Rookies provide backbone

Women's rugby fields six newcomers in starting lineup

Dominique Rumball (centre) has been a major reason in propelling the women’s rugby team to in the OUA bronze medal game.
Dominique Rumball (centre) has been a major reason in propelling the women’s rugby team to in the OUA bronze medal game.
Journal File Photo
Kara Gani went from being unsure if she would make  the women’s rugby team to being a starter in her first year.
Kara Gani went from being unsure if she would make the women’s rugby team to being a starter in her first year.
For the women’s rugby team, the sidelines are no place for a rookie.
After losing half of the players from last year’s team, the Gaels were forced to rely heavily on first-year players up and down their lineup.
For head coach Beth Barz, the risk has paid off. Currently, the Gaels sit at 5-2 on the year. In the upcoming weekend, the team will play against the Western Mustangs for the OUA bronze medal, and will follow that with hosting the CIS National Championship from Nov. 5 to 8.
“They played big and beyond their years,” Barz said about her first year’s performance against McMaster. “There have been a few times where I have looked around and gone, ‘yeah, that’s pretty good’.”
Coming into the team’s training camp prior to the start of the school year, Barz said most of the first years were not only unsure if they’d get to play this year, but also if they’d even make the team.
In their first regular season game of the year, the team faced off against the McMaster Marauders. Last year, McMaster was the OUA champion, finishing second at the national championships.
In a sport dominated by upper-year athletes, the Gaels started five rookies — an uncommon feat in the OUA. By the time the final whistle had gone, the Gaels won 15-14, and earned the number two ranking in the CIS standings. 
Barz believes this was just one of many big moments for the first years so far this year.
Prior to coming to Queen’s, the 2015 recruiting class had a lot of rugby experience. Most of them have played on the under-18 Ontario women’s rugby team, with some even longlisted to the national team.
First-year fly-half Genevieve Kasa-Vubu — who ’s spent most of her first season on the sidelines due to an injury — spent her September at the 2015 Youth Commonwealth Games for Canada.
Pippi McKay also proved to be a star rookie. She was the lone first-year Queen’s student athlete selected to the Russell Division All-Star team.
Even with all of this experience, Barz said her first years are humble. That, mixed with a desire to improve, has made this year a lot easier, she said.
“Their rugby IQ is great,” she said. “In terms of decision-making and scenarios, we might have not gotten to it that early on in the year, and they have figured it out.”
While the coaching staff can only do so much to improve athletes, Barz said she’s found that a lot of the older players have taken the younger players under their wings. With a team filled with perennial OUA and CIS All-Stars like Lauren McEwen, Miranda Seifert and Gillian Pegg, the first years have learned more than most.
“We have had a real will from the upper years to look at the first years and say, ‘Damn, these guys are good.’ They want to do what they can to make sure the rookies perform,” Barz said.
To be successful in a sport like rugby, team cohesion is key. With 15 players on the pitch, it’s important to have everyone on the same page. To build this team chemistry, first years were paired with their future upper-year teammates during training camp. For two weeks, these student athletes lived and played together.
First-year scrum-half Dominique Rumball said this experience created a special bond with the team.
“Coming into university, they are kind of like your second parents. They are always there for you, and you don’t always get that everywhere.”
Rumball said her experience at Queen’s has been uncommon. With this in mind, she knows that hard work will help the team finish strong.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to you,” Rumball said. “It is a combination of a good group of girls who work hard coming in, and a group of coaches that give you the tools and facilities to succeed.”
Fellow rookie Sadie Stephenson said she was also unsure of what to expect from this year.
“I was pretty nervous,” Stephenson said. “I had high expectations for myself. Once I came in and saw the amount of skill on the team, it really pushed me to work harder to have one of those starting positions.”
After securing a starting position versus McMaster, Stephenson has become one of the Gaels’ most influential players. Through seven games, she’s scored three tries.
To Stephenson, the team’s veterans have been one of the most crucial elements in making the transition from high school to university athletics as smooth as possible.
“Everyone is so supportive — people are always there for you. The bond that this team has is really unique, and its different than any other team I’ve been on,” Stephenson said.
First-year fly-half Kara Gani echoed her fellow teammates.
“I knew it was definitely going to be a big transition, and it was for sure,” Gani said. “The caliber of rugby was so much higher than anything I have ever experienced before. The veterans were really welcoming for all the rookies, and it was definitely a smooth transition to come into the Queen’s program.”
When asked about the future of the rugby team, Gani knows the team has a lot of potential.
“The future is looking bright. I’m excited.

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