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Mums who scrum: In Ontario, a women’s rugby club gives retired players another kick at the game

Aug. 18, 2018: Jill McCallum, a player with the Guardian Angels women's rugby club, brings along her daughter, Eleanor, to warm-up before a championship game on Fletcher's Fields in Markham, Ont. The team, part of the Ontario Women's League (Rugby Ontario) in the second division, has a babysitter on the sidelines to help players who don't have partners at the game to watch the kids.

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Shannon Howes, background, tapes her ankles ahead of the match, while Meaghan Sheahan catches a rugby ball from Howes's daughter. The Guardian Angels club was founded in 2018 to give women who have retired from competitive rugby a chance to get back into the sport. All have played high-level club or university rugby, but left the sport as they started careers and families. Players commit to one game on Saturdays and no training sessions.

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Player Shelley Shaw gets her ankle bandaged ahead of the game by Dr. Karen Chrobak, a co-founder of the Guardian Angels and the owner of SportSide Medical Services, one of the team's sponsors. She does athletic taping for teammates, and the clinic also supplies a trainer/medic on the sideline at games.

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Let’s face it, rugby is a man’s world. It’s very rare that you see an organization that’s started by women, run by women, sponsored by women, everything is done by women.

— Dr. Karen Chrobak, team co-founder and 20-year rugby veteran

The Angels rally together at the field in Markham for the OWL 2 Cup championship game. Chrobak and player Tamara Dixon came up with the idea of the Guardian Angels over a dinner of Thai food where they bemoaned the fact that women in their 30s or older lost out on chances to play rugby when they had children. Men with families could play in an organized league with smaller commitments – why not women?

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Team co-founder Davine Burton jumps (supported by teammates Rosie Lang, left, and Dallas Hunt, right) to pull in a line-out against the Toronto Saracens near the start of the championship game. Burton plays for the team even though she splits her time between B.C. and Ontario.

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I play with people that historically I literally have hated on the field. These are women that were my nemesis on the field. It was such a strange dynamic and within 10 minutes of being out there it was complete camaraderie.”

— Davine Burton, team co-founder

Rachel Kay takes down a Saracen part way through the championship game. Understanding how to tackle and how to be tackled is a major part of playing rugby. While the Guardian Angels are made up of veteran players, they want to train newcomers to play the game safely.

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Shaw, originally from Elora, Ont., and the mother of twins, sits on the treatment table after injuring her ankle in the second half.

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Shaw ices her ankle while Sarah Sibbett breastfeeds her six-month-old son Gunner during the second half. Gunner was four months old when Sibbett started playing with the team. She often fed him before the game and at half-time.

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I love spending my Saturdays here with these women, it’s just unbelievable and really empowering.

— Sarah Sibbett, 13-year rugby veteran

Back on the field, Sibbett, also known as Moose, is tackled during the second half. Tackling in rugby has only a few limitations: The timing matters (early or late) and contact must be below the shoulders. But not every moment is caught by the referees during an aggressive play.

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Rose Baker, middle, hugs Tamara Dixon after the Guardian Angels beat the Saracens 39-15 for the OWL 2 championship.

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It’s amazing. To be around women who are able to stay in the game and [are] emotional at the end of the game when their children can see them play.

— Tamara Dixon, team co-founder, 21-year rugby veteran

Sibbett holds up the OWL 2 championship trophy, sponsored by the Guardian Angels, with baby Gunner strapped to her front.

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The Guardian Angels celebrate with drinks at the Fletcher's Fields beer tent, while the bronze medal OWL 1 game plays on in the background. Traditionally, the teams choose a player of the match from the opposing team who has to chug a beer to celebrate.

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Dr. Chrobak, foreground, and many other Guardian Angels stayed late after their game to watch the OWL 1 championship, supporting younger players, some of whom they coached in the past.

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Instant replay: Watch the Guardian Angels play

For rugby veterans with careers and families, staying on the field can be hard on their bodies, schedules and lives. The Guardian Angels team is trying to change that with an emphasis on sisterhood and support. The Globe and Mail
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