Rugby in the Land of the Long White Cloud

Rugby in the Land of the Long White Cloud

Courtesy Bart Sears

As StFX students return to campus and renew acquaintances, few will have better 'how I spent my summer vacation' stories than X-Women rugby players Alison Blanchard, a 4th year scrum-half from Hering Cove, Nova Scotia; and Merrit Blair, a 4th year wing from Ottawa, Ontario.  This past summer Alison and Merrit lived every rugby player's dream:  playing rugby in New Zealand.    

Alison's parents, Sharon (Kenny) and Brian, both of whom played rugby at X, moved to New Zealand last August and suggested to Allison that she play a season of rugby in New Zealand at the end of the school year.  Along with Merrit and her parents, all six discussed the possibility of travelling to New Zealand for the summer.  Happily, for Alison and Merritt, the possibility became a reality.   

Alison and Merrit spent the summer in Otago, on New Zealand's South Island.  As you would expect in the country where The Lord of the Rings was filmed, the scenery was breathtaking and Merrit said her head was on a swivel (never a bad thing for a rugby player!) since she arrived.  Alison added the mountains and alpine glacier lakes were truly amazing with new and different scenery every ten minutes as your drove along.

Little did Alison and Merrit, who played for the North Otago club team, realize that the mountains they witnessed on arrival would foreshadow the size of the players they faced on the pitch.  Alison put it bluntly, "Wow!  How am I going to tackle these girls?"  Merrit commented that the girls are bigger than they face in U SPORTS and not afraid to run right at you.  As you would expect from U SPORTS national champions, both took the challenge in stride.  They will use the experience to make themselves better rugby players and use what they have learned for the upcoming rugby season at StFX.  Both players stated that they are now much better defensively, especially tracking the offensive player in the tackle, and more comfortable adapting to different styles of play.

One of the many highlights of their summer was watching the Crusaders (Christchurch) play the Highlanders (Dunedin), the two big South Island rivals.  Both teams featured a number of All Blacks and according to Merritt, "It was pretty surreal that we were able to see some of the top players in the world compete."  Kieran Read, current All Black captain, play for the Crusaders, while world-class scrum-half Aaron Smith plays for the Highlanders. 

Rugby in New Zealand reminded them of how big hockey is in Canada, but Allison said it was perhaps even a bigger deal.  If you were at the supermarket when a game was on a worker would often ask you the score of the game.  Just as Saturday is synonymous with playing and watching hockey the same is true of New Zealand.  While netball, rowing and cricket are also popular sports, nothing can compare to rugby.  Rare is the person who does not play, watch or coach.  When they arrived at the club house to depart for their away games on Saturday, the four fields were filled with young children aged four to 13 playing mini-games or rugby, just like our little timbit hockey players! 

However, it would be wrong to equate New Zealand's passion for rugby with an obsession with winning.  Rugby in New Zealand, say Alison and Merrit, is a part of something much bigger than that, it is about family.  Family, to Pacific Island cultures, and emphasized by their Tongan coaches, is not just about blood relatives, but who you embrace and love in your life.  The game is not just about winning, but about being out on the field with your 'brothers or sisters' next to you and doing everything you can do to be the best teammate you can be. 

The success of New Zealand rugby teams is matched by the welcoming nature of the rugby community.  Alison and Merrit played on a team which consisted not only on Kiwis, but Pacific Islanders as well as players from the States, Portugal and the Netherlands.  Their coaches were from Tonga, who came to New Zealand to further their rugby careers.  The North Otago team was truly one that embraced the Maori tradition of manakitangai, the welcoming and respecting of guests.

While all familiar with rugby know about the pre-match haka, which serves as the challenge to be taken up by the opposition, there is also a post-game ritual of a traditional song and dance.  After one particular game against a team composed mainly of Maori, their influence on the game crystalized for Alison and Merrit.  The opposing team lined up in front of their team and performed a Maori song with a traditional dance.  At that moment they "felt the presence of their culture and the true spirit of rugby because at that point of the day it did not matter what team you were on, if you won or lost, but of giving respect to the sport itself and the players who were present."

Alison and Merrit are keen to use what they have learned both on and off the pitch in New Zealand to help the X-Women defend their national title, but I think it is fair to say that they now recognize that a season is not defined only by wins and losses or championships won and lost. 

In closing, Alison's words about the game of rugby say it best:  "It is truly amazing that I can travel to the other side of the world and be welcomed so easily into another club without hesitation, and that is one thing I love about rugby is that wherever you live in the world you can always find a family."