Ahead of the final match of their Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ) regular season campaign, Jennifer Boyd’s University of Ottawa women’s side are in good shape.
The Gee-Gees are almost certain of a home play-off semi-final as they attempt to win a seventh successive conference title, and should the team reach the RSEQ final then their pursuit of a second national championship can commence.
Boyd led the team to its first U Sports success in 2017, the same year that she became the first female professional rugby coach in Canada.
However, having watched on as the entire 2020 season was wiped out due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Boyd insists she is happy just to see her team back on the pitch.
“We’re really grateful to be playing,” Boyd told World Rugby.
“We weren't playing rugby for 18 months. We would practice sometimes and there'd be some contact allowed sometimes [but] other times we'd be in lockdown.
“So, it was quite the journey and you had to get pretty creative to make sure that the athletes were still developing and growing, and obviously were happy and healthy as well.
“It was a really difficult time for the student athletes at the university.”
Getting on the train
Boyd, who represented Canada at test level, was a teacher before becoming a full-time coach and therefore passing on her knowledge and experience to younger players has always been important to her.
Although she has been incredibly successful since becoming the Gee-Gees head coach in 2013, Boyd says that the development of her players as people is as important to her as results on the pitch.
“Holistic development of the athlete, whether that's at the club level, national level,” she said when asked about her coaching philosophy.
“It's not just about rugby, it's about everything else, what they can give back, and leaving a legacy. These are all things we talk about.
“Obviously, we're driven by some core values, like most programmes are and want to be real leaders in change.
“The world has changed since 2020, and I want to surround myself with people that want to be on that train.”
Since being rewarded with a full-time contract four years ago, Boyd has been able to devote more time to her players away from the pitch. Something she thinks is a crucial component of their success.
“I spend so much time doing off-field stuff, leadership development, character education,” she said.
“We have a leadership development education programme, we have a mentorship programme for all the athletes with different women in the community.
“We do a lot of work on campus around the social justice piece, constantly having conversations around communicating and being good team-mates, good students and good humans. We spend a lot of time on all that and then that translates on the field.
“You know, culture is number one. Any great team will have a strong culture because if you don't, you just can't sustain wins and we sustain wins.”
“The most inclusive sport in the world”
Evidence that Boyd’s philosophy is working comes not only in the shape of the team’s RSEQ and U Sports titles, or the players she has helped become Canada internationals — Brianna Miller among them — but in the Gee-Gees’ retention rate.
Of the squad that won the 2019 RSEQ title, only two players departed before the start of the 2021 season and one of those has returned in a coaching role.
Boyd, who says her team is “very symbolic of who I was as a player”, used the time afforded to her by the pandemic for personal development and growth both on and off the pitch.
The World Rugby Virtual High Performance Academy, which took place last year, gave Boyd an opportunity to learn from elite coaches including Eddie Jones, Steve Borthwick and Scott Wisemantel.
“That was a pretty remarkable experience,” she said. “It's amazing, you realise we're all really going through the same thing.
“It doesn't matter whether they're in New Zealand or England or the US, it's just great to swap stories and build those relationships and get some really sound advice. And, provide some if you might have something that they might want to hear.
“It was a really cool experience.”
Looking to the future, Boyd insists she is just concentrating on being the best coach she can be, but away from the rugby pitch she does harbour ambitions of helping children who have struggled in mainstream education.
Boyd has a vision for a virtual high school that would use sport and music to educate students aged between 15-18 from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
“That's where, obviously, my education background might come in handy,” Boyd explained.
“The people that I've been able to attract over the last year and a half, they have to wear a very different lens than me, and it'll be interesting to see if we can put our heads together and maybe make this happen.”
If her dream becomes a reality then rugby is sure to play a role in school life.
“I find it's the sport where you just can't hide who you really are as a person, you'll be exposed,” Boyd said. “Some of the greatest players in the world you just know are great people.
“The culture of rugby is so inclusive… I think it is the most inclusive sport in the world; body shapes, race, gender, sexual orientation, everyone is welcome in rugby and I just love that.”