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High school girls rugby a big hit on North Shore

Olympic inspiration has more teams than ever joining the scrum

Longtime high school girls rugby coach and administrator Brad Baker has watched the sport push forward inch by inch over the years, and now he’s ready to see a major breakthrough.

On Thursday Baker coached his powerhouse Carson Graham Eagles team – winners of the last two, and 10 of the past 13, senior girls provincial titles – in an exhibition match against Richmond’s McMath Secondary. It’s the start of a new season, but Baker is hoping it’s the start of something much bigger as well as a new league involving 10 local teams is set to kick off. It’s the largest league Baker has ever seen for girls high school 15s rugby, and he’s hoping it’s a sign of both the game’s strength right now and the potential for even more growth in the future.

“We’ve never had this many teams on the North Shore,” said Baker. The 15s league includes North Shore teams from Carson Graham, Handsworth, Argyle and West Van along with Chatelech from the Sunshine Coast and Lower Mainland teams from Moscrop, Hugh McRoberts, R.A. McMath, Burnaby North and a combined team from several Vancouver-based schools.    

“It’s great for the Lower Mainland, Vancouver and the suburbs, because it just shows the game is growing,” said Baker. “Across the province girls high school rugby is the one growth area for BC Rugby. It continues to grow across the country.”

In addition to the 15s league there is also a rugby sevens circuit growing on the North Shore. One sevens jamboree is already in the books with the next one scheduled for April 20 at Rockridge Secondary. The sevens series adds Rockridge, Sentinel, and Windsor to the list of North Shore rugby schools.

Mimi Appelbe coaches at Handsworth and as the league co-ordinator for North Shore high school girls rugby has taken charge of organizing the sevens events. They’re building towards a showcase sevens event on May 4 at the new Fen Burdett turf field that will act as a provincial qualification tournament. Eight teams, including five from the North Shore, will compete for two berths in the provincial championships.

“Two years ago we didn’t have to have qualifiers because only two teams in the entire Lower Mainland actually wanted to go to provincials,” said Appelbe with a laugh.

Baker, who has been the president of the B.C. High School Girls Rugby Association for more than a decade, credited North Shore volunteer coaches and administrators such as Appelbe and Darcy Patterson with championing the game both through the Capilano Rugby Club and at North Shore schools. The high school leagues have taken off because schools have bought into the sport, said Baker.

“The biggest thing in the process has been having schools recognize that it’s a valid sport, it’s another sport for girls to play,” he said. “Each of these schools, especially on the North Shore, it’s teacher driven. All these schools have a teacher champion who is trying to grow the game and give the girls another avenue to physical activity.”

They’ve also had to do some work to convince parents to let their daughters dive into the rough world of tackle rugby.

“There was a notion back in the day that ‘I can’t have my girl play rugby because it’s too dangerous.’ But it’s just another avenue for team sports, and we know team sports are advantageous to future successes.”

The inclusion of rugby sevens in the Olympic Games and Canada’s bronze medal showing in Rio 2016 have helped turn women’s rugby into a mainstream sport, said Appelbe.

“That changed the profile of the game and I think it also made more parents aware of the game, and that was always a struggle in the beginning,” she said. “Parents didn’t want their children to play rugby, but seeing these women at the Olympics and seeing how strong and powerful they were, it inspired more girls and allowed parents to see that girls are capable of doing this. … I had a parent who sent me an email last year to thank me and she said ‘rugby is such a beautiful and powerful sport.’ And I thought that was such a neat way for a mom, who was watching her Grade 8 daughter play, to describe it.”

Baker is happy to see the sport booming because he’s getting ready to make his final push – he said he’ll hang up his coaching clipboard at the end of the next school year. 

“He’s done unbelievable things,” Appelbe said of Baker. “He does everything from the small things like making sure we have refs and making the schedule, to then organizing a provincial level tournament in conjunction with Rugby Canada. … He advocates for us. We often have to fight for fields and fight for refs and fight to be given equal treatment, and Brad is always adamant that we get what we deserve.”

Appelbe is confident the game will continue to grow on the North Shore after Baker passes the torch to a new generation of coaches and organizers. Like any good rugby player, she knows that the key sometimes is to just keep pushing forward as hard as you can.

“I think it will keep growing. I think there are still a lot of problems all the way to the top as far as equal support for the men and women, but that’s something that we’ll just have to keep pushing for. The more numbers we have behind us, the more power we have.”