Veteran Canadian flanker Karen Paquin savours one more Rugby World Cup adventure

Veteran flanker Karen Paquin and Canada face the U.S. for the second time in a week Saturday at the Rugby World Cup.

But this time it's win or go home as the North American rivals meet in quarterfinal play in Auckland, New Zealand. The third-ranked Canadians downed the seventh-ranked Americans 29-14 when they met in pool play last weekend.

Canada has won six straight over the U.S. since 2019.

For the 35-year-old Paquin, the tournament is the latest step on a rich rugby journey that has taken her to three World Cups, two Olympics and one Rugby World Cup Sevens.

Getting to any World Cup is special. But Paquin worked long and hard to get to this one after injuring her knee at the 2017 tournament. She underwent two operations and was out for 18 months.

"After the injury … every time I step on the field I just feel like it's my choice and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play again," said the native of Quebec City. "I know that it could stop at any time."

Paquin tore her meniscus against Wales, Canada's second match at the 2017 tournament. She finished the game and continued playing "on one leg" for the rest of the World Cup.

Amazingly she spent a month training for bobsled when she came home. Then it became clear she needed surgery.

Initially it was thought it might only take three to four months to recover. But they found another tear, requiring a second operation.

"It was a tough time," she said.

Restored to health, Paquin represented Canada in sevens at the Tokyo Olympics and at a tournament in Spain in January before switching her focus back to the 15s game. Her return to the world stage there was delayed when the pandemic pushed back the start of the 2021 World Cup from last September to this October.

"For me, when I learned that the World Cup was going to be postponed, it kind of broke my heart. And I had to kind of rethink my life plan for the next year … It was just another shock after so many during COVID," she said.

COVID struck again in June when she tested positive on the eve of the Pacific Four Series opener in New Zealand, forcing her to miss all three matches.

"I survived it OK," she said. "It took me about a month to come back to what I would say full lung capacity … It was sad more than hard in my case."

Canada's sevens and 15s programs have been largely separate in the past but in recent months, there has been more movement between the two. Paquin welcomes that, saying "rugby is rugby and when you get better on the sevens teams it helps the 15s side of the game and vice versa."

The other World Cup quarterfinals are fourth-ranked France versus No. 5 Italy, No. 2 New Zealand versus No. 9 Wales and No. 1 England versus No. 6 Australia.

The unbeaten Canadians, who opened the tournament with a 41-5 win over No. 12 Japan before dispatching No. 5 Italy 22-12, finished atop Pool B and second in the seedings, behind New Zealand, for the knockout round.

The Americans, who downed Japan 30-17 after losing 22-10 to Italy, were seeded seventh after advancing as one of the two best third-place finishers at the 12-team tournament.

Should Canada win, England likely awaits in the semifinals. The Red Roses, who thumped the Wallaroos 53-10 the last time they met in 2017, have won 28 straight matches.

Paquin is no stranger to sacrifice for her sport.

In 2012, she left her job as a chemical engineer and her family to come west and try out for the national sevens team. And recently, her rugby travels and the pandemic have kept her apart from her French-born husband Julien Canet.

Paquin had a career highlight last November when she played for the Barbarians, a prestigious world all-star team, in a 60-5 win over a South Africa women's XV before almost 30,000 at Twickenham.

"Playing with legends of the sport … It was awesome," said Paquin, who was joined on the Baa-Baas by fellow Canadian Laura Russell.

The match was slated to be part of a doubleheader with the men's Barbarians match against Samoa but that was called off just before kickoff due to a COVID outbreak in the Barbarians camp.

That pushed the women's kickoff ahead by almost three hours, forcing the players to rush to the stadium via Uber.

The Barbarians wear a famed black-and-white hooped jersey but it is tradition they wear their club socks. Paquin paid tribute to two of her club sides — Club de Rugby de Quebec and B.C.'s Castaway Wanderers — wearing one sock from each.

After the Barbarians, she played six months in France with Les Lionnes du Stade Bordelais. Upon returning to Canada, she turned her hand to coaching a women's team at CNDF (Campus Notre-Dame-de-Foy), a Quebec City school.

Her husband has taken over as coach while Paquin is at the World Cup.

Paquin says she is learning towards focusing on her coaching job after the tournament.

"I'm not announcing any retirement as of now but I know that these are probably my last few moments to enjoy with the national team, so I'm taking them as is. And if I make the choice down the road to keep going, which is entirely possible because I've been trying to retire for three World Cups," she said with a laugh. "I kind of know how it is when you get a little excited and you just miss it and you choose it again.

"But as of now I'm going to take time to go into that coaching role and really build that program at CNDF. And I hope it's just going to take flight and lead towards good things for rugby in Quebec City."

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press