Taylynn Smid shows off her bronze medal from the Canadian Rugby Championships. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Taylynn Smid shows off her bronze medal from the Canadian Rugby Championships. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Rapid ascent: rugby players catch on fast

Cowichan girls medal at nationals

For three young athletes from the Cowichan Valley, a short but intense period of dedication to rugby has already put them on the national scene.

Mikayla Brennan-McCann and Sammi Lillywhite won silver medals with B.C.’s U16 girls team at the Canadian Rugby Championships in Calgary last month, and Taylynn Smid brought home a bronze medal from the U18 division. Of the three, Brennan-McCann has the most experience, having played for three years, while the other two each have just one year under their belts.

Brennan-McCann went out to the Cowichan Rugby Football Club three years ago after spotting an item in the newspaper, and ended up being the only girl on the U14 boys team.

“I liked playing with boys,” she recalled. “There wasn’t pressure. We were just there to play the game and whatever happens, happens.”

Lillywhite has been around the game her whole life, mostly watching her father and brother play with the Nanaimo club when her family lived in Qualicum Beach, although she played a little when she was four or five. When she had the opportunity to play rugby as a student at Shawnigan Lake School, she gave it a shot and took to it immediately.

The Shawnigan teammates both went to Provincial Regional Championships with the U16 North Island Tsunami, where they placed third and earned invitations to try out for the provincial team.

Smid didn’t take up rugby until her Grade 11 year at Cowichan Secondary School.

“I had a couple of friends playing, and I’ve always been a rough player on the soccer field,” she related. “I ended up falling in love with rugby.”

Smid credits the Cow High girls rugby coaches with her success.

“My main supporters have been the Skenes, Alanna and Brad,” she said. “They taught me everything I know and turned me into the rugby player I am today.”

Smid also went to the Provincial Regional Championships with the U18 Tsunami, where she caught the eyes of the Team B.C. coaches. She attended tryouts and was surprised when she made the final cut.

“I thought I would go in and get some experience,” she recalled. “I ended up playing on the B.C. team.”

The U16 players came together as a team quickly and got off to a strong start at nationals.

“There were a lot of nice girls on the team, amazing coaches, and we all played really well together,” Lillywhite said.

B.C. beat Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia in round-robin play, then trounced Nova Scotia 60-5 in the semifinals, with both Brennan-McCann and Lillywhite scoring tries.

“It was pretty cool,” Brennan-McCann said of scoring for the provincial team. “I didn’t realize what was happening until I was in the try zone.”

Lillywhite’s try was essentially a pack effort, she explained, and she wasn’t even sure she had touched the ball down.

“At first I was confused when [the referee] blew the whistle,” she recalled.

B.C. ended up losing a close one to Ontario in the final. Even though they didn’t win their last game, Lillywhite and Brennan-McCann were pleased with the tournament as a whole, and with their own performances.

“I didn’t think I’d make the team,” Lillywhite said. “It’s pretty amazing to think that we’re at the same level as people from across Canada who have been playing forever.”

Smid played for B.C.’s U17 team in the U18 division, where her teammates included Shawnigan student Hazel Bice, who calls North Vancouver home. Despite playing against girls a year older, B.C. still finished in the medals.

“It was such a great experience,” she said. “All the girls on the team became a family so quickly. There was a special bond that helped on the field and at the hotel, or when we were travelling.”

Smid’s team beat Ontario and beat Quebec 27-5 in pool play, then lost to Nova Scotia in the crossover semifinal. They defeated Ontario 60-5 for bronze, with Smid contributing a try to the effort.

“We came out really strong,” Smid said. “And we kept our energy level until the whistle blew.”

Brennan-McCann and Lillywhite will both play for the Shawnigan senior girls team this year and the Cowichan Rugby Football Club in the fall. This will be Lillywhite’s first season of club rugby. Both girls have played a lot of sports: field hockey, basketball, volleyball, and Mikayla rows as well, but rugby has emerged as a favourite, largely due to the people.

“They’re so inviting,” Lillywhite said. “You get close really easily.”

Smid also plans to play with the CRFC this fall, for the first time, then return to the school team in the spring. She has dreams of playing rugby in university, and perhaps beyond that.

“I’m letting go of soccer and track and field and fully dedicating myself to rugby,” she said.

An admitted latecomer to the sport, Smid is already catching up to the players with more experience.

“I do wish I had started earlier, but what can you do?” she said. “I’ve got to work hard and get it done.”

It’s not too late for young players to take up the sport this fall. In the interest of growing the game, the Cowichan Rugby Football Club is expanding its junior girls programs to include U14, U16 and U18 sides. All girls are invited to come to the club on Herd Road to try out the sport this Sunday (Sept. 10) from noon to 1:30 p.m. Anyone with further questions should contact Sherry Spence at womensrugby@cowichanrugby.ca