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Stand on the sidelines at a women's rugby game and you will be immediately struck by the sheer physicality of this sport. It's like football - but without the equipment. There is a lot of tackling, grabbing, pulling, and it doesn't stop and start - the players go for 40-minute halves with hardly any break in the action.
Watch the McGill Martlets play a game of rugby and you'll be watching one of the best women's rugby teams in the country, and most certainly the best in Quebec. The Martlets are so dominant in the Quebec University league (the QSSF) that they haven't lost a regular-season game in five seasons. That's a 33-0-1 record.
The gold medal may have eluded them once again this past weekend at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport women's rugby championships in Sher-brooke, as they picked up the bronze for a second year in a row. But the Martlets have a legacy of excellence in their home province that shows no signs of weakening. The team, based at Macdonald campus, is indicative of the growth and success of women's rugby in Quebec and across Canada.
"When McGill first started playing in the CIS in 1998, we maybe had one provincial-level player, and now we look at our team and all our forwards have played provincial rugby, and we have national team players," says Vince deGrandpre, head coach of the team.
McGill and Macdonald campus have had women's rugby teams since 1977 and joined the QSSF in 1986. The two teams waged battle against each other until 1998, when they merged and set up a permanent base at Macdonald campus. While a few eyebrows were raised at the time, says deGrandpre, the decision was an easy one.
"Part of the reason that the team was brought to Mac was because we had a powerhouse out here - we had a great field, great facilities, and all the coaching staff were out here. Most of the funding was coming from the Mac department as well, and because of the good backing we got out of the Mac campus, we were able to develop and make inroads downtown and were promoted to a "B" sport."
That funding has meant that deGrandpre has been able to maintain a constant coaching staff of three that has brought consistency to the program - something that is not enjoyed by most women's rugby programs in Canada. "If you go to other universities and talk to them about their coaching staff, they're not even sure who's going to be coaching next year."
Women's rugby started to grow in popularity in the 1990s, when many high schools brought the sport into their programs. There are now about 50,000 women playing rugby in Canada, making it the fastest growing female sport in the country. As one of the few sports for women that involves contact, rugby has also gained in popularity because of the community that surrounds the game.
"You have to be in the rugby community to know, but it's such a friendly dynamic," says Araba (Roo) Chintoh, who has played on the national team for three years and joined McGill's team this year. "Nowhere else can you spend 80 minutes pounding into each other and then go buy each other a beer."
Rugby players have to be physically strong, fit, and have no fear of contact. Players also have to be able to think - something that team captain Steph Lynam particularly enjoys. "There's a lot of strategy in the game, and I think that's reflected in my position (fly-half). That's what I do - I call a lot of the plays. I like the challenge of figuring out what the other team is going to do, and what we need to do."
Lynam, who also plays with Canada's Under-23 team, was one of five McGill players named to the all-star roster at the 2002 CIS Championships. Joining her were Julia Leonard, Chintoh, Candace Patterson and Jessica Young. The team was well placed this year to make it to the finals, but unfortunately met up with eventual champions the University of Alberta Pandas in the semi-finals, and were relegated to the bronze medal game, where they defeated the Guelph University Gryphons 30-3 for the second year in a row. The University of Western Ontario Mustangs took the silver.
To win the national university title, the Marlets will have to start facing better competition on a more regular basis, says deGrandpre. "It's a huge jump from the QSSF to the CIS. We don't have the strongest league, so once we go to the nationals, it's like three paces higher and sometimes it's very hard to get our heads into it. We play against the men to pick up the pace in defence and get used to heavier contact, but the other teams have better competition all season long."
With more and more top-quality rookies joining the team every year, McGill will certainly remain a force to be reckoned with, and as other teams in Quebec and across the country step up their level of play, the quality of the women's rugby game will only continue to improve.