Rugby Universities

National silver medallist Gee-Gees women’s rugby turns attention to encouraging social change off the field

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By Ethan Diamandas

Claire Gallagher set the ball on the kicking tee while the clock ticked away in the first half.

As the Gee-Gees’ kicker and starting fly-half, she knows her routine well – four paces back and two steps to her right. Gallagher brushed her hair back, took a breath, and knocked the ball right down the middle of the narrow uprights, tying things up 15-15 as the first half ended.

The next 40 minutes between uOttawa and the Queen’s Gaels would decide the women’s U Sports rugby championship. The entire season led to this very moment, but the halftime message on the Gee-Gees’ sideline was the same it’s been all season – wait for the right moment.

“We talked about it being the last 40 minutes of the season,” Gallagher said, “and how much you can leave out on the field for those next 40 minutes.

“And then – and we spoke about this a lot all season – just having patience, waiting for the right time to be able to actually strike and get some points on the board.”

The rain picked up at Nixon Field in Kingston, Ont. as the second half quickly turned into what rugby matches so often become – a gritty, muddy, war of attrition.

Not even the Gee-Gees’ surprisingly strong fanbase – which travelled to Kingston via fan bus to support uOttawa’s winningest sports club – wanted to quit. Reserve rugby players joined the bunch, as did members of uOttawa’s men’s team, and even its women’s basketball team.

Despite the Ottawa fans’ best efforts to turn a hostile Queen’s environment into a home game of their own, the Gee-Gees came up short in the second half.

Claire Gallagher carries the ball against the Gaels. (Photo: Robin Kasem, U SPORTS/Queen’s Gaels)

“Unfortunately, the second half just really unraveled,” uOttawa head coach Jen Boyd told the Ottawa Sports Pages after Sunday’s 26-18 loss. “Just made really poor decisions on attack, and missed way too many tackles on defense, and then (Queen’s) just ran away with it.”

Boyd said her team didn’t execute, and when the final whistle sounded and Gaels players screamed and celebrated their championship win, it evoked some tough emotions.

The Gee-Gees fought hard to even get to the finals, beating the Victoria Vikes in a wacky double-overtime victory in the semis, so the loss was hard to swallow.

“It’s definitely a really bad feeling,” said Gallagher, who won the Nike Player of the Game Award in the loss to Queen’s. “Especially thinking about all the work that you’ve done since COVID started and the past two years.”

Gallagher mentioned feeling disappointed the Gee-Gees couldn’t seal the deal for two of their graduating players, Taylor Donato and Alexandra Ondo, but said her focus now shifts to the future – and not just the on-the-field aspects.

Among other initiatives, the Gee-Gees rugby team runs a winter program to help younger girls develop leadership skills, which is exciting for players.

“Anytime that we can help grow the game of rugby, especially amongst women, is a really good opportunity,” Gallagher said.

People listen to winners, Gallagher said, and the Gee-Gees have medaled in six straight national tournaments, which is a new U Sports rugby record.

Ideally, all the Gee-Gees’ success can draw attention to the club and, in turn, help them make significant changes to Ottawa’s social landscape, particularly around equity, diversity and social justice on the University of Ottawa campus.

“For us, it’s a matter of getting people to follow … and it’s been a struggle at an institution that is steeped in old traditions,” Boyd said. “To create a space where athletes of colour can feel safe and perform has been a goal of mine for the last year and a half.”

With a roster composed of 40 per cent women of colour, Boyd said the Gee-Gees women’s rugby squad is not only the most diverse team on campus, but also the most diverse women’s rugby team in the country. After George Floyd’s death in 2020, the members of Boyd’s club committed themselves to using their platform for positive change, the coach said.

“We’re a rugby team first, but we also talk about a lot of other things that I hope the athletes on my team will one day pay it forward,” Boyd said.

“A silver medal is an accomplishment, but I think what they’re going to do in the workforce in five to 10 years will be the real measure of my coaching and mentorship.”

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