Every news outlet in Canada celebrated when their women’s rugby team won the silver medal in the August 17 World Cup contest. The celebration was still continuing a week later with a full colour, full page, congratulatory message sponsored by sporting goods supplier Under Armour, Rugby Canada and The Globe and Mail. It occupied Page 5 of the weekend edition.
It was a week of jubilant stories like the Canadian Press report published August 20 which opened with a triumphal: “With a second place finish at the Women’s Rugby World Cup, Canada showed it deserved a place among the sport’s elite teams.” And then gloomily, but justifiably warned: “Figuring out how to stay there is the next challenge, and it could be a big one.”
Canada had lost 21-9 to England in the final; had played magnificently against a more battle experienced foe, and just a few days earlier had defeated France in semi-final play. Why would such encouraging play at highest level of the game be difficult to maintain – or surpass?
Not conditioning. These young women had proved they could reach and maintain peak physical condition for as long as a world championship contest demanded. They had demonstrated they could fall behind in game but fight and rally to win. They had displayed the quality of thoroughbreds in their chosen sport, so what could possibly stand in their way as they reached for the next rung on the rugby ladder, the one that leads to first and Gold?
Coach Francois Ratier put it bluntly after the final game, televised and watched at home by millions, thrilled and proud of their team even in defeat. Ratier said he was fearful the “15 minutes” of fame and admiration might be soon forgotten.
He appreciated the boost TV had given the game but knew how fleeting praise could be if it didn’t bring in enough money to pay the bills. “Helpful as the (TV) exposure is….”.Canadian Press quoted Ratier as saying, “fundraising for the team was (is) a considerable obstacle and getting fixtures against quality teams is a challenge for Canada, but not (for) European teams.”
Identifying talent across Canada then bringing it to a central training facility in temperate year-round climate of Victoria on Vancouver Island will be the “key for the next three years” says Ratier. He then flushes into the open the shameful main obstacle to building and maintaining a national women’s rugby team of consistent quality. The young women selected for world class development will be expected, as they have always been, to “pay to play” for their country on the world stage. And that cost to individual players not yet career or sponsor enhanced, can be substantial and often too onerous to pay.
Ratier estimates the players on Rugby Team Canada 2014 paid “about $10,000 out of their own pockets” to bring honour to their country. “When you see the French, paid $175 a week when they are away, it’s not big but at least they can survive. For us, some of the girls had to resign from their job to go to this World Cup.”
So why do they do it? Montreal’s Magali Harvey, who thrilled not just Canada but the rugby world with her penalty kicking and a spectacular 100 meter run to score the semi-final win against France and was named women’s rugby player of the year after the final game, answered for the team: “I do it for the love. I do it for the passion, and I do it because I love representing Canada.”
I don’t think Canada’s federal and provincial governments have that same pride and passion for athletes competing at the world level in any sport. And I don’t think Rugby Canada, despite its Women’s World Cup rejoicing, has yet come to full understanding of what “equality in funding” means when it comes to the sport they govern.
From those who control the purse strings we need the same “love and passion” for the game the women took to so many fields on the way to the world final in France.
It’s long overdue.