With blue skies and sunshine, the weather cooperated beautifully for the first ever Girls Can Rugby Day hosted by the Sea to Sky Axemen in Squamish on Sunday, March 6.
Approximately 14 girls were on hand at Don Ross Middle School to participate in drills and games designed to get the kids moving while teaching them the basics of the sport.
According to Annabel Kehoe, CEO of BC Rugby, the Axemen’s girl’s rugby day was one of 18 similar events happening across the province on the same day, with a 19th club in Fernie planning to hold theirs once the snow melts in the spring. Those 19 participating clubs represent nearly one third of the 60 total clubs in the province.
“I'm really excited by it,” said Kehoe. “We've always known that there is this huge opportunity to grow female participation in our sport and our clubs are key to that, so to see so many of them put their hands up and volunteer to be part of this campaign has been really encouraging, and I'm confident that those that are participating are going to give the young girls a really fun day and a really great introduction to our sport.”
In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all youth sports across the province. Rugby registration numbers have started to return to normal this year, but participation among youth girls has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels—something Kehoe hopes this girls-centric rugby day can help fix.
“Before the pandemic our female membership represented close to 40 per cent of all rugby players in the province, and at the moment, in [the five-to-14] age group, we are only seeing 20 per cent of females representing that player base, and we want to rebalance that,” said Kehoe.
“We want girls and their parents to know that girls can rugby, that this sport is for them and that this is a sport that has real opportunity. We have more and more universities in Canada offering rugby scholarships to young women, and we just believe that rugby is such a great sport for helping people become empowered.
“We have a place for all shapes and sizes on the pitch … that’s really empowering and very affirmative for these young girls, and at these ages that’s really important.”
The Axemen’s Emily Van Duin, who took the lead in running the event, has been playing rugby for nearly 20 years. Starting in middle school with no previous knowledge of the sport, Van Duin believes rugby today is much more accessible to youth girls than it was for her and hopes events like Girls Can Rugby Day “opens the eyes of these girls” and gets more girls interested in exploring the game.
“I think it’s great. This wasn't an opportunity for me when I was a kid, so all these girls who are coming up here and getting involved in the sport is super awesome,” she said.
“Just having a free event like this where people can just show up and girls can run around have fun with other girls, I think it’s awesome.”
One of those girls getting her first experience in the sport was Piper Walsh, who said she now wants to keep playing rugby as much as she can after learning about it at the event.
And while she didn’t give much in the way of long-winded answers, electing to keep her responses short and sweet, she said the best part was “getting to run around a lot” and have fun learning a new sport with other girls her age.
As an added bonus for the events across the province, BC Rugby will send the club with the most participants to BC Place over Easter weekend to watch an HSBC Canada Sevens match—and the club will get to run out on the pitch during the intermission.
Moving forward from this event, James Butterworth, coach of the Axemen’s U11 program, hopes that enough interest is raised for girls rugby in B.C. that multiple clubs can form girls-only teams and start travelling for matches and jamborees in the spring.
“Rugby in general is quite an inclusive sport. There is always a spot for anyone—big, small, fast, slow—but it’s also a good way to meet new people and generate these long-lasting friendships and associations,” he said.
“Obviously, what we'd like to see is for the people to come down to be interested and engaged and want to come back and try to develop and build this potential team moving forward ... that would be fantastic even just to get a few extra players, just to expand rugby in the community.”