Tuesday, July 23, 2024

3 local players preparing with Canadian U20 women’s team in town before transatlantic series

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By Kaitlyn LeBoutillier

While Ottawa gets set to host an international men’s rugby game between Canada and Scotland Saturday evening at TD Place, a trio of local under-20 women’s players are getting ready for a trip to the sport’s motherland in Great Britain.

Ottawa natives Sarah “Jiggy” Schonfeld and Rachel Cullum and Ella Blyth of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees are currently at a training camp nearby in Perth alongside their Canadian teammates as they prepare for the first Women’s U20 Transatlantic Quad Series in Cardiff, Wales.

There, they’ll face USA on July 14, England on July 19 and host Wales on July 24.

“I don’t think I realized how exciting this would be until this morning when it sunk in that it’s actually all happening,” Schonfeld said on the eve of her July 3-9 training camp. “It’s kind of cool to see how years of working hard and training are all culminating in an opportunity like this.”

Rachel Cullum. Photo: gogaelsgo.com

Schonfeld and Cullum have been teammates since their early teen years with the Bytown Blues, and played their first season together with the Queen’s University Gaels this past fall.

“When I first started, I played with a bunch of boys. It was like me, Rachel and 44 boys,” recounts Schonfeld, who later linked up with more female players for the Ottawa Irish club to become the “Blirish”. “Back kind of five or six years ago, there weren’t really any girls’ divisions. Then slowly, there started to become U16 and U18 girls’ teams.”

The training camp and series of test matches provide a developmental opportunity for the Canadian U20 women’s team members, made up largely of early-year university rugby players.

Ella Blyth. Photo: geegees.ca

Schonfeld and Cullum helped Queen’s to an Ontario title and national bronze medal, while Blyth’s Gee-Gees also reached the nationals and placed sixth.

This is the second summer in a row that Schonfeld will don the maple leaf. Last year, she earned a silver medal in the Commonwealth Youth Games women’s rugby sevens tournament.

Canada defeated all of its opponents at the event in Trinidad and Tobago, minus Australia, which outscored the field by a combined 270-10, including a 50-0 championship game with Canada.

Read More: Canada grateful to learn from Australia in women’s rugby 7s at Commonwealth Youth Games

While the national teams are in the area, the senior men’s team will be hosting a skills clinic for players within the U14-U18 age groups, while the women will run a minis practice for kids between age 5-12 on July 8 at Oakfield Rugby Park, home of the Lanark Highlanders Rugby Club.

A key goal is to provide the opportunity for players to get into the sport at a younger age.

Jiggy Schonfeld. Photo: gogaelsgo.com

Schonfeld started playing at age 12, and “by then obviously it becomes more challenging to be at the same level as teams like New Zealand and Australia, where all the kids are playing rugby when they’re like six years old,” she notes. “So I think it’s awesome that they’re doing that.”

Aside from the clinic, the Canadian women’s U20 team also has a fundraiser on its schedule on July 5 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Heart & Crown in the Byward Market. The event includes lunch, a raffle, an auction, a Q&A with Team Canada players hosted by U20 women’s head coach Dean Murten, and a past Canadian women’s team player as guest speaker. Tickets are $50, or $75 for the premium package that includes a ticket to men’s game against Scotland.

“[Fundraising] is so important at this level because, for a lot of players, it’s a difficult decision for them to sacrifice kind of a lot of time during the summer where they could be working and making money,” Schonfeld highlights, noting that many need to pay for their tuition and rent on top of a large financial commitment to play for Team Canada.

“There’s a lot of girls on the team that would not have been able to accept this invitation had there not been so much fundraising for the tour, and who in turn would have had to miss out on this incredible opportunity,” she adds.

With a crowd of over 10,000, Ottawa established a new attendance record for the Canadian women’s rugby 15s program on July 8, 2023 at TD Place. File photo

While professional opportunities for female players and support have grown significantly in recent years, they still lag well behind men in the sport, and Canada is a step behind the women’s rugby global powers.

But Schonfeld has experienced an exceptional feeling of community within the Canadian rugby scene, underscored by the way it rallies behind fundraisers and with donations that are essential to success, she indicates.

Schonfeld says “it’s pretty special” to have a send-off event in Ottawa right before traveling for international competition.

“It’s kind of fun that when I think back a couple of years ago, I might have been running down the same street where we’re gonna have a fundraiser,” Schonfeld reflects. “It’ll be really exciting, especially for me, because my parents will be able to come to the fundraiser and I’ll be able to say my last goodbye before we head off for Wales.”

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