A Brief History of Women's Rugby in Vancouver

March 08 2022


Women's international match Canada v USA on Nov 14 1987
©

A Look at the 70s & 80s in Vancouver Women's Rugby from Dave Pearcey's Book



We're reposting this article on March 8th, 2022, International Women's Day, so readers can better appreciate the history of women's rugby in BC. We also wrote an article on women's rugby in the 90s in Victoria.

originally posted Dec 2 2015

[ed. thanks to Dave Pearcey who shared Chapter 4 of his book on the 35 years of the Douglas Rugby Club. Douglas were very prominent in women's rugby on the mainland in the early years. You can contact Dave at dougie69fiu@dccnet.com for more information or to inquire about his book.]

Days of Wine and Roses

“I prefer rugby to soccer. I enjoy the violence in rugby, except when they start biting each other’s ears off.” – Elizabeth Taylor

The Adventure Begins

The first ever women’s rugby in B.C. apparently involved Douglas College and Capilano College. During the Totem Conference men’s 7-a-side tournament in 1974, these two institutions fielded women’s teams for a one-off match, playing nine against nine. Douglas won this historic contest, 36-4.

Players on this first team included Sonia Van Niekerk, Patti Ponti, Cinda Rychelle, Karen Morely, Sarah Murray and J. Krechel.

The Loose Ruckers

Douglas can be officially credited with pioneer status as far as women’s rugby in B.C. goes. It began seriously in the fall of 1976. Heather Hamilton remembers that the first organizational meeting took place at a Chinese restaurant on Broadway when several of the girlfriends and other female acquaintances of the Douglas men’s team got together for dinner one evening. The original practices were held out at UBC.

After “16 weeks of practice, a coed intra-squad game of 15’s rugby was held on Sunday, February 13th [1977] with 8 women and 7 men on each side.”

The first ever full-on women’s fifteen-a-side game in the Lower Mainland took place on Sunday, March 6th, 1977 with Douglas (informally called the “Loose Ruckers”) taking on a UBC team out at the Point Grey campus. The Vancouver Sun previewed the match on Thursday, March 3rd:

Four months of practice will be put to an official test Sunday when the Loose Ruckers tackle a team from the University of B.C. in a rugby match at Jericho Park.

And from there the only direction the club can take is up, in what organizers of the event believe will be the first-ever rugby match on the Lower Mainland between women’s teams. “We played a men’s team once, but we ended up splitting up the sides,” says Rita Boon…….”The guys were reluctant to tackle us.”

Team numbers were at 25 “and growing.”

The Province newspaper also publicized the unique event under the headline, “The Last Male Bastion Overrun by the Ruckers.” It was subtitled, “Can You Believe Ladies Rugby?” Written by Terry Ross, the article read:

Fund raising for the great trip to Santa Barbara, Calif., next month for the Loose Ruckers rugby club started off appropriately enough with a drink-a-thon.

Beer and rugby in the Vancouver area, as most people know, are hard to separate. A rugby club drink-a-thon would quite obviously be a non-event - except for one thing. The Loose Ruckers are a women’s team. And, according to Rita Boon, the club’s vice-president and tub-thumper, formation of the team was not a frivolous invasion of a male dominated jock endeavor.

“We’re serious,” she said, “and we want to get a league started.”

First things first, however. The Loose Ruckers will make their debut on Sunday, 2 P.M., at Jericho Park (home field of the UBC Old Boys team) in a game against a UBC women’s side.

Then of course, there’s the trip. The team hopes to raise enough money to travel to Santa Barbara for an international tournament April 16th, said Boon. They need $4,000. “The drink-a-thon (in which sponsors paid off according to the amount of beer consumed) was very successful,” she said. “We’re also planning a dance and other things.”

The Loose Ruckers, based in New Westminster, were formed about three months ago and now have 25 members, said Boon. They range in age from 19 to 23 years. “We’re thinking of forming a second team. People are enthusiastic and we’re getting interest from other areas – Port Coquitlam, the Vancouver Rowing Club…”

The Loose Ruckers are coached by three Douglas College players. Curious as it may seem, there is a shortage of women rugby coaches on the Lower Mainland. Maybe a LIP grant would help.

