By David Song, April 23 2019 —
The Dinos women’s rugby team had an excellent season, going 8–3 overall en route to their third-consecutive Canada West title over the University of Victoria Vikes. In the end, however, they fell short with losses to Laval and Queens at the U Sports Championship, a setback that the team hopes to improve on next year.
“This year at nationals, we didn’t really put our best foot forward and we didn’t perform to the standard that we know we could have,” second-year back row Alyson MacDougall said. “Next year, if we do get there again, [we need to] really make sure that we play the best Dinos rugby that we know how to.”
Fortunately, the Dinos are well-equipped to go on another deep run in 2019–20. MacDougall is part of a solid core of players that includes fellow second-year Taejah Thompson and fourth-year veterans Kasselle Menin, Samantha May and Cassidy Jones. Menin, who plays lock, was named Canada West MVP last year after her older sister DaLeaka won the award in 2016 and 2017. The youngest of three sisters to have suited up for the Dinos, Menin carries on the family tradition now that DaLeaka and eldest sister Jade have both graduated.
“I’ve had a really unique experience coming into the Dinos with my sisters on the team. Hardly anyone has that,” said Menin. “Moving on to being the only one left, it’s definitely been a big transition for me. I really relied on my sisters a lot in the past. We clicked on the field and played really well off each other, so having to find other people to play well off of was a transition.”
According to Thompson, family is a core value upon which the team is built.
“You don’t always agree with your family, but you do need to support them at all times,” she said. “Not everyone agrees on certain plays or the way that we should be coached, but once we get in the locker room, everyone kind of forgets about that.”
A key figure in keeping the locker room united is Simon Chi, who was named head coach in April 2010. An unpaid volunteer, Chi treats his coaching position like a full-time job and has helped transform the Dinos into a perennial contender. He has been honoured with three straight Canada West Coach of the Year awards, as well as one U Sports Coach of the Year in 2016 — the same year the Dinos won a best-ever U Sports bronze medal.
“Chi puts a lot of effort into making sure that every single girl knows that she’s important on this team,” MacDougall said of the experienced coach. “He makes sure that we’re on top of our rugby skills, but he always holds us accountable to our schoolwork too. It’s really amazing how he will work to build up connections with everybody.”
Thompson too, had high praise for Chi.
“He has a very different coaching style than I’ve ever experienced before, but I think that it works for all types of players,” she said. “He knows when to step in and say something. He knows when to back off. He really gets to know his players before he goes out and coaches them.”
An interesting wrinkle in the Dinos’ season is that it is actually split into two halves. After finishing their fifteens campaign, culminating in the U Sports Championship in early November, the Dinos attend three rugby sevens tournaments across Canada over the course of the winter semester. As its name suggests, rugby sevens features only seven players per team as opposed to 15 and is a faster, more mobile style of game. The Dinos finished third in their last sevens tournament this March.
“For fifteens, you obviously have to be fit, but then you get into sevens and it’s like this next level of having to be fit,” Menin said. “In sevens, you’re ready to sprint for seven minutes [at a time], and when you’re transitioning back [to fifteens], you have to be like ‘Okay, I have to pace myself and be ready to go for 80 minutes instead of 14.’ ”
The Dinos’ success, and that of other varsity programs, reflects the continued growth of women’s rugby in general. According to a recent study, the number of women playing rugby around the world grew by 10.43 per cent between 2015 and 2016, while the number of men playing decreased by 0.72 per cent.
The proliferation of women’s sport is music to Thompson’s ears.
“Growing up watching men’s sports, it was awesome, but it was hard to imagine myself ever at a national tournament or anything,” she said. “Now that women’s sports are more in the media and stuff, a lot of girls are getting more exposure, and there’s a lot more focus on developing players when they’re younger.”
Ultimately, Menin attributes rugby’s growth to the robust communities that it has attracted, communities that welcome and empower newcomers and veterans alike.
“You see everyone at the Calgary Rugby Union and everyone knows each other. Rugby is advertised as a sport that everyone can play,” said Menin. “There’s a position and a spot that anyone can fit.”
MacDougall has had a similar experience.
“For rugby, I always felt like I never got turned away. I’ve never seen anybody get told, ‘You can’t do this because you’re a girl’, I think it’s such an open sport for development and for trying to make people better instead of turning them away,” she said.
The Dinos will begin their 2019–20 season this September. For Menin, it will be her fifth and final year of collegiate competition, while MacDougall and Thompson look to take a step forward as third-years. With Chi at the helm and all 17 of last year’s rookies becoming sophomores, the team expects nothing less than a fourth straight Canada West title.