Rugby player shines on biggest stage

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Keyara Wardley, a student at Vulcan’s County Central High School, eludes a tackle in a sevens rugby tournament match in Trinidad and Tobago.  

VULCAN – You can’t blame Keyara Wardley if her head is in the clouds, but fortunately the County Central High School student’s feet are solidly on the ground when it comes to her rugby-playing future.

An all-star last season with the CCHS Hawks, the 16-year-old recently burst onto the international rugby scene with an eye on the ultimate prize four years down the road.

“Definitely, 2020 is my goal,” says Wardley of playing in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo with the national sevens team

Her first opportunity to wear national team colours couldn’t have gone much better. Not only did Canada go undefeated in winning a sevens tournament in Trinidad and Tobago, Wardley pitched in with three tries to show she can compete at the highest level.

“It was amazing – basically a dream come true,” she says, adding that experience also showed her what it will take to stick with Canada’s developmental program.

It’s her fleet feet that have gotten this far, but Wardley knows it will be hard work  that’s going to carry her forward. Although she has national team coaches to guide her now, she didn’t need to look far to see where a strong work ethic can take you.

“My brother was a pro hockey player,” she says of Evan Wardley, who played in the Western Hockey League, then with the Pittsburgh Penguins farm team, and now with the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns as he pursues his education.  “He knows what it takes, and he definitely pushed me to be the best I can be. He taught me that you really have to work for everything you want.”

Wardley is appreciative of the emotional and financial support of her parents Tom and Lisa Wylie, as well as the direction provided by Hawks coach Angie Seaman.

When she started playing rugby in Grade 7 she admits the physicality of the game had her questioning whether it was a fit for her.  As Wardley learned to use her speed and enjoyed some success on the offensive side of the ball, she fell in love with the game.

It wasn’t until Seaman really challenged her in the last season or two, however,  that she totally bought in.

“She really pushed me to be where I am right now and it made me realize I want to continue on with this sport and go as far as I can with it,” Wardley says of the CCHS coach.

Although she’s in the midst of tryouts for the national under 18 team and still has a high school season left of traditional rugby, it is the sevens game (where there are seven, rather than 15 players per side) which has really caught her fancy.

“I love sevens,” says Wardley, of the game that caught the nation’s attention when the women won Olympic bronze in Rio. “It’s a lot faster and obviously less contact, which is good on my part because defence isn’t really my strongest suit.”

She does realize her future in either format requires her to improve her defensive play, and doesn’t shy from hard work.  She played women’s league in Okotoks this past summer to gain more experience against bigger and older players, and is now putting in three hours of strength training and conditioning a day.

The reward is certainly worth it. Rugby Canada will send a men’s and women’s  sevens squad to a tournament in Dubai in December. While she thinks it’s likely the roster will have a more veteran flavour to it, the prospect is enticing.

“Just being able to travel with the national team and going places you really never think of going, is just really exciting,” says Wardley, who is the youngest player on the development team and only one of two still in high school.

While there were more than a few of her sevens teammates who had no clue where Vulcan is, Wardley and former Hawk DaLeaka Menin may soon put the community solidly on the rugby map. Menin, who played on the CCHS senior team when Wardley was a junior, is a member of Canada’s senior women’s rugby team and scored a try in the squad’s recent victory over Ireland to kick off its United Kingdom tour.

Wardley’s future with the sevens team will require further trips to national training headquarters in Victoria, as will the ongoing tryout process with the U18 squad in traditional 15 a side play.

That provides her with the challenge of balancing school with rugby, although Wardley says it’s helped her manage her time better.

“It is difficult but it is worth it,” she says, adding the flexibility her teachers allowed her when she missed a week of school for an earlier tryout was welcomed.

Giving her studies the attention they deserve should also pay off in the more immediate future.  After graduation Wardley is contemplating a move to Victoria, where she can take forensic science at the university and continue with her rugby.