North Vancouver's Hilary Leith will bring a few extra tricks with her when she hits the pitch for her Women's Rugby World Cup debut with Team Canada when the tournament starts Aug. 1 in France.
Leith attended Carson Graham secondary where she was a member of the school's two dominant sports programs: rugby and wrestling. It was the solo sport, in fact, that she pursued after graduating from high school, earning a full-ride scholarship to wrestle at the University of Missouri. She wrestled there for four years, earned a degree in exercise science, and then returned to North Vancouver where she jumped back onto the rugby pitch armed with some serious grappling skills honed through years spent taking on the NCAA's best.
"Wrestling, all the takedowns and stuff, it helped me with tackling," she said, adding that there's a lot of grappling going on in her position as a tighthead prop at the front of the scrum. "It was easy to transition into rugby."
Leith will be joined in France by two more Capilano Rugby Club members: fellow Carson Graham grad Andrea Burk, and longtime national team member Mandy Marchak, a Winnipeg native who has been a Capilano member since 2004. Marchak will be suiting up for her third World Cup while Burk will be making her debut — she was a non-travelling reserve with the 2010 team.
As for Leith, her rugby game took off after she returned from Missouri. She eventually earned a spot with Saracens Rugby Club in England playing in the toughest women's league in the world. Canada also took notice, bringing her into the national team program in 2011. Last summer she became the newest North Shore addition to the national team after earning her first cap in August. Her first game came in the Nation's Cup and it was against some familiar foes — the English national team.
"We beat them, which is unheard of — it's the first time Canada has ever beaten England," said Leith. "It was just an incredible experience walking onto the pitch wearing the Maple Leaf, singing the national anthem. It was a pretty incredible moment."
The whole tournament turned out to be pretty incredible as Canada went on to win the Nation's Cup for the first time in team history. Leith has been a regular in the starting lineup ever since, racking up nine caps in less than a year.
Since January the national team has been training and living together in Victoria to prepare for the World Cup. Leith said she's happy to have two other Capilanos along for the ride. She was actually one of the players responsible for bring Marchak to the West Coast to play with Capilano. They met at a U23 national team training camp.
"Me and another girl talked her into coming out to B.C. and playing Capilanos. She's never gone back," said Leith. "Mandy is an incredible rugby player. Her attitude, the way she plays — she's physical and an awesome rugby player."
Leith's relationship with Burk goes back even further as the two played together in high school.
"I've known her for a long time," she said. "She's great to have on the field. She's really positive.... Being able to share this with them is incredible. And for our club."
Capilano, in fact, is the one uniting factor that has pushed them this far, said Leith.
"Having the Capilano Rugby Club behind us and supporting us is pretty cool," she said. "All the girls that have played for the club and all the old boys have a piece in this. The club has helped us so much getting to where we are. I would not be playing if it wasn't for them. Financially it's hard and the club has been amazing helping with that."
The North Shore national team connections don't stop there for Leith — she also went to high school with Jason Marshall, the quarterback turned rugby star who is the starting tighthead prop — the same position Leith plays — for the men's national team.
"They grow them big in North Van," said Leith with a laugh. "Big and tough."
With her wrestling moves at the ready, Leith's rugby tactics are predicated on a simple but devastating game plan.
"Win every scrum, make big hits, be a presence on the field," she said. "Hit hard, run hard."
Canada finished fourth in three straight World Cups from 1998 to 2006 but dropped to sixth in 2010. This year they'll be in a pool with Spain, Samoa and England with their first match scheduled for Aug. 1 against the Spaniards. The championship final will be played Aug. 17 at Stade Jean Bouin in Paris and Leith think the Canadians have a shot at being there.
"I think we can win the World Cup," she said. "I think the amount of work that we've put in this past year has created a pretty amazing team culture. We've been together a lot, we've played a lot of games. We're known for our speed — we're quick and we're fit. We're probably the fittest team around.... We really use that to our advantage. I think we can medal, if not win it."
Canada's advantage comes in the bonds they've forged in the months they've spent training and playing together in the leadup to the tournament, said Leith.
"I see them five hours a day, every day," she said of her teammates. "It's good to have each other to lean on and deal with this crazy sport we play. It's emotionally and physically and mentally draining. It's good to have good teammates around you.... The World Cup, it's as big as it gets for us. It's where we take on the world."