In the rarified politically correct atmosphere within which we all conduct our daily lives, it is hard to fathom just thirty short years ago, the concept of women playing a sport could still be a groundbreaking and potentially divisive issue.
But that is exactly what happened following a first ever test match between Canada and the USA, won by the then named Lady Eagles, 22-3 in Victoria. The match between the two teams was combined with a men’s test match between the two nations as well. It was the post-match dinner, however that made the event memorable for a number of reasons.
Despite 4,000 people coming out to see the games and the women’s match being well received by fans, it was a speech by USA Captain Fred Paoli that saw sensibilities offended from both sides of the 49th parallel as well as both genders.
“If women choose to play rugby that is their right,” Paoli was quoted in a story by the Edmonton Sun. “But I don’t and can’t condone their bastardization of our great game.
“Men’s rugby is civilized war for survival and honour and women can never play as men do.”
At that point, according to those in attendance, nearly half the assembled banquet crowd stormed out, both men and women.
Canadian team manager, Fred Hunt was incensed. “To have this idiot American lawyer stand up and tell these women they’re bastardizing the game after they just worked their butts off out there on the field was just ridiculous.”
Despite the negative effects of that ill-advised sharing of opinion, the match itself was the vanguard for moving the women’s version of rugby forward and onto the international stage. Canada’s squad, made up mostly from west coast recruits and eleven players from the Edmonton based clubs the Coven and Rockers, stood in bravely against a superior USA squad and learned quickly what they were lacking in terms of players and tactics.
But as former Canadian team player Stephanie White recounts, despite the huge strides made by Canada’s women’s team in the intervening years, there is still a bit of a gender gap when it comes to recognition.
“When I talk to people now and say that I played on a national rugby team and we have had a national team for the last 30 years – some don’t even know that women play rugby now,” says White. “But I always said that we never wanted to play the game against men, we wanted to play the game of rugby against women.”
The pinnacle of success that grew from those humble beginnings would certainly be Canada finishing second at the 2014 World Cup. For the USA, it was near the start of its international journey as well, but the path to success would be quite rapid, as the Americans won the inaugural World Cup just four short years later.
White’s teammate Shelaine Kozavich was in her 1st year of playing rugby when she was named by the Edmonton based head coach Ian Humphreys. She was frank in her assessment of being selected, that while it was an honour, it certainly was not on her bucket list of potential achievements.
“I actually never thought much about that…didn’t think that far ahead,” explained Kozavich “I began playing rugby in 1987 so I didn’t know what was or wasn’t available to players.
“Initially, this first Canadian Team didn’t feel much different than representing your province. Perhaps it felt that way to me because there were eleven gals from Alberta on this Canada Squad.”
While the longview of this contest is it was a pioneering moment for women’s sport in Canada, make no mistake the Canadian women were out to win this first game, so the disappointment was heavy when the final whistle blew.
“It was a little disappointing from that perspective,” recalls White, who went on to represent Canada 18 times. “We thought we would dominate the scrums but we didn’t at all. We were going backwards all day. It was neat to have that first experience, we tried hard and we were beaten by a better team on the day.”
Regardless of the final result, a major milestone was hit on that day which would change the path of women’s rugby forever in North America.