“No limit”: Maria Samson using scholarship to accelerate leadership journey

We spoke to the former Canada international about her participation in the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme and what it means to her.

Maria Samson might have played at the highest level, representing Canada with distinction in 21 tests, but her love of rugby remains rooted in the community game.

Samson was introduced to the game by her school American football coach – armed with a ‘Rugby for Dummies’ book – in Quebec and it continued to be a “social, fun sport” for her right up until she developed international ambitions in her mid-20s.

Even after those goals had been achieved, and she had appeared at a Women’s Rugby World Cup, it is an ethos that has been central to Samson’s journey into leadership.

That post-playing expedition has taken in coaching, refereeing, commentary, six years on the Rugby Canada board and since March 2023, a place on the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme.

“To me, the most important part of the triangle is the bottom,” Samson told World Rugby.

“I have very much a grassroots mindset versus that elite level mindset, because without grassroots I never would have played.

“It just wouldn't have been for me without the community game. If somebody would have told me at 18 years old, you have to commit to the national team and you have to move somewhere, I never would have done it.

“And so, I have a very soft spot for individuals that want to stay in their community and excel in their space.”

Samson describes her own journey into rugby administration thus far as “organic”.

Between 2017-2023 she served on the Rugby Canada board, starting as a player representative and ending as Vice-Chair. She also coached Mount Royal University (MRU) in the Canadian University Men’s Rugby Championship until she was appointed chair of the competition’s board earlier this year.

On her six years at MRU, Samson said: “These young men, 18–23-year-olds, all of a sudden have this strong, powerful woman who is a kick-ass coach.

“Maybe they hadn’t ever been exposed to a woman with that level of technical coaching ability and so I think it can perhaps change people’s minds or give them a different perception of women in leadership positions in general.”

Leadership was not something she expected to go into while she was playing, and those voluntary opportunities arose largely through Samson’s own hard work and determination. “I don’t ask for help,” she admitted.

The prospect of gaining access to formal mentoring is therefore something that attracted her to the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme.

“Like getting selected for anything, the national team or whatever, it’s just like, ‘Wow!’ It’s a really nice honour,” Samson said.

“My rugby leadership journey has been very organic and self-driven in terms of pushing for myself to be in certain spaces; putting my name forward, being on committees, doing the grind work in terms of being recognised or whatnot.

“I just thought this would be a really cool opportunity to get some coaching, some mentorship, some formalised training around it because I've been very successful grinding it out on my own.

“I did have some really good mentors as well, but it felt very much like, man, imagine if I had some support, World Rugby support, Capgemini support… there’s no limit.”

“Nobody had ever done this before”

Being enrolled on the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme has not been without its challenges, not least because Samson was pregnant with her third child when accepted onto it.

Son Mateo was born in June, but Samson was determined that his arrival was not going to limit what she was able to achieve through the programme.

And thanks to the cooperation of Capgemini and World Rugby, both Maria and Mateo attended the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Summit 2023 in Paris last October.

It meant that Samson was able to connect with fellow Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme participants in person, while both mother and son were present for Ireland’s Men’s Rugby World Cup 2023 victory against Scotland at Stade de France.

Samson said: “It was wonderful. My husband and I have always been the type of parents that we’re not going to take away opportunities from our kids, and they're not going to take opportunities away from us.

“We are the same with babies number one and two, we just got on with life and they came along.

“And when this opportunity came along and discussing with my husband about, you know, do I go to Paris? The only way at that time, would have been to bring Mateo with me.

“So, we worked with World Rugby, we worked with Capgemini, we worked with the organisers around what that would look like because nobody [had] ever done this before.

“What's that going to look like in meeting rooms and what that's going to look like at the rugby game?

“I don't know, I’m just so well-travelled with our kids that he came along with me. I don't think he made a peep at any single meeting, and we were able to be included in all the activities, so it was wonderful.”

Mateo even made an appearance on a viral video of triumphant Ireland fans singing ‘Zombie’ following their win.

“He’s dancing at the end,” Samson said. “It’s kind of funny.”

Playing for her family

Mateo may not remember his trip to the Stade de France, but it is certain to be a story that gets told in the Samson household for years to come.

And family is also central to his mother’s proudest memory from her playing career.

In February 2015, Samson underwent knee surgery having suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury while playing.

With Canada due to play the Black Ferns in her hometown Calgary four months later, Samson set herself the ambitious target of returning to the pitch in time for that match.

It was such a tall order that she didn’t tell her team-mates it was her target. But having been signed off work for six weeks, she “tried every single thing you can imagine” to get fit.

The rounds of acupuncture and osteopath and physio sessions clearly worked as she was included in the Canada squad for the match.

However, four days after the selection email appeared in her inbox in May 2015, Samson received the crushing news that her father had passed way. Her determination to run out at Rugby Park only strengthened.

“I got this opportunity to play for him,” Samson explained, through tears. “My family came out [to watch] and it was an opportunity I wouldn’t have had if I had just been like, ‘Oh, well, I’m not gonna be able to play in that game’.”

Canada lost the match 40-22 but it remains the one she looks back on with fondness given the emotion and energy she poured into it.

“The world came together for me, I would say, in that moment,” she added. “My nickname is MJ and a couple of friends of mine had their shirts off and one had a big ‘M’ and the other one had a big ‘J’ on their chests. Very funny.

“When I think of moments for me, absolutely that’s the one.”

Last updated: May 21, 2024, 1:30:44 PM
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