By: Mark Janzen
When Taylor Black was just two years old, she started ballet. Her grandmother, Jill Murphy, signed her up. It was a chance for Grandma and Granddaughter to bond. After ballet class, they’d have dinner. It was a special time.
For the next decade or so, ballet was Black’s life. As she became older, it became more intense; and as it became more intense, the commitment increased. By the time she was 10 years old, she was practicing five times a week – Black and ballet were one and the same.
Little did she know that her pirouettes and arabesques were laying the foundational pieces for Black to one day become an up-and-coming rugby star.
At first, Black, now 18, never told her ballet instructors she had begun to play rugby. At 10 years old (and still very much engaged in the local ballet scene in her hometown of Oakville, Ontario), Black tried rugby. She kinda loved it. So, she began a supremely unique double life. After a hard runout on the pitch, she’d swap her cleats for slippers and scamper to ballet class.
Just before entering the classroom, she’d take a quick look at her knees, wiping off the last of a little mud.
Then she’d walk in.
“I definitely didn’t tell my dance instructors that I played rugby because they would have lost their minds,” she says with a bit of a laugh, now several years removed from the situation. “Yeah, it was serious.”
A year after assuming her ‘odd couple’ sporting sphere, the eventuality arrived for Black to hang up her slippers, opening the door to a rugby-centric journey that has already taken her around the globe and put her among the “ones to watch” in Canada.
It’s a journey that now has her on the verge of helping to captain Canada’s women’s sevens team at the Buenos Aires 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games (October 13-15). And for all that, she can thank ballet.
“I think it had a lot to do with where I am in rugby and how far I’ve come – just in terms of being able to practice every day and being able to concentrate and stay focused in training sessions,” Black says. “It helped for sure.”
By the time she was 12 years old, the now 5-foot-6 Black immersed herself in rugby, joining Tyler Leggatt and his academy team at Upright Rugby Canada. It was here, where Black’s career took off to the point where she’s already won both Rugby Ontario’s junior rugby player of the year award and Rugby Canada’s young player of the year award.
“She loved to play, and she had an earnest interest in the sport,” says Leggatt, who saw promise in Black early on. “She was in it to get better. She was very deliberate in what she was doing and responded well to feedback.”
It was during these formative years at Upright Rugby Canada where she trained alongside – and according to Leggatt – very much kept up with, the likes of Kevin Vertkas (who played with Canada’s U20 team in 2018), Joshua Engelbrecht (who was the Ontario University Athletics Rookie of the Year in 2017) and Callum Tam (who plays with a rugby academy in Hong Kong).
“I think having the guys around helped me early on,” says Black, who trained predominantly with boys from a young age, with a relatively low number of pre-teen girls playing rugby in Oakville when she got her start.
By the time she was 13 years old, she was traversing the Atlantic Ocean with the Dog River Howlers and playing with a group of 16-year-olds in the Heidelberg International Youth Sevens Rugby Tournament in Germany. Even then, among girls three years her senior, she already stood out. After the Howlers were eliminated from the tournament, a French academy side in the tournament needed reinforcements. The 16-year-olds on the Howlers were passed by. Rather, the team specifically wanted Black, giving the youngster a chance to play as a 13-year-old with a French team in a U17 tournament in Germany.
Read that last sentence again and take it in slowly.
“There are very few women who are that skilled,” Leggatt says. “Taylor has an innate ability to move the ball under pressure and execute the skills under pressure. Her work rate off the ball is also very impressive.”
While comparisons to retired Canadian women’s sevens legend Ashley Steacy are lofty for a player as young as Black, Canadian women’s 15s coach Sandro Fiorino, who is also leading Black’s team at the Youth Olympics, is comfortable with the comparison.
“She’s a playmaker on the field,” says Fiorino, who coached Steacy for a number of years as an assistant with Canada’s women’s sevens program. “Taylor definitely has a lot of control when it comes to organizing the attack and defence. With that comes some great vision and decision making on her part, and she has the skill set to support it.”
It’s that skill set that has been the bane of her opponents, both within her province and around the globe.
Not just a burgeoning sevens star, Black is every bit as talented within a 15-a-side setup. With Canada’s 15s contingent, she represented her country at the U18 level on a tour of England (2016) and in the CAN-AM Series (2017). Most recently, she was named to Canada’s senior women’s 15s long list and, more locally, was a key figure in helping Oakville Trafalgar High School win a provincial title in her Grade 12 season.
On the sevens pitch, Black has represented her province and her country, highlighted by a silver medal-winning effort at the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games and a tournament-winning performance at the Youth Olympic Games Rugby Americas North Regional Qualifiers in Las Vegas in March of 2018.
Black, who finds herself in a playmaking role within both her various sevens and 15s teams, was a central figure throughout.
“Her fundamental ability to move the ball from Point A to Point B accurately and consistently puts her above the rest,” Leggatt says.
Fiorino, who regularly works with Black at the Toronto-based Canada Sevens Academy, frames it in a way that evokes Steacy-like imagery.
“She’s either going to make you miss or she’s going to set someone loose with her skill.”
And she embraces it all – the success, the comparisons and the rising stardom – with an inviting panache.
“She’s humble and reserved, but appreciative,” Leggatt says. He pauses for a moment. “She’s genuine.”
Just hours before she would join the rest of those Argentinian-bound teammates, Black took a phone call. She doesn’t sound like a typical 18-year-old. She’s confident in her own skin, yet completely unassuming. She seems genuinely excited to converse. The only time she hesitates is when she’s asked to describe her own game. She doesn’t want to sound boastful, so she treads lightly. It’s admirable.
She thinks back to her ballet days, surmising that perhaps, upon reflection, ballet probably helped build a core and ankle strength few 10-year-old rugby players possessed.
Then, when asked, she considers the idea of what it would be like to play for Canada’s senior women’s side and laughs with a nervous excitement. She exudes an unpretentious modesty.
“I have no idea what to expect.”
At the same time, she knows she wants it. Both Leggatt and Fiorino can vouch for this.
Now, the question is: What will be her next move?
The rugby world awaits.