Canadian women sacrifice for the cause en route to Rugby World Cup semifinal

Canada has lived up to its ranking of third in the world by making the final four at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, with No. 1 England awaiting it in the semifinal this weekend.

The Canadian women have got there the hard way, putting day jobs aside and fundraising to pay bills while England players are on professional contracts from the Rugby Football Union, their governing body.

The Canadians say their commitment to the cause has only brought them closer, on and off the field.

"A lot of the girls have sacrificed so much throughout the summer in terms of coming together and centralizing in order to give ourselves the best opportunity (to win)," said Canadian prop Brit Kassil. "And it's really shining through based on how we're playing right now.

"We're having a lot of success because we have those connections that we've grown and continue to blossom throughout the last four months."

Many of the Canadian women decided to centralize ahead of the World Cup after returning from the World Rugby Pacific Four Series in June in New Zealand.

The 31-year-old Kassil, a full-time firefighter in her hometown of Guelph, Ont., did not join them. She continued to work between July 24 and Aug. 27 home test matches against Italy and Wales.

She stacked her vacation days and swapped 24-hour shifts with colleagues to be able to take time off for rugby starting in early September.

With the sport shelved at home during the pandemic, some of the Canadian women moved abroad to play club rugby in England and France. Some put their work careers on hold while others trained around their day jobs.

Hooker Gillian Boag is an engineer who scaled back to part-time ahead of the tournament and is currently on leave. Lock Tyson Beukeboom, a counsellor for at-risk kids, has done 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.

Coach Kevin Rouet and flanker Karen Paquin both quit engineering jobs years ago to focus on rugby.

The Canadian women are underdogs going into Friday night's semifinal showdown with the Red Roses, who have won 29 straight since a 28-13 loss to New Zealand in July 2019.

No. 2 New Zealand takes on No. 4 France in the second half of the semifinal doubleheader at the 50,000-capacity Eden Park in Auckland.

England became the first country to offer full-time contracts to its women's side in 2019, with players reportedly making between 26,000 and 33,000 pounds (C$40,700 and $51,660) per year for their national team involvement.

France followed suit, as did New Zealand. The new Black Fern contracts, complete with medical and life insurance, reportedly are worth between 60,000 and 130,000 New Zealand dollars (C$47,650 and $103,250) annually.

In contrast, the Canadian women get a per diem and match fee at the World Cup, with performance bonuses linked to a top-three finish.

Rugby Canada essentially funds the program not the players, with support from the Canadian Rugby Foundation and additional donors, just like the men's program.

The only Canadian players who get a regular financial helping hand are the those in the sevens squad, which as an Olympic sport gets funding from Sport Canada. Players in Rugby Canada's Pacific Pride academy and with the Maple Leafs developmental sevens side get a "modest stipend" funded by donors.

The Canadian women started a GoFundMe page which raised almost $47,000 in advance of the World Cup. It was to help meet the costs of centralization.

Each player looked to raise money individually, with half of the proceeds going to the player and half back to the program to help pay for everything from accommodation and food to training kit.

Kassil grew playing hockey but decided to give rugby a shot at 15 or 16 while attending Guelph's Centennial Collegiate Vocational Institute, at the urging of friends.

She went on to play for the University of Guelph Gryphons, joined the national team in 2017 and was part of the Canadian team that finished fifth at the World Cup that year.

She celebrated her 25th cap in the 34-24 win over Italy in July at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C. Amazingly, it was the first home game of her international career.

At the World Cup, Rouet has mixed and matched Kassil and fellow props Olivia DeMerchant, DaLeaka Menin and Mikiela Nelson. Props don't play the full 80 minutes in the modern game, with replacements coming off the bench, usually early in the second half.

Kassil came off the bench in the quarterfinal win over the U.S. for her 31st cap. In pool play, she started against Japan, came off the bench against Italy and started against the Americans. She will begin on the bench Sunday.

Rouet has opted for the same starting 15 as the quarterfinal win over the U.S. There is one change on the bench with Sara Svoboda coming in for Pam Buisa. Rouet is again opting for seven forwards and one back in the replacements, signalling the battle will be fought up front.

Both teams have relied on their forwards, using well-constructed driving mauls to eat up metres.

Canada's best finish at the tournament was second in 2014 when it lost 21-9 to England in the final. The Canadian women placed fourth in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

England has never finished out of the top three at the tournament.

The Red Roses also won in 1994 and have finished runner-up five-times (losing to the U.S. in 1991 and New Zealand in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2017). They were third in 1998.

With the annual Six Nations competition helping fuel its fixture list, England has played 45 international tests since the last World Cup compared to 22 for Canada. Post-pandemic, the Red Rose have had 18 internationals versus 10 for Canada.

England holds a 28-3-1 all-time edge over Canada. The Red Roses have won the last eight meetings, outscoring the Canadians 360-110, since a 52-17 loss in the Women's Rugby Super Series in July 2016.

The Canadians are looking ahead rather than behind, however.

"Everyone's really excited," said Kassil. "The morale is high and we're just really looking forward to the opportunity to beat them."

Canada Roster

Olivia DeMerchant, Mapledale, N.B., Halifax Tars RFC; Emily Tuttosi, Souris, Man., Calgary Hornets/Exeter Chiefs (England); DaLeaka Menin, Vulcan, Alta., Calgary Hornets/Exeter Chiefs (England); Courtney Holtkamp, Rimbey, Alta., Red Deer Titans; McKinley Hunt, King City, Ont., Aurora Barbarians/Exeter Chiefs (England); Fabiola Forteza, Quebec City, Club de rugby de Quebec; Karen Paquin, Quebec City, Club de rugby de Quebec/Les Lionnes du Stade Bordelais (France); Sophie de Goede (capt.), Victoria, Castaway Wanderers RFC; Justine Pelletier, Riviere-du-Loup, Que., Riviere-du-Loup, Que.; Alex Tessier, Sainte-Clotilde-de-Horton, Que., Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue RFC; Paige Farries, Red Deer, Alta., Worcester Warriors (England); Sara Kaljuvee, Ajax, Ont., Toronto Scottish; Alysha Corrigan, Charlottetown, P.E.I., Charlottetown RFC/Saracens (England); Maddy Grant, Cornwall, Ont., University of Ottawa; Eissa Alarie, Trois-Rivieres, Que., Westshore RFC.

Replacements

Gillian Boag, Calgary, Capilano RFC; Brit Kassil, Guelph, Ont., Guelph Redcoats; Alex Ellis, Ottawa, Barrhaven Scottish/Saracens (England); Ngalula Fuamba, Notre Dame de-l'ile-Perrot, Que., Town of Mount Royal RFC; Tyson Beukeboom, Uxbridge, Ont., Cowichan RFC; Gabrielle Senft, Regina, Castaway Wanderers/Exeter Chiefs (England); Sara Svoboda, Belleville, Ont., Belleville Bulldogs / Loughborough Lightning (England); Anais Holly, Montreal, Town of Mont-Royal RFC.

---

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press