BRISTOL – Canmore rugby titan Holly Phillips’ head is still spinning and she is seeing stars – not from a big hit, but from a whirlwind of a week that ended in playing in the U.K.’s top women’s league.
Phillips, a multi-positional force to be reckoned with, signed a contract with top flight women’s rugby club the Bristol Bears last week for the remainder of the 2020-21 season (13 matches).
She played in her first match on Saturday (Nov. 28) with the Bears in the Tyrrells Premier 15s and mixed it up on the pitch for about five to six minutes in the team's 36-10 loss against defending champs the Saracens.
“My nerves were atrocious,” said Phillips of her debut. “I would love to say I was cool-headed and ready to play, but I was not. I was a secret mess inside and feeling a bit under a microscope.”
Five days earlier, being in the thick of things wasn’t on Phillips’ mind. It was preparing to fly from England to Calgary to head home to the mountains for Christmas.
Phillips has been in the U.K. since October and the U20 team Canada athlete was painstakingly going through the process of trying out for rugby teams, emailing managers, and keeping her fingers crossed she’d be playing soon. When the holiday season neared and nothing firm was in place, Phillips booked a flight back to Canada.
But “out of the blue,” she got a call from the Bears, the team she had her heart set on joining, and was offered a contract.
“I was like, ‘Oh geez, I got a flight booked the next day,’ ” said Phillips. “They said there was an 80 per cent chance I'd be playing on the weekend, so I cancelled the flight ... It was a trickle effect all within a week. All my hopes and dreams started rolling. It was definitely all the sudden, but I couldn’t be happier at this point.”
The pride of the Banff Bears girls rugby team, Phillips hadn’t even touched a rugby ball until 2015, but had a meteoric rise in the game and has played on provincial and national teams.
After an injury in 2018 sidelined Phillips and got her cut from the U18 national team, the local standout was lost and wondered if she had peaked in the sport. It was a long process of mental doubts, which eventually lit a fire under her. The determined athlete spent 12 months struggling to get back to the top of her game. It paid off when she re-made the U20 women’s national team before heading to the U.K. for additional training and tryouts.
Before her Bristol debut, Phillips buried herself in the massive playbook and was told to be ready to go in the match on Saturday. The week was going from “one extreme to another.”
The new “baby” of the team was also a little star struck by new teammates such as 2019 World Rugby player of the year nominee, Sarah Bern and Simi Pam.
However, it didn’t take long for Phillips to lose the anxiety of feeling like an out-of-place newcomer in the pro league.
“The whole vibe [of last Saturday’s] game day was just empowering,” said Phillips. “It opened to my eyes to the fact that I can play here. After the first two minutes kicked in, I was like ‘I’m good to go. This isn’t as scary as I thought it was.’ I had a completely different perspective from being in it.”
It makes things a little extra special for her being born and raised in the English city she now plays for. Plus, the logo connection of her new team and her first ever team, the Banff Bears, is an indirect way of representing the squad back home.
“I think that’s the more exciting thing is I can really root for this team,” said Phillips. “I can really get behind it not only a professional level, but on a personal level where I want Bristol to win because I’m proud to represent Bristol because it represents me.”