With eye on World Cup, Islander heads overseas to play pro rugby

Alysha Corrigan, a top-rated Canadian rugby player, is now playing for London-based Saracens in the Premier 15s. International experience among rugby's elite is a precious commodity during the pandemic.

Alysha Corrigan joined by Nova Scotia player Emma Taylor

Alysha Corrigan is one of the few Islanders who have ever signed with a professional rugby team. She hopes to return from the U.K. in May to resume training with Canada's national team — if travel restrictions are lifted. (Jennie Fougere)

One of the Island's top athletes is now in London, England, to play professional rugby.

Alysha Corrigan, 23, left Canada on Sunday, with teammate Emma Taylor from Nova Scotia.

"It's definitely exciting. We've had to cross a lot of bridges in order to get here," said Corrigan, from her coach's home in London, where she and Taylor remained in isolation Tuesday.

"Since this is a World Cup year, it is crucial for women to be playing rugby."

 Under British health regulations for professional athletes, Corrigan and Taylor must self-isolate for five days and pass a COVID-19 test, before they can join their teammates on the London-based Saracens of the Premier 15s league. Pro teams continue to practice and compete in the U.K., under modified rules to reduce health risks.

"This experience definitely is going to help take my game to the next level," Corrigan said. "There's so many incredible athletes over here."

This experience definitely is going to help take my game to the next level.— Alysha Corrigan

Getting there wasn't easy.

Corrigan and Taylor had been training at the Canada Games Centre in Halifax until the pandemic hit. Since then, Corrigan has been mainly at home in Charlottetown, sometimes training alone or with her mom and sister on the soccer pitch at Stone Park Intermediate School. Corrigan spent 14 days in self-isolation in Charlottetown earlier this month, after travelling by car to Ottawa to get a visa for travel to England.

Sonya Hooper, from left, Sidney Corrigan, Alysha Corrigan and Emma Taylor before Alysha and Emma left for England. (Jennie Fougere)

"It was very nerve-racking," said Sonya Hooper, Alysha's mother.  "With closures and uncertainties around England's borders, we weren't sure what would happen with the trip."

Taylor said her family was "definitely very antsy" about her flights from Halifax to London, via Toronto.

"We had the double mask on and we had a face shield on."

Stepping stone to World Cup

Taylor, 28, has years of international play under her belt. She sees their contracts with the Saracens — despite its COVID-related challenges — as a vital stepping stone to the World Cup, slated next September in New Zealand.

"Nothing really mimics rugby fitness other than playing in a rugby game," she said. "Playing in this intense environment ... is exactly what I need."

Corrigan started playing rugby at Charlottetown Rural High School. She's pictured here in 2015, playing for Canada in a game against the United States. (RJ Photography, Calgary)

Corrigan and Taylor have trained with Canada's national women's team in years past. They both intend to return to Canada in May to resume training with the national team. They're keeping fingers crossed that flights from the U.K. will be allowed into Canada by then.

"Sometimes you just got to do what you got to do," Taylor said. "So just, you know, take the risk."

Saracen's games are played most Saturdays and are streamed live on social media. Family, friends and former coaches on P.E.I. will be watching.

"It was nerve-wracking ... with COVID-19, it's one day at a time," says Sonya Hooper, mother of Alysha Corrigan. (Jennie Fougere)

"It's a huge deal," said Ryan Lloyd, president of the P.E.I. Rugby Union. Lloyd was one of Corrigan's coaches when she first took up rugby at Charlottetown Rural High School, before going on to play at UPEI and Acadia University. Few Islanders have ever signed on with a professional rugby team, according to Lloyd.

"It's always great to see Islanders and Maritimers getting an opportunity on  the world stage."

Corrigan and Taylor hope to play their first game with the Saracens Jan. 9.

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