KRUG CRAWFORD AWARD: Tuttosi stars on international stage
Krug Crawford award winner
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Emily Tuttosi, the ultimate longshot from a small Prairie community who parlayed her long-awaited shot at the world stage into rugby stardom, has been named the 65th annual H.L. (Krug) Crawford Award as The Brandon Sun’s Westman sportsperson of the year.
The 27-year-old Souris product finally earned a permanent spot on Canada’s national women’s rugby team and at the World Cup — the Olympics and Stanley Cup of her sport wrapped into one — she was named to World Rugby’s women’s 15s dream team of the year in November.
It was the high point of an incredible journey for the former Souris Sabre and University of Calgary Dino in a book that still has many unwritten chapters.
“Even just being at the World Cup and then winning the award, I think back sometimes to my days as a Sabre or my days as a Dino and how every time I got the opportunity to play more rugby, it would be yes,” she said. “It was ‘OK, you can try out for Team Manitoba’ and ‘OK, you can try out for Westman,’ all these opportunities that I said yes to because I loved the game.
“That got me to the ultimate pinnacle of our sport. Obviously there is some hard work that goes in with that as well, but I do think ‘Wow, if you hadn’t driven the three hours for this Team Manitoba practice’ … where along your path could it have veered and you end up at the same place.
“I don’t really know.”
Tuttosi and her twin sister Amy began playing mini rugby in Souris together at age seven or eight. They both dabbled in other sports but in high school they played rugby and basketball.
“We just went with it as soon as we started,” Amy Tuttosi said. “Any kind of opportunity we had, we were both taking it. The sport of sport definitely becomes a lifestyle for you if you fall in love with it.”
(It’s truly a family game, with older brother Brendynn and younger sister Kaedynce also active rugby players.)
Sabres coach Brian Yon, a teacher and key rugby volunteer in Souris, initially met the twins at Souris School when they were in kindergarten, and a couple of years later they entered his youth rugby program. Those were the days before flag rugby, so it was straight into the contact game.
Yon took a U12 team to a tournament in Calgary and Tuttosi had a head-on-head collision. Her eye immediately swelled up — Yon notes not all 11-year-olds would take that especially well — and she was taken out of the game and the injury was treated with ice.
“I was standing there watching the game and I felt this little tug on my shirt and I look down and it’s Emily,” he said. “She was like ‘Mr. Yon, can I go back in?’ Right away I knew this girl was something special. She went back out there and never missed a beat.”
That mental toughness never wavered. Priorities can change pretty quickly when the teen years hit but she remained disciplined, working out constantly and eating the right food.
“She was always very goal driven,” Yon said. “She always put her teammates and her team and everybody before her. You don’t see too many kids come through high school who set themselves apart but she was definitely one of them. Emily is definitely a special person just for having those early positive habits.”
Physically, her family has solid, athletic builds, but Yon added she built on that foundation with her hard work, attention to detail and willingness to learn.
Amy Tuttosi agreed.
“Honestly, her drive to be the best she can be is so huge,” Amy Tuttosi said. “On and off the field, she’s always working to be better. Growing up, she put in hours to the rugby pitch when it got moved to the school, cutting grass, painting lines. She just wants to be that team player and let everyone have the best opportunity they can.”
The twins, who graduated in 2013, started for four years with the Sabres and Emily was named team captain in Grade 10, an unusual honour for such a young player.
Amy said Emily’s leadership manifested itself in a lot of ways. Not all elite athletes are great with others who don’t share their skill level, work ethic or devotion to the game, but Emily was always welcoming.
“She’s obviously a very talented player but she is so humble about it and so welcoming, not only as a teammate but a friend to everyone,” Amy Tuttosi said. “She just makes people feel comfortable in her leadership. She’s not just giving demands to you, she’s trying to help you be better.”
She said her sister offered “positive criticism” but was also quick to actually give helpful tips that were received well because of how they were delivered.
Yon said that even as an older player, she picked up after practice and did the team stuff usually reserved for the rookies.
“When people aren’t watching, she’s still doing those things,” Yon said. “That’s what really sets her apart from a lot of players, she’s just very selfless and is a great team player.”
Calgary coach Simon Chi began looking at the five-foot-seven Tuttosi on the recommendation of Yon, who had previously sent graduates to the Dinos program. It didn’t take long for Chi to realize her potential.
