TORONTO — Many of Canada's top female rugby players have moved abroad to keep playing during the pandemic. The rest are training at home, often fitting in workout sessions around their day jobs.
All will down tools Thursday to gather on a joint Zoom call and watch the draw for the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand.
Given the Canadian women are amateurs, coach Sandro Fiorino is used to running a decentralized program. With COVID-19 grounding the domestic game, roughly half of his player pool headed overseas to keep playing with almost two dozen currently in England, France or New Zealand.
"We knew when the pandemic hit in March and April that we were going to be at risk in the fall … because we had an understanding that there was not going to be any domestic play in Canada," said Fiorino.
Fiorino and his coaches reached out to overseas clubs to find homes for his players.
"It was a challenge. It still is a challenge. We have players still trying to get visas."
Cindy Nelles recently helped Canterbury win a fourth straight Farah Palmer Cup in New Zealand. The lock forward played for the New Zealand Barbarians representative side on the weekend in a 34-15 loss to New Zealand — the first outing for the top-ranked Black Ferns in 15 months.
Fellow Canadians Emily Tuttosi, McKinley Hunt and Taylor Black started in the Exeter Chiefs' 31-6 win over DMP Sharks in weekend Allianz Premier 15s play in England. Canadian Olivia DeMerchant missed out through injury.
DaLeaka Menin, Courtney Holtkamp and Sara Svoboda started with Abby Duguid on the bench for Loughborough Lightning in its 20-8 weekend win over Worcester Warriors, who had Canadian Paige Farries among its replacements.
Sophie de Goede started at No. 8 in Saracens' 33-27 victory over Wasps FC Ladies.
Other players are training at home, in groups or, like Elissa Alarie, with the sevens program under John Tait.
The third-ranked Canadians have not been together since the Can-Am Series against the U.S. in November 2019.
The ninth edition of the World Cup is scheduled for Sept. 18 to Oct. 16, 2021, across three match venues in New Zealand.
“We are in unusual and unique times with the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic," World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said in a statement. "However, working in full partnership with New Zealand Rugby and local and national authorities, we are committed to a spectacular Rugby World Cup 2021."
Nine of the 12 competing teams including Canada have already been confirmed.
Seven teams qualified directly by virtue of finishing in the top seven at the 2017 tournament in Ireland: champion New Zealand, runner-up England, bronze medallist France, the U.S., Canada, Australia and Wales.
Fiji and South Africa booked their ticket last year through the Rugby Africa Women’s Cup and Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship, respectively.
The remaining three places will go to qualifiers from Asia and Europe plus the winner of a world repechage, a final qualification competition that is being held for the first time for the women.
World Rugby has used the January 2020 world rankings to determine pots for the draw, reasoning it was the last time all teams were able to play before the pandemic.
That's good new for third-ranked Canada, which will be kept apart from top-ranked New Zealand and second-ranked England in Pot 1.
The Canadians overtook the French in the rankings after beating them 26-19 in the Rugby Super Series in July 2019 in California. Fiorino's team lost to New Zealand (35-20), England (19-17) and the U.S. (20-18) at the same tournament.
The French, meanwhile, bounced back to beat New Zealand 25-16
Pot 2 at the World Cup draw consists of No. 4 France, No. 5 Australia and the sixth-ranked U.S., while Pot 3 consists of No. 9 Wales, No. 13 South Africa and Europe 1. Pot 4 is No. 22 Fiji., Asia 1 and the repechage tournament winner
The draw starts at 1 p.m. ET Thursday in the SkyCity Theatre in Auckland.
Canada at the Rugby World Cup
BEST FINISH: Canada was runner-up in 2014, beaten 21-9 by England. The Canadian women finished fourth in 1998, 2002 and 2006 (when Canada hosted).
LAST TIME OUT: Drawn in a pool with New Zealand, Canada finished fifth in Ireland.
TRACK RECORD: New Zealand is defending champion and has won five of the last six tournaments. The U.S. won the inaugural 1991 competition while England captured the trophy in 1994 and 2014 and has been runner-up five times.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press