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Curiosity and Controversy

No question about it. I am curious.

November 14, 1987. Shortly, I will take up residence underneath the grandstand at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria, BC. I am to be part of the Canada Men’s rugby squad, about to take on arch-rival USA. However, barring an unfortunate injury or illness to a starting player, I fully expect to stay on the reserves bench for the entire eighty minutes. Under a blanket, bundled up in my tracksuit and surplus to requirements.

Still, what intrigues me, and I am sure a good many others in the 5,000 crowd, is the afternoon curtain raiser. On tap is the first ever Women’s international between the two countries. This inaugural test match hopes to showcase a developing sport, one on the move.

The game is certainly no freak show, as some cruelly suggest it might be. Not a novelty. Nor is it gentle or ladylike, as evidenced by the vigorous rucking and aggressive tackling on display. Set piece work and general organization are not only sound but reinforce comments made by a Rugby Canada executive member. She notes that “while comparing the two levels (men and women) might be a touchy subject, the women play a good brand of rugby and will surprise people”.

Certainly, even if hampered by the 3C temperature and a stiff, bone chilling crosswind, the match overall compares favourably with the men’s contest which follows. If some of the handling and kicking lacks finesse or power, the Americans in particular at least run the ball effectively. Precocious fullback Mary Sullivan shows a sweet sidestep and a clean pair of heels in scoring twice. Centre Tracy Henderson and No. 8 Kathy Flores are among others to catch the eye. The Eagles register five tries in total, en route to a decisive 22-3 victory.

Alas, subsequent off field activities then spark considerable controversy. For, at the traditional post game function, the compatibility of men’s and women’s rugby does indeed become a touchy subject. In retrospect, more like a time bomb waiting to go off!

Speaking to the four teams in attendance, in addition to various local and national rugby officials, is Fred Paoli. A lawyer by trade, he is a rugged, hard nosed prop forward and also the Eagles' captain. He challenges the whole concept of women’s rugby, allowing that while women have the right to play, he cannot condone their bastardization of “our” great game. Though claiming to speak only for himself, and not on behalf of the USA union, he adds that men’s rugby is a civilized war for survival and honour, that women can never play as men do.

Reaction is swift and strong. Both women’s teams storm out of the reception in protest. Players are furious, shouting and crying, some are hysterical. A number of male guests in attendance also walk out in support. Rugby Canada representatives label Paoli’s remarks as well beyond the bounds of good taste, totally divisive and not in the spirit of the game.

Yet, of those who remain behind, few appear perturbed or upset. They offer no apology, seem, quietly at least, to back Paoli’s sentiments.

Still, the discord continues through the night at various downtown watering holes and clubs. Emotions run hot; debates are fierce. Players, officials, and fans offer opinions on, and choose sides in, the war of words.

It all seems so silly, so unnecessary and so long ago. Happily, by way of reply, in the three plus decades since, women’s rugby worldwide explodes in popularity. No longer an oddity, a curio, it is instead an ever growing phenomenon, now featuring in over 80 countries. Mindsets change, and are changing, when acknowledging its place in the sporting landscape.

Very soon, women could easily number half the total playing population around the globe, with coaches, volunteers, fans, investors, and sponsors equally engaged.

In the shop window, Women’s World Cups now take place on a regular basis, in both 15s and 7s. As successful, well run stand-alone events, or, ironically, in conjunction with men’s competitions. The skills and commitment of the top players continue to progress. Speed, power and fitness levels are breathtaking, rivalling similar developments and advancements in basketball, cricket, ice hockey and soccer.

Canada certainly has much of which to be proud. From a hesitant start at schools, clubs, and universities in the late 1970s, the women’s game goes from strength to strength. While it takes the national team nine attempts to finally beat the Eagles, the overall record now stands at 19 wins and 17 defeats. And, in recent years, superbly prepared Canadian sides gain frenzied followings while medaling at the 2014 World Cup, 2016 Rio Olympics and in both the 2015 and 2019 Pan Am tournaments.

Along the way, there have been the inevitable quarrels and wrangles, but about finances and policy, about strategic plans, about staffing and selection. The basic philosophical disagreements of a November evening 33 years ago are long past.

After all, it is 2021. While there is still considerable ground to make up, it is the age of equity, diversity and inclusion. Women who play rugby are no longer a curiosity. In no way, shape or form is their participation controversial. And the sport is here to stay. Its mantra, issued eighteen months ago by the game’s ruling body, clearly and precisely states so.

Try and Stop Us.

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