Canada's Under-20 women's national team made history this past weekend when they became the first side other than England to hoist the U20 Nations Cup. BC's Jess Neilson was a standout during the tour and played a key role in the final against USA, kicking two penalties and a pair of converts to help defeat their North American rivals 27-3. The 17-year-old has now graduated from powerhouse program Carson Graham and will set her sights on performing at the university level when she attends UVic in the Fall.
Neilson was one of three BC reps on the tour with Sarah Gordon (Surrey) and Dani Robb (Shawingan Lake) also earning call ups to the national program. The team had a historic run at the competition going undefeated in the round-robin: 25-15 vs USA, 43-15 vs England, 37-0 vs South Africa and had a rematch with USA in the championship game.
We caught up with Neilson after she returned from the lengthy tour this past weekend and this is what she had to say…
BC RUGBY (BC): First off, what was the most exciting part about the tour?
JESS NEILSON (JN): I think the most exciting part of the tour would have to have been the first time we played together against the Ontario Senior Women. It was the most amazing moment when after the game everyone looked around and said how incredible it was to play with each other and how exciting Nations Cup was going to be - how it was the best rugby any of us had ever played yet. Going from that game to the others in England, we really built off each other and improved, peaking for the final.
BC: Can you talk a bit about the national U20 team – what made this group so successful?
JN: The U20 team was the most amazing team I have ever had the honour of playing for, I couldn't have asked for a better group of teammates and staff to have shared this experience with. What made us so successful was our bond on and off the field. We were always together, we went everywhere together - literally did everything together. Everyone got along so well, I miss everyone!
BC: What was the toughest game you played in?
JN: I think the toughest game was the final against the US. Physically and mentally people were pretty roughed up and tired, but it's to be expected in a tournament format like this. We all had to dig really deep and find that fire to push us to overcome those factors to pull out the win.
BC: Was it tough to stay focused on such a long tour? How did the group stay focused / entertained?
JN: Some days it was hard to focus but our coach, Sandro had a meeting with us one day and he spoke about how this was the best summer job any of us will ever have. The ability to do rugby for 3 weeks straight basically from 9-5 is something incredibly special, so we should cherish every moment because when we get home, we're going to pine for that job again. That really struck a chord with everyone. Otherwise we just had fun, it was the little moments that entertained people, dancing, singing, skits, pranks, you name it.
BC: Did you get to do any sightseeing while on tour?
JN: We didn't get to do much sightseeing, we were so busy with rugby most of the time. We got one day off where we cabbed into Nottingham and walked around, saw the castle which was cool! Some people also saw the caves under the city.
BC: Can you talk a bit about the final – what was it like to have such an important role in a major championship win?
JN: The final game was amazing. It was something that doesn't come along very often and being able to start it at no. 10 was a dream come true. We had a game plan like we did every other game and executed it. Another thing that was emphasized by the coaches was that we each were on the team because we had strong individual skill sets and we knew our roles. When everyone did their job, the whole team succeeded. That theory is evident if you watch our tries we scored, all were a full team effort and by the final game we were so excited to play together one last time that it felt like nothing could stop us if we all worked together, and we did!
BC: What was it like to play for Head Coach Sandro Fiorino and the national U20 coaching staff?
JN: Absolutely amazing - sorry I keep repeating myself but Sandro, Dan (Valley), (Jennifer) Boyd, CT (Claudine Tyrell), and Jason (White) were the most amazing staff to have on tour. The three coaches were so resourceful and would take a lot of time to work with you individually if you needed it and their knowledge of the game seems never ending! CT took care of everything we could possibly think of, and Jason is just the coolest Athletic therapist around, works wonders!
BC: What's next for you and your rugby career?
JN: For the future, I am looking forward to starting my CIS rugby career with the UVic Vikes in the fall and one day working towards a National title. Longer term, it would be pretty cool to make the 7s team one day as well as the NSWT 15s. But, I will definitely take all the opportunities that present themselves along the way one step at a time!
BC: Anything you would like to add?
JN: I would like to thank everyone who has helped me get here, or any of my teammates here. There's a lot of support and guidance given behind the scenes and it all means the world. Also, the support we were given by the entire country was overwhelming (in a good way!) and it really helped us keep going 'til the final game!