There are some who may still insist rugby, with its heavy physical contact and gruelling pace, is not for women. Such stereotypes have not prevented women’s rugby from experiencing dramatic growth.
According to World Rugby’s website, more than 2.7 million females now play the sport, representing a quarter of the global rugby population and a 28-per-cent increase in registered athletes since 2017. Rugby Canada notes year-over-year growth in domestic participation over the last two decades or so, with women and youth leading the charge.
The Axemen, coming off a banner season, wish to be part of the movement with their revamped women’s program.
Axes and Oars
Now helmed by Abbotsford Rugby Football Club alum Lauren Arthur, the Axemen ladies joined forces with the Vancouver Rowers for their first BC Rugby Division 2 game on Sept. 9 against Simon Fraser University. Despite a 36-0 loss, Arthur has plenty of praise for her squad—many of whom are new to full-contact play and to their Vancouver-based teammates.
“We’ve combined to become the Axes and Oars,” Arthur explained. “A lot of us were all just meeting for the first time, but I don’t think from the sidelines, you could tell that we had all just met.
“There were some little things that are going to come over time, like game fitness—that’s going to come just from playing more and more games. It was a very balanced game, I thought … and we really did make SFU work for those points.”
Arthur grew up in Abbotsford. As the only girl in a family of four kids, her mom tried to push her down the path of dance and ballet, which she never enjoyed. Rugby was a different story—she discovered it around the age of 12 and hit the pitch running.
“The thing I love most about the sport is it’s very inclusive. It’s a sport for everyone,” Arthur explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re tall, short, fast or slow, there’s a spot for you on the field. That’s what I really, really liked about it, and I think that’s what has kept me playing for so long.
“The culture of rugby is so different from other sports, too. It really is like a family.”
Throughout high school, Arthur played in the Fraser Valley and for BC Rugby before moving on to the Abbotsford Rugby Club. She also coached her former high school team, Abbotsford Senior Secondary, before work took her to Vancouver and away from her favourite sport for a time.
Nowadays, Arthur is a 28-year-old mother of two who leaped at an opportunity to join the Axemen, where she mentors a diverse team featuring beginners and veteran players alike. Practices are catered to a variety of skill levels.
“The Sea to Sky can be a little bit intimidating with the amount of activities we have, like mountain biking and skiing,” said Arthur. “That just might not be for some people, but rugby really is for everyone. I don’t know if you could even tell that there’s beginners on the team. The improvement has just been so, so incredible.”
Best of both worlds
Blake Mahovic, a prominent player-coach for the men’s team, recognizes the Axemen haven’t always been intentional in fostering female participation. He and other club leaders were ecstatic at Arthur’s willingness to step up and take the lead.
“It’s been really awesome to find Lauren and give women a chance to recreate in that team sport environment, which I think is sometimes lacking here,” Mahovic commented. “We were always aware that we wanted it to be women-led … and the [program] is Lauren’s baby. All I do is help them out when they need it.”
In return, Arthur thanked Mahovic and the other men of the club for their support.
“Pretty much all I have to do is tell [Mahovic] what we need, and it happens,” she said. “He’s made it very, very easy for me, which has been wonderful because I do have two young daughters and it’s a busy household here all the time.
“The whole men’s team is very, very welcoming. There’s been a few times where we’ve joined in with them at practice and it can be a little bit intimidating playing a new sport, especially one like rugby—and then now you’re playing against men. That can be intimidating for some women, but [the male club members] were nothing but gentlemen.”
With a loyal core group now in place, Arthur aims to gradually build them up to higher levels of competition. Even so, the club’s modus operandi has always prioritized community, and she has no interest in alienating the more recreational members of her squad.
“I want to create a space for everyone, whatever your comfort level is,” Arthur said. “That’s kind of the goal: to have a competitive women’s team in the Sea to Sky, but also keep it really fun and social.”
Find out more at axemenrugbyclub.com/womans-rugby