“In conversations with her we knew she was driven, and as you get to know her a bit more, you figure out that she’s not wired like most people,” Chi said. “Certainly she’s exceptional in a lot of areas.”
While Amy headed east to Nova Scotia to join the Acadia Axewomen, Emily went to Calgary. The combination of an extremely competitive Canada West conference, success that earned the Dinos their first banner and the introduction of a more focused, professional environment drove her game to new heights.
At the same time, she continued to display the traits she had shown in Souris.
“Everything she did was basically for the team,” Chi said. “She’s definitely humble. She puts in the work, first one there and last one off the pitch. She was there for her teammates and there to help other people. She set the example, and in terms of leadership, she had it all. She led with her work and she led with her actions. It’s pretty rare to see.”
Tuttosi was a four-time Canada West all-star and an all-Canadian in 2016, and graduated in 2018 with a bachelor of science in kinesiology.
Chi said the most heated discussions the two ever had was when Tuttosi insisted on playing injured.
He said the fire inside that pushed her ultimately set her apart.
“Would I say she’s the most physically gifted player we’ve ever had?” Chi said. “Arguably, no. But she is easily the most driven, determined athlete I’ve worked with in probably forever. She’s absolutely driven. She loves the game of rugby and there is nothing that’s going to stop her.”
With very few opportunities to play at a higher level in Canada after leaving university, Chi was instrumental in getting Tuttosi and fellow Dino DaLeaka Menin tryouts in the United Kingdom.
The pair headed over to the United Kingdom to play professional women’s rugby, joining the Loughborough Lightning in the Allianz Premier 15s. After two seasons, they left for the expansion Exeter Chiefs, where Tuttosi was named the team’s player of the year in 2021.
After narrowly missing the playoffs in their first year, the Chiefs fell in the league final this season.
“From high school to university rugby she was very successful obviously,” Amy Tuttosi said. “I think the move to England for her was a huge, huge step that would be scary for anyone to take. She wanted to better herself and the trip over to England was amazing for her rugby career.”
Throughout her rugby career — Tuttosi played a lot of flank in high school but now mostly lines up at hooker, which is right in the middle of the action in the front line — she had also been suiting up for some provincial and national teams.
Tuttosi played for Manitoba four times, once for a Manitoba-Saskatchewan team and several times for Wolfpack, the combined Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta club.
She was on Rugby Canada’s radar all along, playing on national teams at the under-18 and U20 levels. At age 22, she got a taste of the game at the highest level, earning her first cap with the national senior women’s rugby team in 2017.
But that certainly didn’t mean she had a full-time spot, and she didn’t see much action with the club for the next few years.
Tuttosi attended a top-50 camp in Halifax in 2021 and went on a fall tour with the Canadian team. She received some playing time, and after a staff change at Rugby Canada, returned to a top-40 camp in April.
On Aug. 31, Tuttosi received the news she had been looking for: She was named to the Canadian national team that was set to attend the prestigious 12-team Rugby World Cup in New Zealand from Oct. 8 to Nov. 12.
“I was just so happy for her,” Yon said. “She’s been working for years and years. She was previously capped with the 15s before this campaign leading to the World Cup and then she just wasn’t getting as serious a look as I felt she should have been, whether that was the coach at the time or whatever. She never dwelled on it, she just kept working and plugging away and just got better and better.
“That’s what you want in a player. It’s too easy for people to give up and say ‘I’m done.’ We’ve seen that in all sports where some players just can’t respond the right way to adversity. Emily just took it head on.”
She had been on the cusp of making the 2017 World Cup team, and then watched as the 2021 tournament was moved back a year because of the pandemic. She said it was worth the wait.
“I finally made it and then to ‘A,’ play and ‘B,’ be recognized further was pretty surreal,” Tuttosi said. “I think it was just a moment when your years of hard work have got you to where you want to be, which feels pretty incredible.
“I did a lot of things and you just want to be there, to be playing with the best against the best, and then it actually pays off and you have actually ticked that box. It was pretty incredible.”
So was her play.
Canada opened against Japan on Oct. 8 and emerged with a 41-5 victory as Tuttosi led the way with three tries. Suddenly, the woman who struggled to earn a spot was the toast of Canadian rugby.
“It was wild,” Tuttosi said. “The support came even before the first match, even when we departing for the World Cup, especially across the Prairie provinces.
