By Mark Malone, Chatham Daily News
Saturday, May 10, 2014 2:52:41 EDT AM
The offer came from out of the blue: Would you like to play rugby with us in Colombia?
It may have been Sydnee Nolan's biggest surprise in a year full of them.
The 18-year-old from Chatham quickly said yes to the Dog River Howlers. They're taking men's and women's sevens teams to Medellin from May 20-26.
“(It's) just an opportunity to travel and play the game that I love,” Nolan said. “Sevens is the future of rugby, so I want to continue with that. And you never know if this kind of offer is going to come up again, so I'd better take it while it's there.”
The Regina-based Howlers – Dog River is the fictional Saskatchewan town on the CTV show Corner Gas – have been inviting players from across Canada on international trips since being founded in 2007.
They target talented, young players. More than 40 have made national teams. But their tours are about more than rugby.
The Howlers have raised almost $1 million for various charities. They give back to their host countries on each trip.
In Colombia, for example, they'll run clinics and donate rugby supplies, including balls and uniforms.
“It's more than a game, it's a way of life,” Howlers founder and president Karl Fix said. “It's not about rugby and winning championships. It's all about these experiences.”
They visited orphanages on their trips to Cuba. Players initially excited by the chance to travel ended up having more fun with the kids.
“That was, for the players, their most memorable experience,” Fix said.
Those side trips are also what interest Nolan.
“That's what I'm looking forward to about it: meeting new people, sightseeing and working with poor areas to make rugby bigger in those areas,” she said.
The Howlers will play in a two-day tournament in Medellin. They'll train with a local club based in a barrio built on a garbage dump. They'll also visit rural areas and be the guests of honour at a barbecue.
“We're going to have a good time and hopefully make some friends,” Fix said.
The trip comes on the heels of Nolan's standout rookie season at Queen's University.
The Ursuline graduate was a starting scrum-half last fall as the Gaels won their first Ontario university championship and captured bronze medals at the Canadian championship.
She made the team as a walk-on after not being recruited.
“It's a great first year,” said Nolan, who plays for the Kent Havoc. “I thought I was lucky enough to make the team, let alone start. Then to end up winning those games, I was really surprised.”
Her name was given to the Howlers by a coach who saw her at a camp years ago and followed her progress at Queen's.
She was recommended for not only her talent but also her character. The Howlers want players to be good ambassadors.
The five-foot-two Nolan admits she doesn't look like a typical rugby player.
“I'm just so small,” she said. “To look at me, you wouldn't think I play rugby.”
Playing with the Howlers can help her gain exposure and do some valuable networking.
“I'm hoping that I might get noticed through this, but you never know,” she said.
She had to pay for her own jersey and her flight to Colombia. She's being sponsored by Performance Fitness & Training, where she works out.
“I have a lot of help and support going into the trip,” Nolan said.