Gillian Florence moved to Halifax from Montreal five years ago. These days, she works as a Product Manager at Kinduct, but she’s also one of the most decorated rugby players in Canada. Here’s her story.
Like many rugby fans around the world, Gillian Florence may be a little distracted for the next six weeks. After all, the Rugby World Cup only happens every four years, so it’s one of those happenings that deserves extra attention.
It’s a tremendous showcase of athleticism and sportsmanship, and it wasn’t long ago that Gillian was pulling on the Canadian jersey and playing in the tournament herself. During a career that spanned three decades, she participated in five Rugby World Cups between 1994 and 2011 — and racked up quite a few accolades along the way.
For starters, Gillian holds a Canadian record with 66 international caps. She was selected to the All World Team in 2003. And in 2017, she became the first female inducted into the Rugby Canada Hall of Fame.
But she might not have gotten into the sport at all if it wasn’t for a keen student at her high school in Hudson, Quebec, who petitioned for a girls rugby team. Once it was approved, the student asked Gillian if she wanted to play.
It was in between seasons of other sports, so Gillian said, “Yeah, I’ll try it.”
But right away, she was hooked — the physicality, the range of athletic skills required to be good, the family mentality, and the culture that instills honour and respect into its players.
“Everything about it. It was almost like [rugby] was made for me,” she said.
After high school, the next step was trying out for the team at John Abbott College, her home for grades 12 and 13. But the college squad was notoriously good, and if Gillian wanted to make the jump, she would need to find a way to improve over the summer. An ad in the newspaper turned out to be the opportunity she was looking for.
The advertisement was for Sainte Anne de Bellevue Rugby Club, a local senior team. However, due to a conflict with her swim team, Gillian couldn’t make the Wednesday night trainings. So in order to continuously improve, she trained with the men’s teams to make up missed trainings and played games with the women’s on the weekend.
She knew the men would be “fitter, faster, stronger,” and it would push her. She hoped it would pay off.
But she was 16. How would she fair against 25-30 year-old men?
“I wouldn’t do it today,” she reflects with a laugh. “But when you’re that young, you’re just relentless and determined to be better.”
Luckily, it did pay off.
Just two years later, at the age of 18, she surprised many in the rugby world when she earned a spot on the national senior team out of relatively nowhere.
“I was the baby of the team,” she said of her first World Cup appearance back in 1994, and adds that she wasn’t selected to play in game one of the tournament (back then, substitutions weren’t permitted unless there was an injury). But in game two, in a win over Kazakhstan, she made her debut and was awarded player of the game for her efforts.
After that, there was no looking back.
She was selected for the following three games in that 1994 tournament and, in the next four World Cups, she was on the pitch for the full 80 minutes of every game. And it was through this sustained presence on the international stage that Gillian etched her name into Canadian Rugby history — she seemingly did it all, and for an unrivalled period of time.
With this in mind, it’s hardly a surprise that there’s now a Gillian Florence Award, given annually to a female player “who best represents the qualities of Canadian rugby as voted by her teammates.”
It’s a testament to Gillian’s determination, humility, and something to remember if you find yourself a little distracted by the Rugby World Cup in the coming weeks.
“It’s an epic event and an amazing sport — I hope I can turn some Kinduct-ees into rugby fans and teach them more about the game I love.”