The team colours are green and white. Their significance is that they have no other significance. ”We didn’t want to have the same colours as any other team,” said Boon, “and the green and white was what we get without having to wait for weeks.”

Sunday’s game is scheduled to go ahead rain or shine. But not if there’s too much rain. “If there’s real terrible downpour we may have to postpone it,” said Boon. “If it’s just drizzling we’ll be playing for sure.”

The game was moved to UBC’s Wolfsen field and UBC won 8-0. The game received a full width photo in the Vancouver Sun the following Monday. The Province had a photo (featuring Elaine Benson and Heather Hamilton) that was accompanied by a narrative under the headline “Big Boost for Rugby”:

As if by divine intervention the rain stopped just before game time. And along that line one had to conclude that God really didn’t mind if women played rugby on a Sunday. At least the heavens didn’t act offended.

The game, between the Loose Ruckers and a UBC side at Wolfsen field, was highly entertaining and although inexperience was evident there was certainly no lack of enthusiasm. About 200 spectators were on hand and one of them was heard to remark: “This is the biggest crowd for a rugby game I’ve seen all season.”

The UBC women, who dominated the scrums and had the day’s ultimate weapon in scrumhalf Melinda Roger, won 8-0. Ruckers coaches Mark Andrews and Mark Ovenden acknowledged that Roger made the difference in what otherwise was an extremely close game. Roger scored UBC’s points on tries in the first and second halves and missed going over by about a foot for a third try just before halftime.

The Ruckers, based in New Westminster, are aiming to play in a tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif., next month. Rita Boon, team spokeswoman and forward line player, admitted the Ruckers were surprised by the toughness of the UBC side, made up of athletes from other sports and coached by Doug Carr and Warwick Harivel.

The loss, however, did nothing to change the ultimate plans of the Ruckers and, said Boon, a rematch is being considered.

The Douglas women were coached by Burt Kirby, Mark Andrews and Mark Ovenden. Besides Heather Hamilton, Elaine Benson and Rita Boon, some of the other team members included: Sara Lee Liner, Diana Nygaard, Barb Kirby, Edie Naylor, Marge Naylor, Patti Ponti, Lori Angelucci, Laurie DeBow, Joanie Ridgewell, Nancy Brown, Susan Webb, Diane Cowan, Andi Hedlund, Cynthia (Sam) Cridge and Fran Boon.

Fran trained hard for that first game against UBC. She was slotted in at hooker. She remembers that all the girls around her were much taller and she recalls getting “scrunched” every time a scrum went down. Her reaction was, “That really hurt……I’m not playing anymore.”

Most of the other ladies felt differently. They organized a drink-a-thon on Saturday, February 26th at the Sheraton Landmark on Robson St. in downtown Vancouver. The event lasted from 7 P.M. to 1 A.M. with the intention of raising funds to cover some of the costs of travel to the rugby tournament in Santa Barbara. Sara Lee Liner was credited with consuming the most (24 beers). The average consumption was reported as between 15-17 glasses per team member (glasses of beer were considerably smaller in those days). According to team fullback Nygaard, the team drank “hardcore” all evening.

The ladies certainly were capable. During a men’s tournament at Burnaby Lake, four of the women challenged four of the Burnaby men’s team to a “boat race”. The losing side had to strip. Barb Kirby, Sara Lee, Edie and Heather soon enjoyed watching the “Bumbaloes” bare their buttocks.

The team did manage to raise sufficient funds to travel to sunny Southern California and finished 12th out of 16 teams in the Santa Barbara Tournament. Heather recalls that the team played 4 or 5 games and actually did win one or two. They apparently stayed in some nice motel right across from the ocean. The one memory that remains is of Barb Kirby smashing an opponent in the nose.

The team continued on into the fall of 1977. They made the Douglas College paper on Monday, October 10th, with the by-line written by Keith Baldrey, who would go on to have an illustrious career in the local news industry (he is currently the legislative bureau chief for Global B.C. News). He wrote the following:

The Douglas College women’s rugby team is searching for more players. The team is the first rugby team of its kind on the Lower Mainland, according to organizer Cynthia (Sam) Cridge. The team last year went to Santa Barbara, California, where it placed 12th out of 16 teams. The team plans to return this year by raising its own funds.

