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Girls' rugby slowly gaining ground

Steve Green, Free Press Sports Reporter   2003-05-09 11:31:30  

If the fledgling girls' rugby team at Medway can even begin to emulate the school's successful boys' program, the sport may finally be gaining a foothold for girls in the area.

Actually, the Thames Valley Region Athletic Association has lagged behind the rest of the province somewhat when it comes to girls' rugby. It's already established in Huron-Perth and more than 100 schools across Ontario offer it.

Yet despite a strong UWO program and one at the St. George's Rugby Club, it's struggled within TVRAA.

Central has had a program for three years while South and Lucas also have programs.

Medway joined the effort this year.

"It wasn't too hard (to get started)," said Chelsey Laird, a Grade 12 student who helped get the Medway girls off the ground. "The idea came from a lot of my friends who are on the boys' team. They wondered why we didn't have a girls' team and I thought, 'Why not?' "

Laird said the response was "overwhelming" -- 85 showed up for the initial tryouts and around 35 are still playing for coaches Shannon Butler and Jen Heald, both Western students.

"They're really good with playing time," said Laird, who plays inside centre.

"They try to keep it even for everybody and if you come to practice, you play."

Already the Cowboys are seeing the rewards, placing second in their only tournament to date, last month at Saltfleet. They also split two exhibition games this week, falling 10-5 to Central but beating Lucas 66-0.

"My goal for that tournament was to win one game and have no one get seriously injured," Laird said.

"And we came second."

Laird said the sport appeals to those who "dare to be different."

"No one really acknowledges it as a (girls') sport. Almost everyone does track or plays soccer in the spring, but rugby brings up an opportunity for those who want to try something new," she said, adding that the camaraderie is a major plus.

"Girls I'd never met before at Medway are now really good friends, especially because of the early-morning practices. I just hope somebody carries this on next year (after she graduates)."

The biggest challenge teams face is financial. As girls' rugby has only club status, it's not funded by TVRAA.

But they're persevering. Central has already sent six graduates on to university programs.

"That's so gratifying after only three years," said Central coach Brian Rice, whose team travels for games in Chatham, Walkerton and Kincardine.

Rice said girls' rugby is on the rise.

"I think we can have four solid teams next year," he said, echoing Laird's view on the sport's appeal.

"Some girls are looking for new challenges. Girls you would never think would want to hit anybody are falling in love with the sport."

Transfer policy still the rule

Ontario's high school students may soon have greater freedom in choosing their schools, but that won't result in athletes moving to form "powerhouse" teams because they'll still have to deal with a fairly significant roadblock -- the OFSAA transfer policy.

Now, however, that policy will have to be even more strictly enforced in light of the provincial government's plans, say provincial and local high school sports officials.

"People have had that choice within the city boundaries already," TVRAA co-ordinator Wes McConnell said. "But if this does mean the transfer policy is null and void . . . that would be a misuse of what the government intended. The whole focus of school sport is as an extension of the classroom. I don't think this has been completely thought through."

The policy states any high school athlete transferring schools in Ontario is automatically ineligible for a year unless he or she meets one or more criteria. And OFSAA executive director Colin Hood says nothing will change.

"Why would it be?" he replied when asked if the policy was in any danger. "Around the province already, kids have a great deal of freedom to move . . . and the transfer policy exists quite nicely. And with the four-year curriculum, sitting out one year out of those four is a pretty good deterrent."

That said, there have been more than a few instances -- especially in boys' basketball within the Metro Toronto-Golden Horseshoe area -- where the policy has been less than enthusiastically followed at the local association level. Several past OFSAA championships have seen teams suddenly declare players ineligible come tournament time.

If anything, Hood said, the bigger concern would be at the other end of the scale -- those programs barely finding enough players to field teams.

"If athletes could opt out without penalty, then some programs might fold," Hood said. "So we'll have to be even more vigilant."

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