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Sara McCarron plays rugby in New Zealand

Sara McCarron and Alison Blanchard of Waitaki Athletic Marist women’s rugby team in New Zealand after a match with Green Island. They are pictured with their parents – Lee McCarron (left) and Brian and Sharon Kenny-Blanchard (an Antigonish native). Brian also coaches the team. Contributed
Sara McCarron and Alison Blanchard of Waitaki Athletic Marist women’s rugby team in New Zealand after a match with Green Island. They are pictured with their parents – Lee McCarron (left) and Brian and Sharon Kenny-Blanchard (an Antigonish native). Brian also coaches the team. Contributed - Corey LeBlanc

X-Women veteran focused on new season

Sara McCarron, not surprisingly, spent the summer playing rugby.    

Where she took pitch, a country where the sport is often described as a ‘religion,’ may be a bit unexpected.    

“It was kind of spontaneous,” the Antigonish County native said of having the chance to play in New Zealand.    

The opportunity for the fourth-year varsity student-athlete to sharpen her skills in the sovereign island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean developed through a connection with the St. F.X. X-Women rugby program.    

Her former Blue and White teammate and friend, Alison Blanchard, and her family, lives in New Zealand.    

Brian Blanchard, who coached McCarron for a couple seasons with the Halifax Tars, invited her to make the move to play rugby and work.    

“It was a good fit,” she said, noting his wife and Alison’s mother, Sharon Kenny-Blanchard, is an Antigonish native.    

McCarron described the idea of playing there as “unbelievable.”    

“It is huge,” she noted of the national sport’s popularity, including the All Blacks, the country’s world-famous men’s team.    

McCarron said she learned a lot about their “rugby culture,” noting, on the women’s side, it is similar to Canada. Nevertheless, she noted, there are differences in coaching and playing  opportunities for female players, with her home country ahead of the game.    

“They are so talented,” McCarron said, noting children start playing rugby as four and five-year-olds in New Zealand.    

She added “they pick up the ball and play,” noting the Canadian game focuses more on skill development.    

When asked where her game improved this summer, McCarron talked about the physicality.    

“There were a lot of really, really big teams,” she said, describing that type of competition as a “really, really good fit for my game.”    

McCarron added she also got better at “reading the play, running and carrying the ball.”    

She played with the Waitaki Athletic Marist women’s team – at the club level – which is a tier below the spirit league. McCarron had an opportunity to play at that higher level, if she did not have to return home for classes and the X-Women season.    

“The timing wasn’t right,” she noted.    

The Black Ferns are the female national team in New Zealand.    

Some of her teammates moved on to the spirit level and she continues to follow their progress. Members of that club team have also had opportunities with the Black Ferns.    

Her club team boasted an international flavour, including several Canadians, along with players from the United States, United Kingdom and Fiji.    

The Waitaki Athletic Marist squad finished third in their league; they dropped a last-minute match to Dunedin in the semi-finals.

‘Almost homesick’    

When not playing rugby, she worked for Mount Cook Alpine Salmon, where Brian Blanchard is the director of aquaculture.    

“It was really fun,” McCarron said, noting she was “not very educated” in that type of farming.    

She added the core group of workers are Canadians.    

“They have become some of my best mates,” McCarron said.    

She called her time in New Zealand “amazing.”    

“I didn’t rest,” McCarron said, with a laugh, when asked how she was able not only to work and play rugby, but also tour some of the island country.    

There was a visit to the south island, along with a two-and-half-week journey through the north before she returned to Antigonish.    

“I was almost homesick,” McCarron said of travelling through Gisborne, one of her last stops, describing her feelings about leaving New Zealand.    

“I didn’t want to leave,” she added.    

McCarron noted her thoughts on the country included “this is home.”    

A return to New Zealand is on the radar, along with playing opportunities in the United Kingdom.    

“It is pretty incredible,” McCarron said.    

When she started playing rugby in Grade 9 with the fledgling Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional Royals’ program, she said she “never imagined having these types of opportunities.”    

“I knew playing sports provided opportunities and opened doors, but I never thought I would meet so many great people and have these experiences,” McCarron said.     

And, topping the list, are the friendships she has gained.    

“They mean so much to me – you don’t find that anywhere else,” she added.

‘Take no short cuts’    

After returning home in mid-August, McCarron turned her focus to preparing for her fourth season with the defending national champion X-Women.    

“They set the stage beautifully and we have to continue on that path,” she said, in reflecting on the loss of key veterans, such as Joanna Alphonso and Olivia DeMerchant.    

She noted St. F.X. maintains a veteran core that includes co-captains Sam Lake and Anna Horner, who often have group discussions with her and other key returnees Carleigh Walters, Danielle Franada and Hannah Ellis.    

“We have to be the example and set the standard,” McCarron said of their influence on the younger X-Women.    

She noted the veterans’ role in reflecting the need to focus on “the ‘we’ and not the ‘I’.” 

McCarron also referenced the X-Women’s theme for this season – ‘take no shortcuts.’    

“We have an opportunity to do something pretty amazing,” she said of the chance to repeat as national champions.    

None of the stellar six Canadian titles for the X-Women program under decorated head coach Mike Cavanagh have come in back-to-back seasons.

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