After being sidelined for some two years due to the pandemic, the Canadian women's rugby team returns to action Monday when it takes on the U.S. in Glendale, Colo.
And not a moment too soon. The women face a compressed schedule as they prepare for the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand, which was pushed back to next October because of COVID.
It's the first test for the third-ranked Canadian and sixth-ranked American women since they met Nov. 20 and 24, 2019, at the Can-Am Series in Chula Vista, Calif. Canada won both games, 19-0 and 52-27.
Canada coach Sandro Fiorino held East and West camps this July, allowing he and his staff to see some 80 players. That was reduced to 50 for a camp in August in Nova Scotia.
"It's been a long time coming." said Fiorino. "We haven't had a lot of time together but that's kind of the reality of COVID.
"The good news is that a lot of the players, over the last 18 months, have found a way to play rugby either overseas (or) U-Sports again."
Those players have gone largely to England and France to pursue club rugby.
The Canadian women play the U.S. again next Friday at the same venue before heading to Britain to face No. 1 England at Twickenham Stoop in London on Nov. 14 and No. 11 Wales on Nov. 21 at Cardiff Arms Park.
Veteran forward Laura Russell can earn her 50th cap on tour while Alex Tessier, DaLeaka Menin, Emily Belchos de Goede and Karen Paquin are looking for their 30th caps. Uncapped players include Julia Schell, Laetitia Royer, Sarah Maude Lachance, Nakisa Levale and Renee Gonzalez.
The Canada-U. S. matches are part of the Pacific Four Series, a new women’s competition that will launch in full next year with four teams competing.
Fiorino sees the England match as "a place where we check our benchmarks and see where we're at."
On Sunday, England retained top spot in the world rankings with a 43-12 win over No. 2 New Zealand. The match, before 9,748 spectators at Exeter's Sandy Park, was the 100th career test for the Black Ferns — and the first since a 47-10 win over Australia on Aug. 10, 2019, at Eden Park in Auckland.
New Zealand has won 89 of those 100, starting with its first sanctioned test match — a 24-8 victory over Canada at the 1991 World Cup. The Black Ferns have won five World Cups to England's two.
England and New Zealand meet again next Sunday at Franklin Gardens in Northampton.
While New Zealand was restricted to in-house matches and games against the New Zealand Barbarian side, Sunday marked England's eighth test since the pandemic struck. The Red Roses won all eight and have not lost since July 2019 when they were beaten 28-13 by New Zealand at the Women's Rugby Super Series in San Diego.
"Canada's been hit the hardest," Fiorino said of the effects of the pandemic on sport.
"We really just started to see some traction in July and August when provincial programs started to get up and running, university programs are up and running," he added. "There's a split of players that have been overseas. But the ones that have been domestic — those are the same people that are teachers, people that work in office jobs, moms. They haven't had an opportunity outside of training on their own or in small groups."
Given that, the matches against England and Wales will be a real challenge.
"The expectations going in is that the players and staff have done a lot of good work," said Fiorino. "There's always the unknown because you just don't know where your preparation is at. But the comforting thing is we know that we've got 10, 11 months to get ready for the World Cup. And this is where you have an opportunity to see where you're at, see what you've been working on. There's an understanding you're going to get better every day."
"Losing 18 months of rugby, we can't control that," he added. "We've done everything we can. That's why they call them tests, because you have to see where you're at."
Fiorino and his staff built a virtual training environment for his players during the pandemic.
The Canadian women have never finished lower than sixth at the World Cup and were runner-up in 2014 when they were beaten 21-9 by England. Canada placed fourth in 1998, 2002 and 2006, when it hosted the tournament, and was fifth last time out in 2017.
Canada Women's Game Roster
Olivia DeMerchant, Mapledale, N.B., Halifax Tars RFC and Exeter Chiefs (England); Emily Tuttosi, Souris, Man., Exeter Chiefs (England); DaLeaka Menin, Vulcan, Alta., Exeter Chiefs (England); Courtney Holtkamp, Rimbey, Alta., Red Deer Titans; Emma Taylor, Scotsburn, N.S., HRFC; Janna Slevinsky, St. Albert, Alta., Calgary Saracens and Saracens (England); Karen Paquin, Quebec, Que., Club de Rugby de Quebec, Stade Bordelais (France); Gabrielle Senft, Regina, Castaway Wanders; Brianna Miller, Pointe-Claire, Que., Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue RFC; Alexandra Tessier, Sainte-Clotilde-de-Horton, Que., Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue RFC; Sabrina Poulin, St-Georges, Que., TMRRFC and Stade Rennais (France); Sara Kaljuvee, Ajax, Ont., Toronto Scottish; Paige Farries, Red Deer, Alta., Westshore RFC and Worcester Warriors (England); Renee Gonzalez, Toronto, Westshore RFC; Emily Belchos de Goede, Innisfil, Ont., Westshore RFC.
Gillian Boag, Calgary, Capilano RFC; Brittany Kassil, Guelph, Ont., Guelph Redcoats; Alex Ellis, Ottawa, Barrhaven Scottish and Saracens (England); Tyson Beukeboom, Uxbridge, Ont., Cowichan RFC; Sophie de Goede, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers RFC; Justine Pelletier, Riviere-du-Loup, Que., Club de rugby de Quebec and Stade Bordelais (France); Nakisa Levale, Abbotsford, B.C., Abbotsford RFC; Sarah-Maude Lachance, Victoriaville, Que., Club de Rugby de Quebec and Lons Section Paloise Rugby Feminin (France).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press