The Canadian women return home from the Rugby World Cup proud but disappointed after a tournament that saw them impress prior to running into a classy French side in the bronze-medal match.
France romped to a 36-0 win Saturday, before host New Zealand upset top-ranked England 34-31 to defend its world title before 42,579 at Eden Park in Auckland.
The loss dropped Canada to fourth in the world rankings, with France replacing them at No. 3 behind England and No. 2 New Zealand.
As the lone amateur side to make the final four, the Canadian women now find themselves at a turning point.
“I think we’re at a really important crossroads here where the professionalism of women’s rugby is taking off,” said Canada captain Sophie de Goede, a standout throughout the tournament.
“I think we can be like a flagship program for women’s rugby but specifically for North American women’s rugby. Us and the (seventh-ranked) U.S. can be really strong. But we don’t have the rugby cultures yet and the capabilities within our (rugby) union. I only know about Rugby Canada but if we can invest in women’s rugby, in North American rugby, we can truly be powerhouses in the game.”
Canada coach Kevin Rouet, while saying Rugby Canada is doing its best, was blunt about the future.
“If there is investment, we are close to something. But if there is nothing, we are nowhere,” said the French-born coach, who now calls Quebec City home.
The Canadian men can serve as a cautionary tale. They made the quarterfinals of the 1991 World Cup, four years before their sport went professional.
In the seven tournaments that followed, they never made it out of the pool stage with a combined 4-19-3 record. And the Canadian men, now ranked 22nd in the world, failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
Adding insult to injury, the Canadian women missed out on a bonus based on potential top-three World Cup finish.
The French took care of that. They were better in just about every phase, outkicking, outrunning and outhitting the Canadians.
“We didn’t show up. We know it,” said Rouet. “It was not a good performance for us. Congrats to France. They played a great game.”
The Canadians perhaps left their ‘A’ game in last weekend’s gritty semifinal 26-19 loss to England.
“Canada were relentless. They came and they came and they came,’” England captain Sarah Hunter said after the semifinal.
“`Canada were fantastic … challenged us in every area of the game,” added England coach Simon Middleton.
The fact Canada gave the Red Roses all they can handle was no small feat given the English women are fully professional with clubs and contracts from their governing body.
In contrast, the Canadian women earned a per diem and match fees at the World Cup. They resorted to a GoFundMe page, raising some $47,000 to help pay for a voluntary centralization in advance of the tournament.
Not everyone could join.
Prop Brit Kassil, a full-time firefighter, had to work. Hooker Gillian Boag is an engineer who scaled back to part-time ahead of the tournament and then took leave to join the squad. Lock Tyson Beukeboom, a counsellor for at-risk kids, did the same.
Prop Olivia DeMerchant has been working to start a firefighting career, missing out on some time with the team to do required testing.
Rouet and flanker Karen Paquin both quit engineering jobs years ago to focus on rugby.
Because 15s rugby is not an Olympic sport, it does not get Own The Podium funding. Rugby Canada has to rely on a helping hand from World Rugby, its own pockets and donations.
Rugby Canada essentially funds the program, with support from the Canadian Rugby Foundation and additional donors, just like the men.
The only players who receive money are sevens players, given theirs is an Olympic sport. The developmental Maple Leafs sevens and Pacific Pride academy players get a “modest stipend,” funded by donors.
With the sport shelved at home during the pandemic, some of the Canadian women moved abroad to play club rugby in England and France.
It was a way to keep playing rather than make money. Canadians playing in England usually got their accommodation taken care of and not much more. The compensation is slightly better in France.
Asked about her future, the 23-year-old de Goede — who has played in England for Saracens — said she didn’t know.
“I’ve always wanted to focus on my career as well as rugby,” said de Goede, whose parents were both Canada rugby captains. “I just finished a commerce degree (at Queen’s) so I’d like to find something that I can do in conjunction with my rugby to become a well-rounded athlete and person.
“What that is yet and how I continue to grow as a rugby player during that process, I’m not sure yet.”
Canada still left its mark in New Zealand despite losing fly half Taylor Perry and veteran frontrower Laura Russell to injury on the eve of the tournament and scrum half Brianna Miller after the second game due to “significant internal injuries.”
De Goede led the tournament with 101 runs and ranked fifth in tackles with 65. Hooker Emily Tuttosi tied for second in try-scoring with six while scrum half Justine Pelletier tied for fourth in offloads with nine.
And the Canadians made friends along the way. Wing Maddy Grant gave her game jersey to a young New Zealand fan in the stands after Saturday’s finale.
“All heart, all class,” said the official tournament Twitter feed, alongside a heart and Canadian flag.
The Canadian women’s best World Cup finish was second in 2014 when it lost 21-9 to England in the final. Canada was fifth last time out, in 2017 in Ireland.
It marked the third time in a row — and seventh in nine editions of the World Cup — that France has finished third at the tournament. The French have lost the bronze-medal match just once, beaten by Australia in 2010.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press