TORONTO â€” The Canadian women’s rugby team starts 2017 believing a world championship is within its reach.
For the only one of Rugby Canada’s four senior teams that isn’t centralized, it seems a bold goal. But Francois Ratier’s 15s squad, runner-up three years ago at the Women’s Rugby World Cup, has battled England for No. 2 in the world rankings in recent months and will get an early crack at top-ranked New Zealand at the World Cup this August in Ireland.
“I completely believe in this team and what we can do,” said captain Kelly Russell, who helped Canada to Olympic bronze in sevens play last summer. “And I believe that we could come out winning the World Cup, for sure.
“We’re always looking to keep raising the bar and keep pushing ourselves to be the best rugby players, the best team that we can be. And we also want to push it for women’s rugby. You’re seeing that across the globe now. Every tournament, every Test match, everything’s getting quicker, faster, stronger, more physical. And that’s exciting.”
The Canadians started 2016 ranked sixth in the world and climbed as high as No. 2 before finishing the year third after a 4-2-0 campaign that featured victories over No. 2 England, No. 4 France, No. 5 Ireland and the eighth-ranked United States. Canada lost to England and No. 1 New Zealand during an awkwardly scheduled November tour that saw them play three games in a week.
Overall, Ratier’s team outscored the opposition 178-98 and ran in 25 tries last year.
Ratier saw positives in the 20-10 loss to New Zealand and the 39-6 defeat by a rested England that came three days later. Canada created chances but failed to execute on some occasions.
“The (lack of) execution obviously is a bit linked to fatigue, but also to some lack of skills under pressure that we need to work on during the winter. The good (news) is that opportunities were there.”
Unlike the men’s 15s team and both the men’s and women’s sevens squads, Ratier’s team is spread across the country, from New Brunswick to Victoria although some have temporarily moved to the West Coast to find strength in numbers. Ratier, whose coaching gig is part-time, holds workouts four days a week in Montreal for Quebec-based players.
“That’s what it takes. We need to be professional, without being professional,” he said.
Russell, for example, was a full-time rugby player when she was with the sevens team during the last Olympic cycle. Now she works as a residential facility assistant at Brentwood College School in Mill Bay, B.C., when not training.
“It’s definitely been a challenge … but at the same time it’s a bit of balance,” she said.
The November tour was just the second for the women that didn’t involve them chipping in to pay for it.
The domestic-based Canadian 15s men were only centralized in 2016. Rugby Canada hopes to centralize the women’s 15s but there is not enough money at present. Russell believes even a few months of full-time training would pay dividends.
“It’s just so important for us to be playing together all the time, creating those bonds both on the field and off the field,” she said.
Ratier says centralization is essential if Canada is to move up the rankings and stay there.
“We are here but for how long?” asks Ratier. “That’s the real question.”
England is fully professional, mixing its sevens and 15s talent pool. France is offering its players semi-pro contracts.
Ratier will not get his players back together until mid-March for a five-day camp in B.C. featuring his top 35 players. He will then cut the roster down to 26 for a pair of games against the U.S. in San Diego.
Ratier will fly into B.C. to work with players there on several occasions before the team heads to New Zealand in June for games against Australia (ranked sixth in the world), England and the host Black Ferns.
The Canadian coach looks forward to meeting England when the teams will be on the same schedule.
“We’ll see where they are,” he said, relishing the chance.
Ratier clearly has a long memory.
“I have, when it hurts,” he said. “I’m like an elephant.”
The Canadian women will leave for Dublin at the end of July for a weeklong camp before the Aug. 9 start of the World Cup, which runs through Aug. 29.
Canada is in a pool with New Zealand, No. 10 Wales and No. 23 Hong Kong.
The early clash with the Black Ferns represents a significant hurdle, given only the three pool winners and the best second-place team advance to the semifinals of the 12-team tournament. There is no room for error, with Ratier seeing the New Zealand game as a de facto quarter-final.
Ratier reclaimed Russell, Karen Paquin, Elissa Alarie and Magali Harvey from the sevens program after Rio but does not expect any more reinforcements in advance of the World Cup.
He had identified three others but says “I know it won’t happen.”
“My job is to improve and maximize the strength we have right now in the team,” he said, citing the current 40-woman 15s pool.
There is talent and experience in a balanced squad, which features a hard-nosed pack, speed in the backline and the ability to play several ways. Ratier also likes the chemistry.
“Our strength is our collective,” he said. “We’re a real team â€” people are playing for each other.”
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press