Sally Dennis eager to help Rugby Canada plan for a bright future following historic appointment

We caught up with the Rugby Canada chair after she became the first woman to be elected to the position.

Sally Dennis has had time to get used to the idea of becoming the first female chair of the Rugby Canada board, but she admits to being overwhelmed when the historic news was announced.

Dennis had first been sounded out about taking on the role two years previously, so she was aware that it was a possibility.

But, confirmation of her appointment last month led her to think about the people who were no longer around to share in the pride of the achievement.

Chief among those was her late father, who both stoked Dennis’ passion for the game as she was growing up in Bridgend, South Wales, and initially provided a barrier to it.

“It suddenly hit me as being pretty momentous,” she told World Rugby. 

“My first thoughts were just how proud a lot of people who actually aren't around anymore would have been to find out that I had achieved that in rugby; my dad, a couple of other people.”

Dennis added: “[My dad] was a big rugby fan. It's funny, perversely, he's been a big influence in why I am where I am, because growing up, he was very much of the view that there was no place in rugby for women and wouldn't let me go watch matches and stuff like that, disapproved of that. 

“And, so I didn't play until I left Wales and came to Canada. And one of the first things I did actually was sign up to a team and play, mainly so I could phone my dad and say, ‘Look, dad, I can play rugby’. 

“His views changed over time, but he was very much a traditional ‘rugby is men's 15s’ kind of guy. So, I think he would be chuffed, as we say in Wales, to see what's happened.”

‘Couch critic’

Dennis’ playing career lasted only one season, in which she lined up for the University of British Columbia at hooker, having relocated to Canada to continue her legal studies.

Although she had been an avid fan of the game back home, drawn to it by its sense of community, Dennis found that counted for little once she laced up a pair of boots.

“I did it pretty badly, but I tried,” she said. “I tried really hard. 

“I did find out that my encyclopaedic knowledge of rugby, the laws of rugby and being a couch critic didn't translate terribly well to the pitch. I knew it all in theory!”

However, while her on-field performances were not as successful as hoped, Dennis had fallen in love with Canada and at the end of her studies she made the decision to stay, despite having a job lined up in London.

Rugby remained an important part of her life as she raised a family in North America, and all three of her children “gave it a shot” at school.

She was appointed onto the Rugby Canada board in 2017, as a general director, and admits that the last four years have been “turbulent”. But, Dennis is hopeful that the union is now in a place where it can start to plan for the future.

“There's just been a lot going on, all part of the development of the game in Canada,” she said. 

“We are actually now at a place where I think we can actually look forward and be more strategic. We're financially more stable than we were, we’ve got a lot of really good policies, a lot of that work, the back of it's been broken, shall we say. 

“And, you know, there's always tons to do, obviously, but I do look forward to now being able to look forward and plan and be more strategic as opposed to [being] reactive.

“Because in the short-term, we've got some massive challenges coming up. We've got to get rugby back and that's going to pose financial and human resource challenges across the country.”

Olympic opportunity

Although she admits being the first female chair of the union brings its own pressure, Dennis is also keen to play down the significance of the milestone.

Her predecessor Tim Powers has been an “incredible mentor” in Dennis’ first few weeks in the role, while she says the wider rugby community in Canada has been hugely supportive.

“I just view it as just a part of the natural progression of the organisation and the way our governance has gone and become more sophisticated,” Dennis said.

Her appointment onto the Rugby Canada board in 2017 was part of a conscious decision to make selection skills-based, something that Dennis admits may leave her open to accusations that she is not a “rugby person”.

“The apprehension about me is more that I'm not a traditional rugby person in that I'm not a former player at an elite level, I'm not deeply entrenched in, say, the local rugby community,” she said. 

“I'm involved, but I'm not deeply entrenched. And so [for] a lot of people there's the classic thing of ‘she's not a rugby person’ in that sense. 

“And, I actually think it's a positive that I'm a little more objective and more independent of the local and provincial community.”

Dennis is keen to keep rugby in Canada on an upward trajectory, and is looking forward to watching the nation’s men and women in sevens action during the Olympic Games next month.

She is confident both teams can go to Tokyo and be successful, and is also cognisant of the opportunity the Games provide with sevens being broadcast live to millions of homes on Canadian television.

“When we achieve those successes in Tokyo, it's always good for the game,” Dennis said. 

“We have a strategy now for turning that into positive PR as part of the build-up to getting rugby back and getting people interested in the game again and re-engaging. 

“So, we're hoping it'll be a platform for that success, to get us on that trajectory of re-engaging and retaining and growing the game. 

“And, you know, we don't get that many opportunities to have big TV coverage, so we're going to make the most of it.”

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Last updated: Sep 15, 2021, 9:23:59 AM
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