassroots of Women's Rugby

Written by: Chris Perrotte   

Player/coach Brenna Cairncross takes time away from the rugby workout on the field to discuss the sport she loves. Rugby.

Brenna grew up watching her dad Bruce Cairncross play rugby for the Barrie Rugby Club, a team she now plays for. He was her role model in the game and he taught her about the sport.  But as important as his role was in her rugby journey, it wasn't until she joined a particular rugby club that she saw the importance in female rugby role models.

“That was a whole different experience for me. It was really important,” says 31 year old Cairncross.

“I can look back and say I played rugby with that girl who is now playing for Canada. I played rugby with an Olympic gold medalist.  I played rugby with so many of these players who have gone on to do amazing things both inside and outside of rugby. So that’s been a huge sort of mental stimulus for me, and motivation to keep me playing and to keep me involved in the sport.”

Safa Khan is the Rugby Development Coordinator for Rugby Ontario. It was only a few days removed from surgery, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from returning to the work she loves, or discussing the sport she’s passionate about. Rugby.

With the recent successes of the Canadian Women's Rugby Teams, runners up at the 2014 World Cup of Rugby in France, bronze medalists at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and gold at the 2015 Pan-Am Games in Toronto, one can say that they are influencing a lot of young women interested in pursuing the sport.

“I feel like it’s hugely influenced younger players that are starting up because it’s become so televised now and so public that girls no longer see rugby as a men’s only sport,” says Safa Khan. “Girls can see their role models in the National Team Players and the Olympic dream becomes a lot closer to reality for the everyday high school athlete.”

Sonia Sennik, currently coach for the Women’s Ontario Blues Squad, also gives praises to the trickle-down effect the achievements of our Women’s National Teams are having on the girls interested in this sport.

“I think it’s so massive I don’t think you could even measure it. It’s so inspiring for young athletes in general - boys and girls alike - to watch strong, powerful women playing with such fire and intensity in a sport that is about self-expression. It’s about teamwork and commitment to a vision,” Sennik, who is in her second year as a coach, says with pride.

“You can see that when you watch rugby. You can see how a team comes together and how the individual is a part of a larger experience, and I think that’s really inspiring for young girls, young athletes in general to put on the boots.”

Jane Kirby is a current member of the Canadian Rugby Team who will be participating in this year’s World Cup of Rugby in Ireland.  Kirby was also on the squad that came runner up to England at the 2014 World Cup.

With all of their triumphs on the pitch, how do our women like Kirby (who put on the “boots” and don our Canadian colours) feel about the influence they are having on the next generation?

 “It’s only in the past couple of months or so that I realized sort of the groundwork that myself and all the women involved in the national program are laying out,” Kirby says.

“My club does these player profiles for different players throughout our club and last week they did a profile on a young woman named Stella Leary. At the bottom of her profile, it had a Q&A (Questions & Answers) segment and one of the questions asked 'which player inspires you or who do you want to play like?' and she answered 'Jane Kirby'. That was one of those WOW moments for me. Just in terms of being a role model, being a mentor to these young women. I’ve known this kid who has been playing rugby for years and I've watched her grow up through the community and the sport. Just to see that and have that up-close and personal feel to it was kind of eye opening.”

For Jane, it is incredible to know that for everything the sport of rugby has given her as a person, as a woman and as an athlete, to be able to look back and say that she is contributing to this game and being an influence for that young girl or woman coming up in the system is an incredible feeling. A great experience to be part of.

The interest among young ladies to participate in rugby is growing, but sadly there still isn’t enough support out there for these aspiring rugby players.

“For years we’ve had the Pay to Play Model. So players playing at either the national or provincial level have to drop around $1,500 to play,” says Khan.

“A lot of women who are playing are young. They’re under 20 [years old] and that’s when you are usually at your prime. So that is a hefty commitment.  Over a course of a year or two years (or however long they are participating), they could drop up to $7000 or $8000 in rugby.”

When a woman is investing that amount of money in order to play, it shows a level of passion and love for the sport of rugby. 

“The fact that they are balancing their own lives and careers on the side and they put so much time into rugby, it takes quite a financial toll on them because they are putting aside their careers to be able to play rugby. But they also have to find this money and find fundraising time to finance it,” explains Khan, also a player.

The question is where the ladies find the financial support needed to play the game they love?  There are sponsorships offered at Rugby Ontario to help defray some of the costs. However, at the National level they are still working out sponsorship, grant committees, and other avenues to help cover some of the expenses. At the end of the day, women pursuing the dream of playing at the highest level have to make that type of financial commitment because sponsorship is limited. 

But even before they reach that level, these young women have to decide whether or not  to play. When they make their decision, will there be enough avenues and programs available to them to allow them to follow their dream and to follow in the legacy left by women who have played at the national level.

Jane Kirby happened to be in the right place at the right time.

“My high school was taking a tour to the U.K [United Kingdom]. We were going to Scotland and England. Every two years they took a touring team and I was in the athletic office for my flag football team when the rugby coach announced that they didn’t have enough players, and he just looked at me and said hey you look athletic enough, you want to come to England?",explains Kirby.

“So I had one night to go home and convince my parents to let me play this sport none of us had never heard of and in a country I had never been to. With a team and teachers that I didn’t know.”

Thus the rugby journey for Jane Kirby began, and she continued to find herself at the right place at the right time. 

But for other young women, their path may not be as fortunate. So the question remains are there enough avenues to pursue this sport?

“I definitely don’t think there are,” replies Khan. “We have 63 clubs in Ontario and the majority of them have at least a senior’s men’s side. Some of them have a women’s side, [39 to be exact].”

