This week we will be celebrating inspiring women in rugby in Canada. Leigh Tynan, the CEO of Gilbert Rugby Canada, reflects on embracing her role in rugby.
Embracing My Place In Rugby - Leigh Tynan
“You’ve got to see it to be it” - it’s a phrase that has become more popular of late as global events have pushed social issues around gender and race to the forefront of our collective consciousness. It’s an idea I have been reflecting on this year as I grow to truly embrace my role as CEO of Gilbert in Canada.
Growing up with a ‘Rugby Dad’ I spent my childhood at the side of the pitch at Sherwood Forest Park or Fletcher’s Fields, watching the men’s teams play. I have no recollection of ever seeing a women’s team play, or even a single woman in rugby kit. Fortunately though there were women in Burlington who wanted to play rugby. Monty Heald, the club president of the Burlington Centaurs, and my father’s business partner in Monilex Sports (now Gilbert Rugby Canada) - was a champion of women in rugby from the beginning. In his time as President of Rugby Canada, Monty found it incredibly frustrating that while the men’s rugby team could compete in the World Cup with all expenses covered, the women’s team had to ‘pay to play’.
Monty, along with a group of key folks at Rugby Canada worked to establish a fund to support the women’s rugby team to eliminate “pay to play”. Upon Monty’s passing in 2015 it was decided that the fund would be named in his honor. As a young women athlete, Monty was inspiring because he was inherently an advocate for women in sport.
I had no career aspirations to take over this business until in 2015 my Dad invited me to join him at the Gilbert head office meeting in the UK during England 2015 Rugby World Cup. The meeting was a great learning experience for me, but one I walked away from feeling all the more an ‘outsider’ in what was very much an ‘Old Boys Club’ of global distributors for Gilbert. The people I met there were friendly and my impression of the overall business was positive - I just didn’t ‘see’ myself pursuing this as a career path.
Returning to Canada, I could see that the business in Canada needed some help - we were not on e-commerce, and so I offered to help my Dad create an online store (It was a pure stroke of luck that we selected a Canadian startup called “Shopify” to host the site). This was going to be a finite contribution, and I would go back to running my own business, Tynan Studio (a media agency based in Toronto). But, as life goes, there was another ‘little project’ that I thought might help, andthen a few more after that. By 2018 I could see the work I was doing was starting to really revive the company and have an impact on the bottom line. So, while I still felt like an imposter in the rugby world, I took the plunge to become CEO. To be honest, I was terrified.
In fact, being terrified has been a bit of a hallmark of my foray into this career. Moments of terror include: my brilliant idea to have a drone capture a group of rugby players with a giant rugby ball on the Capilano Suspension Bridge in British Columbia to promote the All Blacks vs. Canada (I am terrified of heights); flying out to pitch to BC Rugby to be the team kit supplier which I was so grateful to present to a female Provincial Sport Governing body CEO in Annabel Kehoe, and so many moments in between where I met with folks in the rugby community terrified they would find out that I myself never played rugby.
I grew up on a competitive swim team, and later competed in varsity track and cross country in university. My post university years were spent competing in Olympic distance triathlon. So, it’s safe to say, I know the values of being deeply committed to sports at a high level. But, something I knew as a child, and I have reconnected with in my return to the sidelines of rugby, is that rugby is truly unique in its ability to foster community. There is simply nothing else quite like a rugby club in its ability to foster connection to all who belong to it. And this is where I have found my passion for rugby. Rugby is a vehicle to friendship, community, social mobility and connection for all who play. It is truly a game for everyone, and there is a spot on the team for all shapes and sizes. I think diversity and rugby are two words that work beautifully together.
By connecting with this passion, it has pushed me to move past my fears, and be more curious about how to ‘run a rugby business’. At my last trip to the head office meeting in England in 2019, I was no longer timid and silent and it felt quite thrilling to be so warmly embraced by the other distributors (who are still mostly men) and be able to bring knowledge to the table. I had my right hand woman Kim Peggie with me - and we truly felt a part of the team.
So as I am growing to embrace my role in the rugby community in Canada, I look to the women I have met who inspire me by their leadership. Melanie Squire and Meagan Wilson who have created and continue to build Iroquois Roots Rugby to bring rugby to Indigenous youth living in reserve communities. Amanda-Neale Robinson who leads Toronto Inner City Rugby, bringing rugby as a vehicle for social mobility to youth in high risk communities in Toronto. Annabel Kehoe, who was the first female CEO of a provincial sport governing body for rugby in Canada who leaves her post with the legacy of the ‘Girls Can Rugby’ program launched this year to encourage girls who face plummeting rates of sports participation as they enter puberty, to play rugby. Kathleen McGinn, past Chair of the Board for Rugby Ontario, and now a member of Rugby Canada’s Board of Directors, who was instrumental in the development of Rugby Ontario’s new “2022-2025 Rugby For All” strategic plan. High performance athletes like Karen Paquin who while still playing at an elite level, coaches and mentors the next generation of female rugby players in Canada. Community builders like Jen Ross who played for Canada in the 1990s, was awarded Rugby Canada’s Coach of the Year in 2012 and continues to bring rugby to future generations of girls and women.
As the Gilbert distributor in Canada, I find myself in a unique position - we are a small family business, but we are connected to the Canadian rugby community at every level, and the global rugby family through our parent company Gilbert. We are passionate about growing the game and spreading the values of rugby.
In celebration of International Women’s Day on Tuesday, March 8th we will be donating proceeds from sales on Tuesday, March 8th to The Monty Heald Women’s Fund which provides financial support to women’s rugby in Canada eliminating “pay to play” for the Canadian National Women’s Team.
To learn more about or donate to The Monty Heald Women’s Fund click here
To read Rugby Ontario’s “Rugby For All” 2022-2025 Strategic Plan click here
To learn about Iroquois Roots Rugby click here
To learn about TIRF click here
To read more about promoting and supporting girls and women in sport click here