Women’s rugby in the states is considered to be about 4 years ahead of its Canadian counterpart, according to Cridge. Practices are held at Queen’s Park every Wednesday at 6 P.M. and on Saturday at 9:30 A.M. No experience is needed.
“We had a girl last year who couldn’t make it around the track,” said Cridge.

“But at the end of the year she was one of our best players.” You don’t have to be a jock to play, says Cridge. All that is needed is a desire to have a good time.

Despite the optimistic tone of the article in the College paper, the team did not survive the year. A few of the more dedicated players like Barb Kirby, Marge Naylor, Diana Nygaard and Elaine Benson moved on and continued for a time with the UBC Old Girls based out of Jericho.

The Crazy Eighties

Despite the demise of the “Loose Ruckers”, women’s rugby did begin to grow ever so slowly. The Jericho team managed to retain a nucleus of players into the eighties and other B.C. teams began to emerge.

An old Scrumdown newspaper (March/April 1979 edition) was found that contained a photo of a match that took place on Sunday, March 11th, between the Jericho Old Girls and UVIC, with Jericho getting credit for a win by over twenty points. 1980 saw a women’s team spring up at Langley, spear-headed by Diane Turpin. At this point most of the other competition came from teams in the USA such as the Seattle Breakers and Western Washington University.

In 1981 the West Coast Women’s Rugby Association was formed. It adopted such a name as it was an international league involving teams from both B.C. and Washington State. It was classified as an association because the organization was not recognized by the BCRU as a sub-union. The initial purposes of the organization were as follows:

A. To administer, control, organize, encourage and promote the game of rugby for women in the province of B.C.
B. To improve the standard and quality of play, coaching and officiating of women’s rugby in B.C.
C. To plan, organize and coordinate the various matches, competitions, programs and activities among the members of the association.
D. To encourage fair competition and arrange matches and tours for a women’s provincial representative side.
E. To obtain finances to cover the cost of operating the various matches, competitions, programs and activities of the association.

The first season began in February of 1982 with six teams – Langley, Jericho, SFU, Richmond, Puget Sound Breakers and Western Washington University. The Jericho Old Girls were recognized as the “unofficial” champions that first year.

The league remained relatively stable until 1984 when the American clubs left to join a new league forming in the western United States. The loss of these teams was offset by the emergence of several new B.C. teams and the league stabilized at between seven and eight member clubs between 1984 and 1986. Although Langley would fold, soon to be followed by Richmond, the new teams included Kats, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, UVIC (again) and Pocomo. Although no official champion was declared in 1983, SFU became the dominant force in women’s rugby, winning the WCWRA championship four straight years, from 1984 to 1987.

Beth Scott from SFU was the WCWRA president during 1984-85. Barb Kirby had retired as an active player by this time, but she remained on the WCWRA committee as she tried to start up a new team at Capilano RFC. By the end of the campaign SFU remained undefeated and at the top of the heap, followed by Jericho, Chilliwack and Richmond respectively. Kats and UVIC were the cellar-dwellers.

Prior to the 1985-86 season, a number of players left the Richmond club to form a new team at Pocomo. Under the direction of their first-ever president, Penny Turpin, Pocomo was very successful and finished first in league play, defeating the defending champions from SFU twice. The playoffs were a different matter, and SFU took their third of four straight titles. Richmond was unable to continue with the defection of its core group to Pocomo. They were replaced in the schedule by a new team from Abbotsford after the Christmas break. The league was starting to show further signs of breakdown as both Kats and Jericho began defaulting games and they looked to a merger as a possible solution. Teams attempted to fill out their schedules with exhibition matches against teams from south of the border such as Washington State University.

The league executive committee continued to look for creative ways to raise funds and awareness for women’s rugby. Plans were made to have the second annual “beautiful women vs. dirty old men rugby match.” Now secretary/treasurer of the WCWRA, Barb Kirby proposed a drink-a-thon along the lines of the event originally spear-headed by members of the “Loose Ruckers” back in 1977.

