Soon, there will be no 49-0 losses on home turf. There will be no vacancy where a number should be dangling under the Vikes’ name on the scoreboard at Wallace Field.
Though there are still some tough days ahead for the UVic Vikes women’s rugby team, it’s only a matter of time before the squad looks back with humour at days like Sept. 29, 2013, when it put forth a hard-working effort but failed to score against the visiting Alberta Pandas.
“We were coughing the ball up all the time and turning it over, same thing against Calgary (a 34-10 loss) on Friday,” said Vikes coach Mark Hall.
“We’re injured, we have nine (starters) on the sidelines including the back row, and that hurt us in the breakdown.”
Injuries are a part of the game, but are particularly limiting in the short Canada West season of four games. The Vikes (1-2) play their final Canada West game against the UBC Thunderbirds (0-3) at Wallace Field, 11:30 a.m. on Saturday (Oct. 5).
Thing is, there’s an aura of optimism and confidence among the players not normally found with a team coming off two losses, including 49-0. Because 15 of the team’s 31 players are rookies, many with provincial and international experience, they hold a deep belief they’ll be contending for both a CIS title and for a provincial title in B.C.’s Adidas Women’s Premiership club circuit within two or three years.
“(It’s already) the strongest year out of the five that I’ve been playing,” said fifth-year scrum half Kehla Guimond, who’s seen the program transition through different regimes. “We started off really strong (beating Lethbridge) this year and we’re hurting right now but I’m confident we’ll come back.”
At best, the Vikes will come away with a 2-2 Canada West record should they defeat the Thunderbirds. That would match their best season in the past five years, when they scored a total of 62 points for and won two of four games in 2010. Sixty-two points in four games is the most the Vikes have scored in recent history, with as little as 10 points scored in 2009 and 13 in 2012.
So far the team managed 28 points in its first two CIS games this year but, really, it’s all about looking past this season and into the future.
“This is the roots of the program and it’s really going to excel over the next couple of years,” Guimond said. “I’ll be back watching and supporting, it’s great to watch how players develop over the years.”
One of the Vikes’ many injured players is also one its most promising, Jess Neilson, who has yet to play and is hoping to get in the lineup versus UBC.
Her addition to the squad is symbolic, as Rugby Canada’s permanent home in Langford is beginning to impact the Vikes. She was the fly half on the national U20 women’s team that went undefeated at the 2013 Nations Cup in England over England, South Africa and U.S.A. in July.
“There’s going to be a huge influx of players coming to Victoria, especially since you can train year round,” Neilson said. “For example, at St. Francis Xavier, one of the top women’s rugby schools in Canada, you’re done in November, whereas here we’ve got (Adidas Women’s Premiership) spring and fall, and summer rugby.”
Even though Neilson lived here prior to high school, it was still a hard decision as she contemplated attending the powerhouse women’s rugby programs of St. Francis Xavier (Nova Scotia), Queen’s (Kingston, Ont.), Alberta (Edmonton) and others.
Once upon a time Neilson, who graduated from perennial high school rugby champion Carson Graham in North Vancouver, was a Monterey middle school student who made the Oak B
ay News in 2008. She had been banned from playing with the boys team and started a girls team instead. She was even prepared to start a girls team when she reached Oak Bay High, but her family relocated to North Van.
One wonders what would have been if she had stayed, as girls school rugby did get off the ground here, but not until Neilson’s Grade 12 year. When she got to North Van, the high school program was already in place.
“It’s amazing to see Oak Bay High girls now have a team, and how the high school sport is growing here. Castaway Wanderers and Velox, they’re all investing, without those type of people there wouldn’t be any grass roots rugby.”
Neilson’s return to Victoria ultimately came down to Rugby Canada’s advice, which is quite likely a first for UVic players, as the team has had little if any representation on the national team in recent years.
“(Rugby Canada’s) coaches said if you want to make the Olympics (for rugby sevens) you should come to Victoria, so that was a huge factor in my decision,” Neilson said, though she wasn’t officially carded until a month ago.
Carding for rugby players is complicated right now, as it is for sevens players, though many, such as Neilson, play both sevens and 15s.
Nine of the Vikes rookies have played on B.C. and Alberta provincial teams while one other, Allie White, was on Canada’s U20 Nations Cup winning team this year.
The quality of recruits will likely stay that way for years to come as a large contingent of B.C.’s national U16 gold medal winners came from Greater Victoria.
“It’s certainly going to take another season or two before we get where we want to get. It’s there, we have the athletes there,” Hall said. “We just have to get them stronger and thinking rugby a little bit better.”