Primed for Canada Games rugby sevens debut
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/08/2022 (236 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE — As the hot July sun nears the horizon, the corners of Sydney Primmer’s smile grow increasingly close to her ears.
The Republic of Manitobah Park has not a blade of tightly cut grass out of place as Manitoba’s rugby sevens team starts one of its last practices before the 2022 Canada Games in Niagara, Ont.
Photographers call that brief window before the sun sets “golden hour.” For Primmer, that’s every time she sets foot on a rugby pitch.
She grins as she chases a Brianne Zemliak down during a drill, then laughs as she takes a pass from the Rivers product’s sister, Brooklyn, and breaks through for a long run.
It’s a perfect Friday night in Portage la Prairie in an otherwise tumultuous summer, and the perfect place for Primmer: an escape from turbulent times.
“I’ve had a pretty tough life,” Primmer says, that wide-eyed smile temporarily disappearing. “High school was especially very, very rough with assaults and foster care. I’m a child of domestic violence, I’ve had people in my life pass away.
“Life gets down on us sometimes but I think rugby is one of the things that have remained consistent in my life, since I discovered it, at least. It’s one of the only things I want to keep in my life forever.”
The 17-year-old grew up on Canadian Forces Base Shilo with a military family. She attended Elton Collegiate and competed in everything from basketball and volleyball to curling, badminton and track and field.
Primmer had a friend introduce her to rugby in Grade 9. Elton athletes were part of a co-op team with Minnedosa, Rivers and Erickson, so she got to practise with the province’s top high school team under Kathleen Muirhead, who’s managing the Canada Games squad with coach Paul Harland.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” Primmer said. “It was the best thing in the world.”
But COVID-19 hit before she could get game reps. She ultimately lost her Grade 10 and 11 seasons due to restrictions.
Then, incidents involving her father led to her moving into foster care in Wawanesa for her senior year. Since Wawanesa doesn’t have a rugby squad, she played out of Souris under longtime coach Brian Yon.
Primmer played fly-half for the sevens and 15s teams that went 2-6-3 and 2-3, respectively, in 2021-22. The results in the standings, however, are insignificant compared to the intangible benefits for someone navigating a challenging life.
“Rugby is one of the things that kept me sane. You get to build a family as well … rugby, it’s a different kind of family,” Primmer said. “It’s part of my life, it’s a big reason why I’m still here and it can really do a lot for you mentally and physically. It can keep you healthy, it really makes you happy and when you’re having a bad day, it’s always there.”
At five-foot-three, she didn’t feel she fit the mould for some sports but felt right at home on the rugby pitch. The first thing she noticed about the game was “diversity.”
Where she wasn’t tall enough for basketball, “fit” enough for hockey or “super skinny” like some young women feel pressured to be, rugby was different.
“No matter what you are there’s always a place for you on the field,” Primmer said.
“That’s one of the bigger things that made me fall in love with it. It doesn’t make you question yourself, it doesn’t make you insecure, there’s always a spot for you and you’re sure of that.”
There were spots for a bunch more Westman talents on the 10-player roster, including the Zemliaks and Alissa Janz from Rivers, Dauphin’s Emma Fox and Brandon’s Lindsey Brown.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Janz said. “I never thought this would happen. My coaches (Muirhead and Cody Pollon) pushed me to do this. At first, I didn’t want to, I was really nervous for it but they pushed me and said I should try out.
“I’m really glad they did.”
The Rivers group has captured a few Westman High School Rugby sevens titles and provincial 15s crowns and knows what it takes to succeed.
Brooklyn Zemliak noted the biggest key for this group was establishing chemistry.
“We come from so many different parts of Manitoba so none of us knew each other,” Brooklyn said. “We’ve done a lot of team bonding stuff, coach Kat and Paul tried to make it so we all get along, stay in hotel rooms together. It’s a really good bunch.”
The Zemliaks are headed for their second Games experience, albeit a much bigger one than the 2016 Manitoba Games in Thompson, where they played soccer for Team Westman.
Rugby sevens matches are a whole lot shorter — just seven-minute halves that require maximum effort the whole time.
The team got a few wake-up calls on two trips to Regina to take on Team Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“Brooklyn and I always say ‘Oh, gosh, we’re not playing 15s anymore,’” Brianne chuckled.
You need speed. You need to be running smart so you need to know the game. Because everything’s so much quicker than 15s, you can’t just offload to someone else and wait back, you need to be right there.”
The tournament is also shorter, going from Monday to Wednesday while others are as long as six days.
Manitoba opens Monday against Newfoundland and Labrador at Brock University at 2 p.m. CDT, then plays Prince Edward Island at 4:44 p.m. The Herd continues on Tuesday against Quebec at 3:22 p.m. and wraps up Pool A play against British Columbia at 7:44 p.m.
The top team in each of the two five-team pools gets a bye to the semifinals while second and third cross over and play Wednesday. Fourth and fifth also cross over for consolation playoffs.
The final is Wednesday at 8 p.m.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Primmer said. “This has been my goal since I started rugby so this is kind of a huge deal.
“Rugby is one of the most important things in my life and it’s one of the only things I cared about for a really long time. It’s pretty surreal to actually be able to compete with other players and get to see so many other talents that people share in.”
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen