When the OUA announced its season cancellations, student-athletes were understandably disappointed. Some, however, have found other means to keep playing the sports they love, with an aim to get to the next level.
Representing Canada and Queen’s, women’s rugby’s Taylor Black and McKinley Hunt have been playing professionally with the Exeter Chiefs in England’s top rugby division amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With limited opportunities at home, Black and Hunt decided to move to England—where many sports are still permitted—to train for the upcoming World Cup in 2021, joining the Chiefs for their inaugural season. Taking advantage of online courses, they have continued their student-athlete lifestyles in England, albeit from another time zone.
At the time of the interview, uncertainty threatened the continuation of the Chief’s season as another lockdown loomed over England. Since, despite lockdowns in the U.K., their status as an elite team exempted them from the shutdown and will continue to play.
To gain insight into their situation, The Journal connected with Black and Hunt to discuss their experiences playing rugby and the transition to England from Canada.
Black and Hunt both described how rugby became dominant in their lives during high school, and how Queen’s provided a perfect combination of academics and athletics for their future.
Much of Black’s decision to come to Queen’s was tied to Head Coach Dan Valley, who had been her rugby coach at Oakville Trafalgar High School. Although she arrived at Queen’s as a top recruit, Black’s athletic career began in what some might view as the antithesis to rugby.
“I guess I was in rugby for about 3 years before I picked it up as my dominant sport. Before that I was actually really competitive in ballet, a bit different,” Black said.
It’s safe to say that Black made a good choice in Rugby—despite only being a second year, she’s already represented Canada’s Women’s 15’s team at the Women’s Rugby Super Series, and was named a U Sports All-Canadian last season. While Black will be returning to a familiar Canadian uniform, this year’s World Cup prep has been different than before.
While preparing for the 2021 Rugby World Cup, Black explained how the team was forced to stop practice due to the pandemic and move overseas to
“When rugby shut down in Canada and they started reopening it in England, [the national team] started shipping us all out, trying to get us opportunities with teams here,” Black said.
The Canadian women’s rugby team has created numerous opportunities, with 12 players playing in English leagues and about 10 in France. Both Hunt and Black referred to the transition to the Chiefs as smooth, with lots of support from the community at Queen’s and Exeter.
As far as rugby goes, Black pointed out that the level of play is comparable to Queen’s, but cited some differences in style of play—particularly an increased physicality and speed of play.
“The team’s getting together well, we definitely have the most international players over here. We have girls from the US, Japan, Scotland, Canada and some New Zealand girls joining us as well. So, to mend all the different styles of play together will definitely take some time,” Black said.
Although in-person viewing is restricted, online streaming has kept an audience alive.
“It’s getting a lot of publicity on social media; I think there’s a lot of people that are really excited about this league getting up and going and the competition rising. Essentially, it’s bringing people from all over the world together,” Black said.
Parallel to the shift from in-person viewership, studying has also gone completely online during COVID-19. Time zones can be challenging with long training days that come with elite rugby. McKinley Hunt, who’s completing her Masters of Education at Queen’s, has found the self-direction and flexibility in the program helpful.
“I was very much attracted to the concurrent education program at Queen’s, it’s one of the most highly ranked programs in the country and Queen’s [has] always had a great reputation for being strong in women’s rugby,” Hunt noted.
Hunt reiterated the challenges of playing during a pandemic and in a new setting—while some things come naturally, some adjustments have taken some getting used to.
“I do really like how rugby focused this country is, everyone is so excited that we are here playing rugby, and are willing to help in any way possible. A thing that’s taken a little getting used to is sometimes with the accents on the pitch, it’s hard to understand what people are saying, but that’s getting better,” she said.
Hunt has enjoyed rugby in England, with more funding and support available to women compared to Canada. Even with an impending lockdown, she was confident the games
“[The lockdown is] definitely adding a layer of complexity to our training environment, but we are considered elite sport so it’s not really changing our daily training routine,” Hunt said.
Consequently, Hunt cited various things that Canada can learn from England to grow the sport.
“I think more government funding and just trying to increase the public awareness of the sport, and really encourage and invite young girls to play, as well as broadcasting it so people can become fans [would help].”
As the season continues, Black and Hunt are set to play the Durham Sharks on Nov. 14.
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