Women's rugby on the rise as first-ever national club championship kicks off
Club teams from across country playing for title of Canada's best in Markham
Four of the top women's rugby club teams in Canada are about to battle it out to be crowned the best in the country, as the sport grows in popularity across the country.
The inaugural Canadian Women's Rugby Club Championships will be held at Fletcher's Fields in Markham, Ont., this weekend.
It's the sister event to the men's version, which was held for the first time last year in Capilano, B.C.
Historically, club teams have played only within their own provinces. This new championship offers a chance to find out how they stack up against each other. That's a long time coming, according to the championship's committee chair Davine Burton, who started playing club rugby herself 26 years ago.
"In my days of playing, we always wondered how we would match up against teams across the country," Burton said.
"Now, the ladies don't have to wonder anymore."
Toronto Saracens playing to win
This year's tournament features the top-seeded Capilano RFC, the Toronto Saracens, Club de Rugby de Quebec, and the Charlottetown RFC.
Charlottetown RFC plays Capilano RFC at 5:00 p.m. Friday at Fletcher's Field. The Toronto Saracens play Club de Rugby de Quebec at 7:00 p.m. The gold-medal match will be at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.
Toronto Saracens captain Fedelia Omoghan has played at the national and provincial level, but says competing with her club team is special and has taken years of hard work.
"When I started playing Saracens … we were losing games 100 to nothing and we just kept building and recruiting new players and gaining more experience in rugby together."
Now, Omoghan describes the team as calm, collected and cool under pressure. The Saracens have been crowned Ontario Women's League champions two years running and the championship also happens to coincide with the team's 65th anniversary.
"It's more motivation to play hard and to make our club proud," Omoghan said.
Women's rugby catching on in Canada
The club championship, which is being run by volunteers, is slated to be held every other year, alternating with the men's version. But organizers hope there will be enough interest and money to make it annual, especially as interest in rugby grows.
According to Rugby Canada, registration of women players, coaches and referees increased 22 per cent from 2017 to 2018 alone. The organization says those numbers are on track to rise again this year and again in 2020 because of the Women's rugby sevens tournament to be held at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Registration shot up 26 per cent in the lead-up to the last Olympics, Rugby Canada said. Women's rugby sevens was played at the Olympics for the first time at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The women's national team is currently ranked fourth in the world. This new tournament could be another chance for players to be noticed at that level, says Michael Holmes, chair of the Canadian Rugby Foundation, one of the tournament's sponsors.
"It's a chance to be seen in front of the national selectors, we hope, and becomes another method of giving them the opportunity perhaps to play for the national team."
Davine Burton hopes it will also motivate players to stick with the sport.
"We believe this will actually keep women involved in the game and that's the goal — to have as many women playing this wonderful sport as we can."