Mandy Marchak is headed to Buckingham Palace.
The 35-year-old rugby international from Winnipeg, who now calls Victoria home, is representing Canada at Thursday’s draw for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
Harry, the Duke of Sussex, who spent time in the Victoria area recently along with wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, is slated to play a lead role in the ceremonies along with former rugby union/league star Jason Robinson. Prince Harry has been involved in the sport as a patron of the Rugby Football League since December, 2016, when he succeeded the Queen.
Marchak, who captained the Canada Ravens at the 2017 World Cup in Australia, is honoured to carry Canada’s colours again.
“There are girls who have been working tirelessly for the last two years to build rugby league in Canada and have been doing such a good job,” she said in an e-mail between fighting a West Coast snowstorm and getting on her flight to England. “I thought this would have been a great opportunity to reward their efforts, but like the community we are in, they selflessly asked me to represent them.
“I couldn’t be happier to be the one that gets to stand up for the team. To be in England, at Buckingham Palace, hosted by the Duke of Sussex seems pretty surreal. England is a Mecca for rugby in all codes. So to be present for the draw will be electric.”
Canada will join two-time defending champion Australia, host England, Brazil, the Cook Islands, France, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in the women’s competition, which runs Nov. 13 to 27 in England. New Zealand won the first three editions of the tournament and was runner-up in 2013 and ‘17.
Sixteen teams will contest the men’s title with host England, defending champion Australia, New Zealand and Tonga heading up each of the four groups.
The eight quarter-finalists from the 2017 tournament qualified automatically, with the other eight berths decided in regional qualifying. Jamaica won the North American men’s qualifier, which also featured Canada, Chile and the United States. The runner-up Americans then lost a playoff to the Cook Islands.
The men’s event, which runs Oct. 23 to Nov. 27, also features Fiji, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Scotland and Wales.
Eight teams, including defending champion France, will contest the wheelchair tournament.
At the 2017 women’s tournament, a fledgling Canada side lost 50-4 to New Zealand before beating Papua New Guinea 22-8 for its first ever international win. The Canadian women finished the pool stage with an 88-0 loss to Australia. They were then beaten again, 58-6, by Australia in the semi-finals.
“The last World Cup was incredible,” Marchak said. “The group of girls, the coaches, the setting was perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing. Not even our lack of experience. We just got better and better and grew closer and stronger as the tournament went on. It was a real proud moment for us. To come together like that in such a short time. It was fun. Very memorable.”
Marchak is looking forward to her seventh World Cup. She also competed at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 rugby union World Cups and the 2009 and ‘13 Sevens World Cup.
She pointed to the recent East versus West Canada Ravens match as proof of the sport’s growth at home.
“I can not wait to see what we bring to 2021 ...The interest is growing, the members are growing, the commitment to the game is growing. The people on the ground doing the work are doing the right things and it is going to pay off. It is exciting.”
The success of the Toronto Wolfpack, which has won promotion to England’s top-tier Betfred Super League, has also given rugby league a domestic boost.
The World Cup women’s draw will split the teams into three pots, with England (hosts) and Australia (reigning champions) already preallocated into Group A and B, respectively.
The other six teams have been divided into three pots depending on world ranking. Pot 1 features New Zealand and Papua New Guinea while Pot 2 has fifth-ranked Canada and France and Pot 3 the Cook Islands and Brazil.
The top two from the two pools advance to the semi-finals.
The hope is Canada finds itself alongside England, Papua New Guinea and Brazil. A worst-case scenario would be Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.
The Canadian women had less than a year to form a team and learn the game ahead of the 2017 tournament.
Marchak announced her retirement from rugby in May, 2016, citing injuries. She took 13 months off to let her body recover and then decided to try her hand at rugby league. The hard-nosed runner joined other rugby union veterans in Andrea Burk, Gillian Hoag, Stevi Schnoor and Natasha Smith on the 2017 Ravens squad.
Canada coach Mike Castle, an Australian who works in the developmental side of rugby league Down Under, plans to tour Canada in June looking for rugby league talent with a camp scheduled for October.
“We were really blessed with the people who put their hand up last time,” Castle said from Australia. “It’s not going to be as easy this time – there’s going to be a little more expectation on us. But that’s the challenge I’m actually looking forward [to], in seeing who else we can unearth.”
He expects higher standards all around, with the women’s game now professional in Australia. English players, meanwhile, take part in the Women’s Super League.
“We’ll definitely will be behind in that respect. But that’s okay. Canada’s definitely got the athletes to compete. It’s just getting them some rugby league experience.”
A rugby league team is made up of 13 players with four on the bench. Each team is only allowed six tackles (plays) before the ball changes hands. A try is worth four points and a conversion two.
Rugby union teams are made up of 15 starters with eight substitutes. Play is more continuous and a try is worth five points and a conversion two.