SFU won their fourth straight championship in 1987. The reward for being the best women’s team in the WCWRA was the Gordon Harris Memorial Cup, a trophy named after a coach of the Jericho team who suffered a tragic young death. The award would eventually be awarded annually to the winner of the women’s Premier division. Some notable members of this SFU dynasty were Tina Fuchs, Louise Wheeler and Karen Moore. Karen Moore (originally with Langley) would be one of the first B.C. players to play for the national side, and as more divisions of women’s rugby were added, the trophy for the first division winner would be named in her honour.

During the early to mid-eighties, the female version of the sport would also appear in the unlikeliest of places. A league would exist in the northern part of the province with Smithers, Prince George, Kitimat and Prince Rupert competing against each other for a number of seasons.

From 1988 to 1990, once again, no official champion was declared by the WCWRA. In fact, during this time women’s rugby had contracted severely, with all the teams previously in existence folding. Players sometimes joined together to provide opposition for whatever competition they could find, mostly teams from the USA such as Seattle, Portland, Western Washington and Gonzaga. Only Vancouver Rowing Club (under the guidance of Ruth Hellerud-Brown) and Ex-Britannia (led by Ged Griffiths) emerged from the wreckage into the nineties.

The Gordon Harris trophy was dusted off once again in 1991, with Vancouver Rowing Club taking top honours, but the situation had not improved. It was only through a concerted effort by some individuals that the WCWRA was able to put together six teams for the 1991-92 season. These teams would provide a more stable base for the sport, enabling women’s rugby to begin to grow and prosper in British Columbia.

The Rest of Canada

While Douglas was playing a leading role in the progression of women’s rugby in B.C., the sport was emerging in other parts of the country as well.

In eastern Canada, the wives and girlfriends of the Montreal Irish men’s club challenged their male counterparts to a fun game of rugby in the summer of 1975. The ladies apparently demonstrated “substantial athletic prowess for the game”, according to the club website. Volunteer coaches came forward and the women organized a team for the Mad River Tournament in Vermont.

They began to take the sport seriously and recruited a number of good athletes to strengthen the team. During the early years, competition had to be found in the USA as no other women’s clubs existed nearby in Canada. Due to some philosophical differences of opinion with the Irish men, the women moved to the Town of Mount Royal club (TMR) in 1981. This was somewhat ironic, as the Montreal Irish RFC had originally been formed by a group that split from TMR in 1957.

In Alberta, the Edmonton Rockers were the first women’s rugby team to be conceptualized in 1976. They had their first taste of actual rugby when they travelled to the Missoula Maggotfest in May 1977.

The first team to emerge from Calgary was the Renegades in 1979. Neither team was affiliated with a men’s club as few men were interested in women’s rugby at the time.

The Saskatoon Happy Hookers originated in 1975 and retained that name until 1986 when they were re-launched as the Kirin. Their first taste of rugby involved inter-squad play until they attended the Jesse James Tournament in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1977.

As women’s rugby continued to grow in Canada, some of the teams that started out as clubs exclusive to women later sought and secured association with established men’s clubs. In the early 80’s a number of Provincial Unions expanded their boards to include a director of women’s rugby. Others such as B.C. (where the majority of teams existed as part of the men’s club structure) gave the women’s programs no distinct status.

On a national level, the Canadian Rugby Union supported a conference attended by provincial representatives of women’s rugby in 1984. A national women’s committee was formed and continued to meet on an annual basis. This committee provided administrative direction for the Western Canadian Championships involving B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (1983-86), and later the National Championship Tournament (begun in 1987 …. hosted and won by Alberta).

The committee also lobbied Rugby Canada to establish the position of V.P. Women’s Rugby on their board of directors. The group was also instrumental in spearheading the initiatives necessary to produce a national team for the first time in 1987. The first official international match for the Canadian women took place in Victoria on November 14th of that year against the USA (Canada lost 22-3).

Beyond 1987, the national women’s committee ceased to be comprised of provincial reps and became a working committee with specific tasks such as national teams, public relations and fund-raising. By 1995, the integration of women’s rugby within Rugby Canada was deemed strong enough to allow the position of V.P. of Women’s Rugby to be streamlined to focus exclusively on the national team. This was an important step in the recognition of the women’s game by the rugby establishment of Canada.

Pemberton Holmes
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