“We do have women’s rugby in major cities but a lot of those clubs - even like the clubs in London, clubs in Brampton, year to year, they have to pull in new numbers. They have to do a lot of effort and recruitment to be able to maintain the 25 to 30 players you need to actually play a full season.”

Even with the growing interest in rugby, avenues are still needed for young women to participate. As of today, the Yeoman Lions Club in Toronto is the only all-women’s rugby club. Currently, out of the 39 clubs that have a senior women’s team, 32 of them have an Under 18 girls’ team and only 12 have an Under 16 team. Unfortunately, none of the clubs provide an Under 14 team or an Under 12 all-girls team. All clubs with an Under 12 team are co-ed with a majority of boys on the squad.

Khan explains: "parents often feel uncomfortable putting their kids into contact or semi-contact sports where there aren’t options that it’s all girls they’re playing against. So a lot of girls don’t get their start until U16 or U18, and that effects the whole spectrum and the whole development model for women’s rugby.”

The one bright spot for a young woman interested in trying out her talents on the pitch is participating at her local high school. However, once she has fallen in love with the sport and would like to pursue rugby further outside of school, it becomes challenging.

“The structures aren’t in place for them to financially get into it and there are also not enough clubs locally,” laments Khan.

“There are tens of thousands of girls playing high school rugby in Ontario, but the turnover is [very high]. I feel a lot of that is because there are so many high schools where there is girls rugby and yet there isn’t a club program within an hour drive for them to get to.”

According to Khan, who has been playing rugby since high school, more clubs need to be developed and more financial avenues need to be set in place to help compensate the cost for those girls who want to continue playing in the club.

Even though there are external obstacles for them to overcome, with women like Safa Khan, Sonia Sennik, Jane Kirby and others who are passionate about the game advocating for a strong future, women’s rugby programs will continue to receive support and grow, providing a promising future across this great rugby nation.

“There is tons of positive momentum and energy from the sport itself. The women that are involved in the sport and the coaches that are involved in the sport are all really passionate and committed to developing and advancing it,” says Sonia Sennik.

“I feel like there is a lot of passion and excitement from the people within and I think that’s really contagious. I think rugby is really growing across the country and coming off the heels of the great showing at the last World Cup for the 15’s program - and recently the bronze medal at the Olympics, I think it’s really contagious and everybody is catching the bug.”

I always say that if anyone ever gets the opportunity to go to a live rugby match, they should GO! The excitement and passion you will witness from fans who come to either cheer on their country or their home team as they battle on the field is unlike anything you will ever see. Whether it is your first game or you are an avid follower of the sport, you will fall in love with the pride of the Canadian Red Nation. The fan support of our women’s team is simply amazing.

“It’s incredible. Even down in New Zealand the past May, there was a school classroom that had come to watch us play against England, and they had printed off our flags on pieces of paper, written the [Canadian] national anthem in English and in French on the back, and had laminated them so the players could sign them,” reflects Kirby.

“When we went out on the field to sing the anthem, this group of school kids stood up and sang the anthem as loud as they could in English and French.They were all wearing red and white and cheering us on. It was a really cool feeling to have. To be so far away from home on the other side of the world and have these people decide you are their home team and support you [was amazing].”

This kind of fan support from the across the world shows just how easy it is to fall in with the women who represent our country on the pitch.

“At the last World Cup [2014] when we defeated France in the semi-final on home their home soil, then we went on to the championship game, to have 30,000 fans cheering for us even though we had just defeated their home team was an incredible feeling,” says Kirby. “You don’t get many of those in your life.”

Author Steve Saint once said: “Your story is the greatest legacy that you will leave to your friends. It’s the longest-lasting legacy you will leave to your heirs.”

Our young women are aspiring to one day create their own stories and legacies. Their own memorable moment. Something that no one will ever take away. But the dream has to start somewhere. And more support is needed in order for the legacy to continue to grow strong. As they follow the road paved by the women before them, some ladies may play the sport as a recreational outlet, and some may play because of the bond that is formed on and off the field. Others, like 18-year-old Dani Troop play this great game in the hopes to make it to the national team.

“The goal is to keep playing rugby for as long as I can,” says Troop, who player for the Barrie Rugby Club. “University is the next goal, so hopefully.” 

She will be attending Guelph University where they have a strong rugby program. Her legacy will continue there.

Every woman who plays has a story to share, a testimony on the experiences both on and off the field of why they play. 

It only took Troop four words to describe what excites her the most on the pitch. “Tackling… I love tackling!” Troop laughs.

Whatever the reason or motivation, their goal is simple. Their passion is real.  A passion for this sport that can be seen both on and off the field. That’s why clubs like the Barrie RFC are so important for giving these women an avenue.

“It’s very important. In rugby, you can find out who you really are. It’s for anyone who wants to play a sport. It’s open to anyone. It’s amazing,” says Dani.

One day hope to see Dani donning our Canadian colours, playing the sport she loves and being part of a legacy, just like Jane Kirby before her.

Jane - looking toward the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup that begins in a few short days, is hoping to create the ultimate legacy.

“I’m really hoping for a gold medal at this World Cup.” Jane says.

For Kirby, that will be her most memorable moment.

For the girls who are deciding to choose rugby and create their own legacy, remember these words from Dani Troop:

“You’ll never regret playing rugby. You’re going to make so many friends. Your team is going to become your family. You learn so many things and become such an open person. You’re not afraid anymore. [It gives you a lot of confidence]”

The next chapter of your legacy begins now!