With a second-place finish at the Women’s Rugby World Cup, Canada showed it deserved a place among the sport’s elite teams.
Figuring out how to stay there is the next challenge, and it could be a big one.
The Canadian women’s team received unprecedented exposure during its run to the final of the World Cup, which ended in a tough 21-9 loss to England on Sunday. Canada’s games were televised live, and winger Magali Harvey’s brilliant 100-metre try against France in Canada’s semi-final win made highlight reels across the country.
But even after such a successful tournament, head coach François Ratier said in an interview after the final that it’s possible the team might be forgotten after what he called its “15 minutes.”
It remains to be seen how Rugby Canada builds on the historic World Cup performance, the precedent set by the sustained interest in women’s soccer after Canada’s bronze-medal performance at the 2012 London Olympics could serve as a possible model.
“I think the fact that it was shown on TV is going to make a huge difference, because women around the world and especially in Canada got to see what we were doing on the field and see what it was all about,” Harvey said on a conference call Wednesday. “So I’m hoping that it’s going to promote the sport and push females around Canada to try that sport or any other sport.”
But as helpful as the exposure is, there are hurdles. Ratier said fundraising for the team was a considerable obstacle and getting fixtures against quality teams is a challenge for Canada, but not European teams.
Ratier said Wednesday one of the key challenges facing Canada over the next three years is developing depth. While Canada’s roster has star power – Harvey won the IRB women’s rugby player of the year award, while captain Kelly Russell, who Ratier calls Canada’s best player, was a finalist – heavyweights such as New Zealand, England and France have more overall depth and can overcome injuries and fatigue easier.
“It’s increasing the depth in certain positions, and making sure that when we have an injury we can replace her with a [quality player],” Ratier said. “It’s identifying more talent and developing more players in the key positions. This is the key for the next three years.”
And those players will likely have to incur a substantial cost to participate in the next World Cup. Ratier estimated that Canadian players spent about $10,000 out of their own pockets to attend the World Cup and the preparation tournaments leading up to it.
Ratier said it’s a big commitment “considering we are playing teams that are funded, like New Zealand, England and France.
“When you see the French, who are paid €120 [$175] a week when they are away, it’s not big but at least they can survive,” he said. “For us, some of the girls had to resign from their job to go to this World Cup.”
Money doesn’t appear to be an issue for Harvey, who said she doesn’t think about the big contracts athletes of her calibre get in mainstream professional sports.
“I do it for the love, I do it for the passion, and I do it because I love representing Canada,” Harvey said.
But representing Canada is not always easy, especially in the three years that follow a World Cup. Ratier after Sunday’s final said that Canada has trouble lining up quality opponents at the same time that France and England are playing in the prestigious Women’s Six Nations Championship.
There are also some lingering infrastructure issues compared with countries where rugby is considered a top-tier sport for women. Harvey said she was offered little guidance when she first got into rugby in high school, though she added the level of coaching in Canada is improving.
“It was pretty scary because there were no coaches who knew how to play rugby, so they would just put you on the field and tell you to play,” she said. “Now it’s getting better. Coaches are more informed and teach you more.”