Canada Ravens women set to kick off second visit to Rugby League World Cup

Five years after defeating Papua New Guinea 22-8 for their first-ever international test win at the Rugby League World Cup, the Canada Ravens renew acquaintances Tuesday with the Pacific Islands team known as the PNG Orchids.

The 2022 edition of the women's tournament has grown to eight teams with Brazil and France joining 2017 champion Australia, runner-up New Zealand, Canada, the Cook Islands, England and Papua New Guinea.

The Canadian players have had to bide their time for a second trip to the tournament, which was originally slated to start in October 2021 but was postponed due to the pandemic.

"Obviously the first game at the World Cup is a big event and they're expecting a big crowd at Headingley Stadium. So there's a few nerves but mainly excitement I think, which is great," said Ravens head coach Mike Castle, an Australian who commutes to coach Canada on a non-paid basis.

"The camaraderie around the squad's outstanding, probably better than I've ever seen in any team that I've coached."

Rugby league is not to be confused with rugby union, the more widely played version of the game which is currently holding its own Women's World Cup in New Zealand. The third-ranked Canadians are preparing for a semifinal showdown with top-ranked England in Auckland on Friday.

Rugby league has 13 players per side, as opposed to 15 for rugby union, and is played primarily in Australia, England and New Zealand.

In rugby league, play stops when the ball-carrier is tackled. The team in possession of the ball has six attempts to go down field with teams usually kicking for field position on the sixth attempt if they don't score.

Tries in rugby league are worth four points, compared to five in rugby union.

Rigby league is a physical game with big forwards pounding the ball down the middle of the pack, looking to make space for speedy backs. It combines brute force with strategy.

The 16-team men's Rugby League World Cup is well underway in England with a companion wheelchair event set to start Thursday. The men's and women's finals are scheduled for Nov. 19 at Manchester's Old Trafford, one day after the wheelchair championship game.

The Canadian men's team, known as the Wolverines, failed to qualify with Jamaica representing the Americas in the men's field. Currently ranked 38th in the world, the Canadian men start their road toward qualifying for the next World Cup on Saturday with a friendly against the U.S. in Tampa, Fla.

All of the Canadian men and women are primarily rugby union players. Rugby league has a small footprint back home.

But six players will represent Canada for a second time in the Rugby League World Cup: Nina Bui, Sab McDaid, Jade Menin, Megan Pakulis, Liz Steele and Natalie Tam.

"A huge help, It's a luxury we didn't have last time. That's going to be massive and they're all leaders as well, which is great," said Castle.

The Ravens also get a big boost in experience from Laura Mariu, who represented New Zealand at the last five World Cups. Mariu captained New Zealand at the 2017 tournament when the Kiwi Ferns defeated Canada 50-4 in its World Cup debut in Sydney.

She qualifies for the Ravens by virtue of her Canadian mother.

Gabby Hindley, a former all-Canadian rugby union player at the University of British Columbia, is the Canadian skipper. Prior to COVID, Hindley was playing for the North Sydney Bears in Australia.

Hindley, whose day job is as a biologist with an engineering and environmental consulting company, plays rugby league for the Vancouver Dragons and rugby union for Burnaby Lake.

Pakulis has been named vice-captain.

Lauren Mueller is coming off playing in England's Super League South competition where she scored the London Broncos' lone try in a 34-4 loss to the Cardiff Demons this summer.

The Canadian women arrived in England on Oct. 22 for a pre-tournament camp and lost an Oct. 25 warm-up game 8-6 to Ireland. They also had a scrimmage with the Hull Kingston-Rovers women's team.

"I think it's definitely a far better prepared team," sad Castle. "We're a more experienced team than before. I think we've got more depth than the previous tournament."

"I'm very excited about what we could achieve," he added. "But I recognize that it's going to be a huge challenge because every other team's improved no ends as well."

Canada is currently ranked sixth in the world compared to No. 4 for Papua New Guinea. But the rankings mean little considering the Canadians play so rarely. The Ravens last went abroad in 2019 on a tour to Serbia.

Talent continues to surface, however. Castle points to Karina Gauto as one player who earned recognition in the September trials game in B.C.

"She put her hand up. It was her first rugby league experience and she sort of came just in to fill in the numbers with the West squad. She performed really well and pushed herself into a (roster) spot really."

There is experience on the Canadian sidelines. Castle was in charge at the last World Cup and 2017 players Katie Grudzinski and Stevi Schnoor are serving as team manager and assistant coach, respectively, this time around.

"I think we've got a really exciting team. We've got a lot of pace in the backline in Petra Woods and Brittany Jones, Karina (Gauto) … And we've got some really experienced tough forwards as well with Ada Okonjwo and Kristy Sargent," said Castle.

Sargent went to the last rugby union World Cup with Canada.

New Zealand won the first three editions of the women's World Cup and was runner-up to Australia in 2013 and '17. Australia has won 11 of the 15 men's World Cups to date with Britain, which no longer competes, taking three titles and New Zealand one.


Canada's Rugby League World Cup Roster

Maddy Aberg, B.C.; Nancy Bui, Ontario; Rachel Chaboter, B.C.; Brittany Douglas, Ontario; Dani Frananda, Alberta; Alix Evans, Alberta; Alanna Fittes, Alberta; Karina Gauto, Alberta; Gabrielle Hindley, B.C.; Britanny Jones, Alberta; Sarah Maguire, Alberta; Laura Mariu, New Zealand; Sab McDaid, Ontario; Jade Menin, Alberta; Lauren Mueller, London, England; Natasha Naismith, Ontario; Ada Jane Okonjwo, B.C.; Megan Pakulis, Ontario; Ferris Sandboe, Alberta; Kristy Sargent, Alberta; Zoey Siciliano, Ontario; Liz Steele, Alberta; Natalie Tam, Ontario; Petra Woods, Ontario.

Coach: Mike Castle.

Assistant Coaches: Ben Hickey, Stevi Schnoor, Darryl Fisher.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 31, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press