Girls rugby making comeback

Until the Prince George Youth Rugby Association picked up the ball and ran with it, the rugby scene for high school-aged girls was headed into a death spiral.

With the exception of a senior girls team at Prince George Secondary School and pockets of interest in Smithers, Houston and Williams Lake, high school teams in the region have gone the way of the dodo, succumbing to low numbers and pressure from school administrators who would rather not see girls playing a full-contact sport.

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But that would mean too much potential national team talent going to waste.

The success of Canada's national sevens women's team as bronze medalists at the 2016 Olympics, coming off a top-four finish at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in April, has encouraged the B.C. Rugby Association and Rugby Canada to throw their support behind a three-club girls league which has its roots in Prince George.

The Prince George Junior Vixens hosted an icebreaker tournament a few weeks ago at Masich Place Stadium and invited the Lake City Rustlers and Fort St. John Mini Marks to join them in a series of mini games.

"This is really good for the north, girls will get a lot more opportunities to play at a higher level," said Vixens veteran Taylor Keba, a member of the B.C. provincial 15s team who captained the now-defunct high school team at Kelly Road. "There's so much talent in the north and if they have no outlet for it then it doesn't get noticed."

Keba started playing three years ago and has loved the game ever since, but there weren't enough of her school colleagues who shared her passion for rugby.

"It is a huge commitment to come out to practices, there's lots of different skills rugby requires and if you don't come to practices it's really hard to play well in a game," she said.

Keba is looking forward to joining the UBC Junior Thunderbirds team to Bermuda in March for a sevens tournament and as part of the B.C. provincial team she's making plans to play in the Salt Lake Sevens tournament next August in Utah.

"There are just so many opportunities, I would never have imagined I would go this far in the sport when I started," Keba said. "I just love the team concept of it, it's unlike any sport I've ever played. It's really a family. I've done basketball and volleyball and a whole bunch of sports and I've never had a team that appreciates me like this. I've never been so confident in my life. There's nothing like going to a different rugby team and everyone's so friendly and welcoming."

The three northern club teams are part of the Interior girls sevens league which includes teams from Kamloops, Kelowna, Merritt and Salmon Arm, with tournaments upcoming this fall in Kamloops, Kelowna and Vancouver.

The high school team concept didn't work in North Central B.C. because there weren't enough girls with rugby experience to sustain it. Pooling the talent to form one club team in each city gives coaches more athletes to choose from and those players can work on skills in practice against teammates of similar ability so they're better-prepared for the opponents they'll face at club tournaments.

"Typical of small-town sports, you'd have two strong players on each team and that doesn't work, they would just run the ball all the time and get hurt," said Junior Vixens head coach Jeremy Cundy. "Now, in the club, you get everybody who works together."

The 12-player Junior Vixens roster includes high school players from Kelly Road, Duchess Park, PGSS, and College Heights. Nico Marshall, a 16-year-old Duchess Park student, loves the game, even when it causes her pain. She took an elbow to the face in practice and was left with a bit of shiner under her eye, but for Marshall that just comes with the territory.

"It is a rough sport but if you play it properly it's really fun," said Marshall, who tried competitive swimming and volleyball. "You don't really get hurt if you know how to tackle and how to get hit. If you're watching it it's a little scary but you have to try it, it's an acquired taste. I wasn't a contact-sport person before I tried it."

"You know it's a good game when you come out with really big bruises and if you don't then you know you haven't played your hardest," added Marshall's Vixen teammate Camryn Ossi.

The path to Canada's national program has already been established for girls from the north now that Alicia Sorken, a former Junior Vixen/Duchess Park Condor, is attending Belmont Secondary School in Victoria while playing for Rugby Canada's junior development team. Another Vixens player, Lani Loth, who just moved to Prince George from Houston, plays for the B.C. elite girls team.

Cundy and Junior Vixens co-coach Mabel Elsner, a former PGSS player, are trying to start a women's team in Prince George. For now, boys rugby in Prince George is non-existent.

"There's no interest at all," Cundy said. "The real reason is football, the football community doesn't promote rugby. But if you look in the Lower Mainland, those guys are playing rugby and football because the complement each other. Things you get from rugby, like safer tackling, ball-handling and footwork, you could implement that in football."

The Junior Vixens practice Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30-7 p.m. at Duchess Park field.

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