Rugby Canada women head to Europe in search of Olympic history
Feature photo: Bianca Farella (Lorne Collicutt/Rugby Canada)
Rugby Canada women’s sevens team could make national Olympic history this month, although stops in England and Netherlands still provide a tricky test.
The World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series this year serves as an Olympic qualifier. The top four teams in the standings punch an automatic ticket to Rio de Janeiro for a part in the Olympic return of rugby in Brazil next year. The game disappeared from the Olympic calendar after 1924, but returns in Rio in the sevens form for the first time in 2016. All teams that qualify will be part of a historic inaugural Olympic sevens tournament.
Through the first four stops of the sevens series in Dubai, Sao Paulo, Atlanta and on Canadian soil near Victoria, Canada finished third three straight times before dropping to sixth at home.
These results have Canada in second place overall with 58 points, two ahead of Australia and six clear of France in fourth. However, England and USA (48 points each) and Russia (46) are still within a shout for a coveted top four place and will make a charge in back-to-back weekends in London (May 15-16) and Amsterdam six days later.
New Zealand has led the way with a perfect sevens season, winning 20 points at each of the four spots. Second place nets a team 18 points and it’s two points fewer for each subsequent placing for the top nine teams.
One piece of good news for Canada is that captain Jen Kish returns to action from a knee injury suffered on March 14 during a 31-14 win over China. Canada still managed to beat France and Russia in Kish’s absence to finish third in Atlanta.
“Kish has an array of skills and I’m excited as she can make the players around her better,” head coach John Tait said in a Rugby Canada release. “She generates a lot of positive turnovers on kickoffs and in the tackle.”
A drop in form at home last month saw Tait’s team concede valuable points to Russia, England, France and USA – all finishing ahead of Canada in Victoria, making the sevens table a little bit tighter. The bid to keep surging sevens sides at bay was met with another blow for Tait with news that Kelly Russell would miss the European trip with injury.
“She is a massive loss for us,” Tait said of Russell, “with her being so solid on winning restarts and maintaining possession with her excellent ball skills.” In Russell’s absence a door opens for the 2014 IRB Women’s Player of the Year Magali Harvey, who despite being considered the best on the planet in the 15s version of the game, has struggled to make the sevens squad. She has now earned Tait’s trust to travel to London.
Watch Harvey’s incredible World Cup try at France 2014
The coach said Harvey “has been working really hard at improving all areas of her game, particularly her decisions with the ball and work rate off it. She is in good form right now and she will give us more speed options out wide and at sweep.”
Canada isn’t the only country adding reinforcements. In anticipation of making a big move at home, England has called in Rachael Burford and Kay Wilson to the sevens team. Both were on the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup team that beat Canada 21-9 in the final to win the title.
Also confident are the Russians, winning 32 of the last 40 available points to pull up behind England and USA. A hopeful Russian coach Pavel Baranovsky said “all the top seven teams are pretty much on the same level and are capable of beating each other on their day.”
Canada is in a tough Pool B in London, with its first match against Russia at 8:28 a.m. ET on Friday. Then it’s South Africa three hours later, ending with England at 2:18 p.m. ET.
Friday results will determine Saturday action. All games are to be played at The Stoop in southwest London, with the exception of the third place and final matches on Sunday at nearby 82,000-seat, legendary rugby venue, Twickenham Stadium.