As Langford opens its doors to the world for the Canada Women’s Sevens rugby tournament this week, the Canadian team is eyeing the top rung of the ladder in advance of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Sitting in a tie for second overall with Australia in the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series after placing third last month in Atlanta – the top four series finishers automatically qualify for Rio – the Canadian players could be forgiven for dwelling on the one that got away down in Georgia.
The Canadians came the closest of any team to beating series leader New Zealand in Atlanta, dropping a narrow 24-22 semifinal decision to the Kiwis, who went on to humble the Americans 50-12 in the championship game at the third of six rounds of this Olympic qualifying series.
While he’s impressed with the improvement he’s seen in his Langford-based squad over the course of the series, Canada head coach John Tait is cautiously optimistic about the how that result might affect future meetings between the teams.
“That was only our second game against them this year, but both games have been very competitive,” he says. “I think we match up well with them. What I’m pleased with most is we can trade blows with them offensively.”
The semifinal match saw the Canadians leading or tied for most of the game, but as Tait points out, the sevens game is so fast-paced that the flow of a match can change in the blink of an eye.
“We took a step forward at Atlanta. I think it’s not a matter of if, it’s when we beat them.”
But first, there’s a lot of important rugby to be played ahead of any possible rematch during round four this weekend at Westhills Stadium. The host team joins the U.S., South Africa and Russia – Canada beat them 28-17 for third at Atlanta – in Pool C. Saturday’s 12:50 p.m. opener for Canada is a rematch against Russia.
Meanwhile, New Zealand lines up in Pool A with England, Fiji and Spain, while Pool B groups Australia, France, Brazil and China.
“We’re not looking much beyond our own pool,” Tait says. “Three of the top four teams (in the series) are all in one pool. We’ve been really focused on that.”
Results on the first day are critical to where teams are slotted in for Sunday’s playoff action. The top two teams from each of the three pools advance to the quarter-finals, as well as the top two finishing third-place sides. Scoring as often as possible is the best way to secure good placement for Sunday, which means a quarter-final match against one of the third-place pool finishers, Tait says.
“Every possession counts. That ball – when you don’t have it – you’ve got to do everything within your grasp to get it back,” he says.
Without a doubt, the Canadians will be watching the others’ results Saturday to determine strategy for late-round games, he adds.
From a fan perspective, when the pressure and the speed of the game go up, the entertainment factor goes up as well. “If you want to be successful in sevens, you’ve got to play that fast-paced game.”
While Team Canada is filled with superb athletes, some of the best at mixing the speed and power game are Ghislaine Landry and Ashley Steacy.
Landry, from Toronto, has used her catlike agility and reflexes to amass 151 points in the first three rounds, second only to New Zealand’s Portia Woodman with 165. Lethbridge native Steacy, whose siblings James and Heather are already qualified for Rio in their sports, may not have size or her side, but she packs a punch, Tait says in an interview with Canada’s Olympic program website.
“She’s got a ton of courage. She’s our smallest player but definitely one of our hardest hitting players,” he says. She is really evasive and that, combined with her ball-handling skills, makes her a real threat.”
This weekend Canada is without star captain Jen Kish, who was injured in the first game in Atlanta. The native of Ottawa, a finalist for the 2013 IRB Women’s Player of the Year award, is recovering well and will likely be ready for the next round, Tait says.