“… When I got player of the match, I had so many people sending such kind words. Some of the most notable ones were some people, whether I played with them or however I knew them, it was so cool that I can show my kids that I played with you or I can show my daughters that you’re on TV.”
A week later, she added two more tries as Canada edged Italy 22-12 on Oct. 15, and in a 29-14 victory over the United States on Oct. 22 she touched the ball down again, giving her six tries in three games.
She said the World Cup felt entirely different than her previous times on the national team at the U20 and on the tour in 2017.
“I felt more like I belonged on the team,” Tuttosi said. “As an athlete, naturally sometimes you struggle with ‘Do I deserve to be here?’ imposter syndrome and all these other things. In that moment, I worked really hard throughout the tournament and the games leading up to the tournament to embrace that I was working hard and I deserve to be here and there are a bunch of people in the country behind us.
“When I can confidently say that and have my hands around teammates, that means a bit more.”
After the round-robin, Tuttosi’s coach confidentially told her that she had been selected to the 2022 Dream Team, which is amplified because it’s a World Cup year.
“I first off thought it wasn’t real,” Tuttosi said. “I couldn’t tell any teammates because I had to make the decision if I was going to go to the awards that were held in Monaco. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone so it was kind of weird because it’s surreal that was an award I could ever be up for.
“My main focus was still the team and how we were going to finish the tournament, so it was weird to have something so big and exciting that you have to put aside because there is a goal that is bigger.”
Canada beat the Americans again in the quarterfinals — 32-11 on Oct. 29 — but fell 26-19 to England on Nov. 5 in the semifinal and was blanked 36-0 to France in the third-place game on Nov. 12.
However, the impact of the event became apparent when the host New Zealand beat England 34-31 in Auckland on Nov. 12 at Eden Park stadium in front of crowd of 50,000, a record for women’s rugby.
While finishing fourth was disappointing for a Canadian team that was hunting for gold, it was a win in other ways.
“It was amazing,” Amy Tuttosi said of her sister’s impact. “To see and know where we started and came from and to see that she hasn’t gotten huge helping hands along the way, she’s worked for everything she’s gotten and to finally be at that World Cup level, that’s the pinnacle of women’s rugby.
“To be there and to be able to show the world your skill — and to have her and all of Team Canada’s stories be told — it was huge for women’s rugby and Emily.”
Yon agreed, saying different people who weren’t rugby fans told him they were tuning in to the games on TV.
“I would hope that people don’t watch rugby that much or don’t know much about it recognize that this is a huge, huge achievement,” Yon said. “To do something like that internationally and to be recognized like that is a huge, huge accomplishment, especially for a young lady from a small rural Manitoba town.
“It’s a tremendous achievement.”
For Chi, the university coach who found her a tryout to play professionally, it was gratifying to see his former player at the top echelons of the sport.
“As a coach, there’s nothing that is more satisfying than to see your athletes succeed,” Chi said. “Obviously she had some struggles to get to the path where she was but then to see her do the things that she does best and to have so much success doing it on a world stage, I was so happy for her.”
What makes the story even more incredible is that Canada is the only top national team in which the players are not financially supported year round. They don’t play together much, except for tours, instead scattering across the globe to earn a living.
“These girls live regular people lives but also play on a professional rugby team,” said Amy Tuttosi, who lives in Oak Lake but works in Brandon. “To be able to explain that to people and say they are competing with the best players in the world, and they’re actually in the competition — they placed fourth this year, which wasn’t the result they wanted but still have so much to be proud of — those girls are such an example for everyone back home.”
After a couple of weeks off following the World Cup and picking up her award in Monaco, she rejoined Exeter, which is in second place at 4-1. Her goal is to get back to the league final and have a different result than last year.
She’s also hoping to find out this month what the Canadian national team’s test match schedule will be for 2023.
Tuttosi is hopeful that her journey, complete with all the detours and distractions along the way, can inspire younger players.
“The main thing I would say to any rugby player is to never lose the joy of the game,” Tuttosi said. “Even when I had years of not getting selected to the senior women’s squad after getting my first taste of it, I always played rugby to be my best rugby player and because I had fun playing rugby. My goal was still Canada, but you can’t always just focus on an outcome.
“You have to enjoy the journey.”
» Twitter: @PerryBergson