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Rugby Royals back on pitch in Antigonish

Co-captain Jessica MacKinnon leads her Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Royals up the field during a recent Northumberland region rugby match versus the Northumberland Nighthawks. Gail MacDougall
Co-captain Jessica MacKinnon leads her Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Royals up the field during a recent Northumberland region rugby match versus the Northumberland Nighthawks. Gail MacDougall - Corey LeBlanc

Season continues for Nova Scotia high school players

ANTIGONISH, N.S. —

The Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Royals girls’ rugby team weren’t even on the pitch when they absorbed their hardest hit of the season.    

Players and coaches agree they were blindsided by the announcement from the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation (NSSAF) – the governing body for school sports in the province – that abruptly cancelled the 2019 season.    

“Shocked,” Royals’ captain Molly Vokey said, when asked about her initial reaction to the decision.    

“I was very unhappy, to say the least,” she added.    

Jessica MacKinnon, her co-captain, described the move as coming from “out of the blue.”    

“It is unfair – they ripped the sport we love away from us,” she said.    

Injuries inevitable in contact sports

Both in their final seasons, the Grade 12 students’ thoughts also turned to their younger teammates, ones newer to the sport and who have fallen in love with it.    

“We thought about them losing that privilege,” Vokey said.    

Royals’ head coach Zoe Fielding, a member of the 2006 national champion St. F.X. X-Women, noted her concern for senior players who may have an opportunity to play at the university level.    

“My heart went out to them,” she said.

What happened?    

In a memo issued May 2, which announced the mid-season cancellation, the NSSAF board of governors said they came to the decision after “a thorough review of incident report data provided by the School Insurance Program.”                            

The next twist, in what became a topsy-turvy week for high school rugby in the province, came the following day (May 3) from Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill, who overturned the NSSAF’s decision.    

In the following few days, the season remained in limbo; the NSSAF sticking by its decision, while individual school boards were left with the decision whether or not to continue play. 

Some finality, at least as it relates to the current season, came May 7, after a meeting between education department officials and the NSSAF board of governors.    

“The NSSAF will support Rugby Nova Scotia with player information and contacts, so the experience for the players is the same as it was before,” they said in a joint statement.    

Rugby Nova Scotia will not only administer the remainder of the regular season, but also the regional and provincial championships.    

While it is not an NSSAF-sanctioned sport, at this point, rugby will remain a school-approved activity covered under the student insurance program. 

‘Cloud of uncertainty’    

When the Royals’ co-captains spoke with the Casket prior to a May 7 practice, one day before they were set to the return to game action versus the rival North Nova Gryphons of neighbouring New Glasgow, they questioned the rationale behind the NSSAF’s initial decision.    

“There were no clear answers,” MacKinnon said.    

Vokey questioned, like many since this controversy erupted, the interruption of medical findings related to rugby, including the prevalence of concussions.     

Fielding, who spearheaded the launch of the Royals’ program eight seasons ago, suggested “data was misinterpreted,” noting an ongoing debate over how different sports are reporting injuries, such as concussions.    

“Who made the decision?” she said, echoing the question that first came to mind when she heard the news.    

“It exploded from there,” Fielding added of the mushrooming controversy that followed.    

When asked about returning to the pitch for the first time since the upheaval, Vokey said “it is going to be different.”    

She suggested there is a “cloud of uncertainty” hovering over the game.    

“I think everyone is going to be a bit uneasy,” MacKinnon said.    

She added, if a player gets injured, they will hear ‘I told you so’ from those in support of the NSSAF’s decision.    

Vokey is concerned players will be less likely to report their injuries, “which is ridiculous.”    

‘Anybody can play’

The senior player and their head coach reflected on the importance of rugby, especially as a sport option for girls and young women.    

“Anybody can play,” Vokey said.    

Fielding added “it is a sport that offers a job for every body type.”    

Recalling the tears that flowed when the players thought their season was lost, she noted, it is the only sport for some of the players.    

As for what can come from this rugby roller-coaster ride, of sorts, Fielding said stakeholders can start to focus on making improvements to the game at the high school level.    

She noted the length of the spring season, which only provides teams with two to three weeks of preparation before they start playing, needs to be assessed.    

“They would be more confident,” Fielding said of how players would benefit from having more time to prepare for the season.    

She noted teams have players in Grade 9 or are new to the sport, or both, while others have experience at the provincial, or even national, levels.

Along with the decision that the rugby season would finish under the Rugby Nova Scotia umbrella, the NSSAF and provincial education officials announced after their Truro sessions that “meetings will be held over the summer, among all interested parties, to look at safety in all sports.”

               

               

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