Having integrated more than a dozen new faces into the program, coach Jack Hanratty believes the Canadian women's rugby sevens team has turned a corner.
The Canadian squad will get a chance to prove him right at the Rugby World Cup Sevens, which start Friday in Cape Town.
The women's competition kicks off with round-of-16 knockout matches. The fifth-seeded Canadians open against No. 12 China with the winner moving on to face either the fourth-seeded U.S. or No. 13 Poland.
The 10th-seeded Canadian men start against No. 23 Zimbabwe with the winner taking on No. 7 France in the round of 16.
The tournament features the "winner takes all knockout" format introduced at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco, with a single loss taking teams out of championship contention.
Top-seeded Australia takes on debutant Madagascar, seeded 16th, while Olympic champion and second-seeded New Zealand faces No. 16 Colombia in other opening women's matches.
Some 150,000 fans are expected in Cape Town Stadium over the three-day event which marks the eighth edition of the men's World Cup Sevens and the fourth for the women.
The Canadian women, runner-up to New Zealand at the 2013 event in Moscow, finished seventh four years ago. But there has been massive turnover in the program since last summer's Tokyo Olympics where the Canadians — bronze medallists at the 2016 Rio Games — finished ninth overall.
The women are coming off a fourth-place showing at the Commonwealth Games in July in Birmingham, England, losing 19-12 to New Zealand in the bronze-medal match. New Zealand won 45-7 when the teams met in pool play with Canada defeating England 26-19 and Sri Lanka 74-0 in its other round-robin games.
"When we beat England, that was kind of the moment where the celebration was very tame because we wanted something more," Hanratty said. "Our goal was certainly to get to the medal game."
Canada had targeted England in the first round, knowing it was a key match in terms of advancing. Hanratty's team had lost 24-7 to Britain and 33-12 to England earlier in the season on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
The Canadians lost 24-7 to eventual silver medallist Fiji in the games semifinal before meeting the Black Ferns again for the bronze in a game Hanratty described as "one that got away."
He recalled the players and staff gathering in the locker-room afterwards, with new Rugby Canada CEO Nathan Bombrys in attendance.
"We got off the field being proud of the performance but knowing that we didn't want to settle for fourth place. We want a lot more in the future," said Hanratty. "We were all upset that we weren't going to end the games with a medal around the neck, which was certainly something that we wanted."
"People agree we've started to move away from celebrating the small wins and now actually building up to what are the bigger wins that we can have as a franchise."
Calgary's Piper Logan turned heads at the Commonwealth Games in her first international call-up, named to the World Rugby Sevens Women’s Dream Team. She scored Canada's opening try in the bronze-medal game.
The 21-year-old Logan is one of eight players aged 23 or younger on a 13-woman roster that includes 19-year-old Krissy Scurfield and Chloe Daniels. Logan is also the 13th new face to join the senior squad under Hanratty.
Bianca Farella is the veteran of the team. The 30-year-old from Montreal ranks second all-time among World Series women's try-scorers with 157.
"The energy that's been given to her by some of our younger players, she's also expressing it," said Hanratty. "Which is actually, I think, giving her a new lease on life. She's hitting some great testing scores. We're really happy with where Bianca is at."
Hanratty has named the same side as the one in Birmingham with the exception of Florence Symonds who comes in for Renee Gonzalez. Breanne Nicholas and Olivia Apps, who co-captained the Commonwealth Games side, continue their leadership role.
"This has been the most competitive selection (process) since I've been involved," said Hanratty. "Players have all been in form."
After almost 10 months as interim coach, Hanratty was named head coach in August.
He was an assistant coach with the women's team for sevens events in Vancouver and Edmonton in September 2021 and took over as interim head coach in October. Initially it was for the duration of the year but, in February, his term was extended by another eight months.
Under Hanratty's guidance, the Canadian women finished seventh overall on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. Their best showing on the six-event season was fifth in April in Langford, B.C.
The Irish-born Hanratty previously served as an assistant coach with the Canadian women's 15s team, head coach of the under-20 15s squad and as a coach with the Rugby Canada academy in Halifax.
Hanratty was working as a development officer for Leinster Rugby when he came to Canada 10 years ago, initially for seven days to run a course for a rugby club in Halifax. That turned into a sabbatical for the summer and eventually a new full-time job and home.
Hanratty has also served in an advisory role to the Canadian Sports Centre (CSC) Atlantic and Rugby Nova Scotia.
Canada World Cup Sevens roster
Florence Symonds, Hong Kong, UBC; Krissy Scurfield, Canmore, Alta., University of Victoria; Pamphinette Buisa, Gatineau, Que., Ottawa Irish; Breanne Nicholas (co-capt.), Blenheim, Ont.; Nakisa Levale, Abbotsford, B.C.; Abbotsford RFC; Emma Chown, Barrie, Ont., Aurora Barbarians/Queen’s University; Chloe Daniels, Sutton, Ont., Aurora Barbarians; Bianca Farella, Montreal, Town of Mount Royal RFC; Olivia Apps (co-capt.), Lindsay, Ont., Lindsay RFC; Fancy Bermudez, Edmonton, Nor'wester Athletic Association/Westshore RFC; Piper Logan, Calgary, Calgary Hornets/UBC Thunderbirds; Keyara Wardley, Vulcan, Alta.
Travelling Reserve: Olivia De Couvreur, Ottawa, Ottawa Irish.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press