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Bristol Bears' Holly Phillips reflects on emotional season overseas

Local rugby star Holly Phillips was a fifth stringer on the Bristol Bears to start the season. She finished it as the team's starting loosehead prop.

BRISTOL – Holly Phillips’ British accent is returning.

It’s in a transition stage, similar to a twangy mix of old Canadian and English habits colliding – and the up-and-coming Bristol Bears rugby player knows it.

“If I had a penny for every time someone said that I wouldn’t have to work and I could potentially fund the whole premiership myself,” said Phillips, with a laugh at her home in Bristol, England.

And after receiving an invite to return to the team this pre-season, her accent seems destined to develop along side her elite abilities on the pitch.

The Canmore-raised athlete just completed her first season in the top tier women’s league the Allainz Premier 15s, playing in her birth city about 230 kilometres west of London.

The former Rugby Canada U20 powerhouse has been mostly in the United Kingdom since last fall pursuing her starry dreams, which picked up steam last November when she signed and sequentially begin playing for the Bears.

A self-proclaimed fifth stringer upon arrival, Phillips’ unmatched determination landed the hungry 21-year-old in the starting line-up six times in 12 games played.

“The level [of play] is much higher, which is fantastic for my development so far because it's sort of allowed me not to take my foot off the pedal,” Phillips said. “It opens your eyes as to how a lot of these athletes in this premiership work ... it becomes a massive part of your life.

“From a performance point of view, I can say I finished the season as the Bristol Bears’ starting loosehead prop. From Banff Bears little prop to now is sort of those milestones I can definitely look back on.”

Phillips was invited to the 2021-22 pre-season camps this summer, where she’ll be in the thick of things in scrums, with the new season beginning September.

“This will be my first pre-season with a premiership team, which is something that I am very nervous about but obviously very excited for the opportunity,” she said. “But I really like Bristol so it’s definitely a place where I want to play next season.”

Like many major Northern American sports, rugby and soccer in the U.K. are allowed during COVID-19 with regulations and protocols in place.

Transitioning to a new life during a pandemic had its ups and downs for the young adult, who found it difficult finding her footing.

Although being born in Bristol and having relatives there, the challenges of COVID-19 was putting a massive strain on her family relationships, and uprooting to a new home and lifestyle tested her mental balance.

“Being over in the U.K. in a pandemic and going through a lot of my own personal stuff, rugby was definitely a light in a very dark place,” said Phillips.

The irresolute times were cloudy and stormy, and even if she had doubts about playing many minutes, she was still absorbing the experience in any way.

“I can play these moments back in my head, phoning my mom and dad and just talking to a few people over here and saying, ‘I’m just happy to be involved,’” she said.

Phillips’ parents advised her to push forward on and off the pitch.

It was around then where Phillips returned to what she knows from her days in Canada: grit and determination.

Phillips started a goal list to get out of the basement of player rankings. She began training harder, and playing better – making herself available to play in every game, even if only for a few minutes.

After all, she sacrificed a lot; leaving the comfort of friends and family in Alberta to pursue her dream in a different country. 

Why not give it hell?

“Instead of being fifth string, I got up to third string,” said Phillips. “Then for a while there I was in limbo in the backup, replacement prop.

“As much as I wanted that to be enough for me ... I was like, ‘that’s not good enough.’”

Her persistent efforts hadn’t gone unnoticed by the observant coaching staff.

Phillips was beginning to start in matches, but as she put it, it was for a number of reasons such as other players’ lack of availability or injuries.

But when she got the nod for March 28 against the Worcester Warriors, it was different moment for the hungry athlete.

“It was my first start based off merit,” said Phillips.

Suddenly, a major life achievement she worked for and earned had been served up on a silver platter.

After the match, Phillips video called her parents seven hours behind in Canmore. 

She was “bawling her eyes out” with “happy tears”, she recalls.

“It was a goal of mine to start based on merit and do it once; I did it several times after that,” she Phillips.

Phillips not only trains and plays full-time with the Bears, but she works full-time as a care assistant in a seniors home.

Working with vulnerable people, Phillips had to disclose that she could come in contact with someone showing symptoms or is even COVID-19 positive. 

The other side of a rough rugby player to taking the position was looking like she picked a
fight with a train.

“My body took probably one of the worst beatings it had over the past eight months, so it was the fact that I was showing up to work to look after vulnerable old people with black eyes, with bruises, with cuts and scrapes ... it had to be known I was playing rugby,” said Phillips.

Being in the U.K. with rugby is similar to hockey fandom in Canada, and the seniors at the residence – many being die hard rugby fans – appreciated a Bristol Bear assisting in the day-to-day

The seniors home even shows Bristol games on a big screen in the common area so they can cheer on their “mini celebrity.”

“A lot of these residents know their rugby and know what they’re talking about, so that was probably one of my toughest audiences is a bunch of old folks with nothing better to do than give me a hounding on my performances, but honestly, I loved it,” she said.

The loosehead prop is taking time to relax and enjoy her first full U.K. summer in some time. 

When September comes around, it’s back to business.

“I still have a long ways to go to get to where I want to be,” she said.

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

Jordan Small joined the Outlook in 2014 and covers the vast world of sports in the Bow Valley. A Barrie, Ont. native, he also wrote for RMO's Mountain Guide section and the MD of Bighorn beat.
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