Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of rugby in Trinidad and Tobago, and it seems fitting that the country’s union will embrace that milestone with its first female president.
Maria Thomas defeated the incumbent Colin Peters last month to be elected as the head of the Trinidad and Tobago Rugby Football Union on an initial one-year term, winning almost two-thirds of the vote.
“It’s an amazing feeling, and I think what I’m most proud of is the community that I represent and the way that the management and the entire community engaged in the process of election,” Thomas told World Rugby.
“I’m glad that there was a significant amount of support, that was obvious from the numbers.
“Also, because I kept in communication with all of the clubs, I think that even those who voted for the past president, Colin Peters, everyone is dedicated to making rugby better.
“And, I feel like this election process, one of the positive things about it, I could even compare it almost to putting together a team where everyone is putting forward their best efforts and it results in the best team being chosen.”
Thomas could not have envisioned making such an impact on the country’s rugby community when she “tagged along” to rugby training with her male cousins, having moved to the Caribbean country from Canada following the completion of her university studies.
Back then, she admits her mum called her aunt and pleaded with her not to let her daughter get hurt. But, the seeds of a passion that first took root at the University of Western Ontario were already well on their way to blooming.
Thomas would go on to represent Trinidad and Tobago internationally at both sevens and 10s, and she has become an impressive advocate for the game off the pitch as well as on it.
In 2018, she was one of the inaugural recipients of the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship.
She says the programme helped provide her with the skills needed to run her successful election campaign, and continues to provide a valuable support network.
“I enjoy campaigning. It feels like a continuation of the work that I’ve been able to do through the World Rugby scholarship,” Thomas said.
“In every stage of participating in the scholarship, the network is the constant. That’s the family that we have built and continue to build.
“It’s so exciting when more individuals are added… and that basis of support is so important, it’s the foundation that we can have as security to know that whatever support is needed is going to be there.
“The response when the announcement was made was incredible throughout Trinidad and Tobago, throughout the Caribbean region, throughout the Rugby Americas North region and throughout the world.
“So many people have stepped up, said congratulations, how can I help? And this fills me with so much anticipation of the things that we are going to achieve in this year, even though it seems like there’s a possibility we won’t be able to hit the field.”
The biggest challenge facing Thomas as she starts her term in office is COVID-19.
But, while she cannot guarantee that rugby will be played in the Caribbean nation this year, Thomas remains confident that the game’s values can help her bridge the gap that the pandemic has created.
“We are going to be able to do so many more things,” Thomas added. “I had a conversation with one of my team-mates and he was asked, ‘Why is rugby the best sport?’
“And he said, ‘Because my sport is played on the field, but it’s also played off the field’. And, I was so glad that he shared that with me because I was reminded that it’s very true. Our sport continues and it’s a lifestyle of camaraderie.
“So, we’re going to be able to get through the pandemic — and not playing rugby on the pitch — because we can still apply the values of rugby in our lives off the pitch.”
Thomas’ inbox as president is a big one, and she is keen to use a virtual platform to help drive education initiatives and encourage physical participation.
She is also keen to see more rugby on local television, in order to engage people who might not previously have picked up a ball.
“We’re seeing more and more how people experiencing rugby isn’t limited to playing rugby,” Thomas said.
“By having rugby on television, it can reach the population of Trinidad and Tobago, can reach the population within the Caribbean and engage people who may never play.
“They may become interested, they may try to play, they may want to come in in a capacity that’s off the field.”
Thomas is keen to pay tribute to the administrators, and past presidents, that have helped rugby flourish in Trinidad and Tobago since the first recognised match was played on the islands in 1922.
“Next year will be the hundred year anniversary of rugby in Trinidad and Tobago,” she said.
“We have a huge foundation to build on, and it’s important to reflect and remember all of the work that people have put in to get us where we are today.”