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By Robert Belardi
McKinley Hunt wasn't nonplussed when she went to the national rugby tournament in her first high school year at The Country Day School. There weren't very many “niners” that tagged along, but she was one of the fortunate ones to get the nod to start.
It was the first game and her first ever rugby match. It was a league, filled with veteran presences on both ends. Her head coach at the time, Dean Sherman, pulled Hunt aside and offered simple, straight-forward advice for the young, inside-centre.
“If you have the ball, run forward, if you don't have the ball, tackle the person who has it,” Hunt reiterated.
On her first touch, she ran, sprinting and juking past every defender lost in the wind. She scored a try. It was one of her fondest memories as a player, but one she could say, immediately peaked her interest in further pursing the sport.
The next year, Hunt went into club rugby. She joined Barrie RFC between grade 10 and 11. Against the Brampton Beavers, her game-changing tackle solidified a love for this game.
“I got up from the tackle. It was this light bulb moment where ‘wow, I really love this sport.' The sisterhood, the inclusivity, the physicality, the athleticism and I just didn't want to leave the pitch,” Hunt said.
Her aptitude for this game never went unnoticed. In fact, back in June, Hunt signed her first professional contract with the newly-formed Exeter Chiefs women's rugby club. The Chiefs will be playing in the Allianz Premier's 15s this year.
Chatting with the King Weekly Sentinel, she was excited. Moved even, that everything happened so quickly.
“Definitely a dream come true. As a female athlete to play rugby and to do that as your job, it's great.”
Looking back on her young career, it was the move to the Aurora Barbarians RFC; following three quality seasons in Barrie, that taught Hunt the most. She said, the club established a competitive senior women's team with a pristine coaching staff. She knew if she played for them she could go further. And well, she did.
As a player for the Barbarians in 2016, Team Canada came calling. She made the provincial team and then was bumped up to the U-20 national team.
In 2017, Hunt was promoted to the senior women's national team. For her first cap, she suited up to face England. Surprise, surprise. Off to Wembley it is. She had moved to her new position in the second row as well as an inside centre while at Queen's University. Time to put that all to the test against one of the world's most coveted rugby nations.
“I think as soon as the whistle went, it's just a rugby game. I kind of flipped that switch it wasn't that different. But definitely, before the beginning of the game you're staring up at all these people and you're wondering ‘what am I doing,'” she laughed.
She brought power. Speed. She carried vision on how to handle the open field when the opportunity arose. Hunt crafted her own combination to be an excellent player for her country; as opposed to scrawling her way through a system of names and praying the opportunity was there.
That's when Canadian forwards coach Duncan McNaughton sent some film over to Exeter in April. In June, Hunt signed for the Exeter Chiefs along with a trio of Canadian compatriots such as Taylor Black, Emily Tuttosi and Olivia DeMerchant.
“To know that it started with me, as her first high school coach and now she's gone on to play professionally, it does make me proud. I'm happy for her and I'm happy for the program as well and my co-coaches and all the girls that supported her,” Sherman said over the phone back in August.
All four will further enhance their game under former England international coaches Susie Appleby and Amy Garnet.
Hunt says Appleby and Garnet have been incredible in welcoming her and the new players to the team. The players have been welcoming and the city; a rugby-passionate town, has been more than welcoming, aiding all the players on the roster.
The league kicked off two weeks ago. In Hunt's first ever pro match, the Exeter Chiefs lost to Gloucester-Hartpury, 34-14. Although a lop-sided victory, Hunt says the group improved in training. Last Saturday, the Chiefs fell to the Bristol Bears 24-22 in a match where Hunt said, she performed very well.
She is settling into the city of Exeter comfortably. Black is living with her in her accommodation from the club. Hunt says, Exeter is a nice-sized city, with extremely passionate supporters. They'll do anything for pro players in the rugby club.
For her first time living in the United Kingdom, everything has been running smoothly. Hunt's grandfather was born in Edenborough, Scotland and she has family scattered across England.
She hopes to win a premiership title with Exeter while also securing a World Cup title with the national team next year in New Zealand. One try in rugby. One tackle. To now, many trys and many significant tackles later and here she is. On the grandest stage of women's rugby. On the grandest stage representing Team Canada.
Excerpt: McKinley Hunt wasn’t nonplussed when she went to the national rugby tournament in her first high school year at The Country Day School. There weren’t very many “niners” that tagged along, but she was one of the fortunate ones to get the nod to start.
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