Canada’s fourth-place finish at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in November came with a question.
How long can Canada’s amateur program compete with countries such as New Zealand, England and France that provide their women with central contracts?
The Canadians pushed top-ranked England to the limit before falling 26-19 in the World Cup semi-final. Host New Zealand then edged the Red Roses 34-31 in the final at Auckland’s Eden Park while France blanked Canada 36-0 in the bronze-medal game.
“I think we’re at a really important crossroads here where the professionalism of women’s rugby is taking off,” Canada captain Sophie de Goede, a finalist for World Rugby’s Women’s 15s Player of the Year, said immediately after the France match.
“If we can invest in women’s rugby, in North American rugby, we can truly be powerhouses in the game,” she added.
Canada coach Kevin Rouet, while saying Rugby Canada was doing its best, was blunt about the future.
“If there is investment, we are close to something. But if there is nothing, we are nowhere,” said the French-born coach, who now calls Quebec City home.
This week may shed some light on what lies ahead.
On Tuesday in Los Angeles, Rugby Canada is presenting its high-performance plans to World Rugby with a special focus on the women’s program.
“For us to go forward, we’re going to need some help,” said Rugby Canada chief executive Nathan Bombrys.
The Canadian women are currently ranked fourth in the world behind No. 1 England, No. 2 New Zealand and No. 3 France.
The Canadian men serve as a cautionary tale. They made the quarter-finals of the 1991 World Cup, four years before their sport went professional.
In the seven tournaments that followed, they never made it out of the pool stage with a combined 4-19-2 record. And the Canadian men, currently sandwiched between Chile and Hong Kong at No. 23 in the rankings, failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup.
Bombrys, who took over as CEO in July, is hopeful World Rugby will be receptive to its plans given Canada’s commitment to the women’s game over the years. He notes Canada put up its hand up to host the Women’s World Cup in 2006 in Edmonton “when no one else did.”
“Rugby Canada took a significant loss on that event and then paid it all back,” Bombrys said. “It took a number of years and [it] paid back every penny.”
Rugby Canada has also hosted a stand-alone women’s sevens event since 2015 in Langford, B.C., although World Rugby has now wrapped that into the Canada Sevens with the men in Vancouver.
Unlike England and France, Canada does not have an annual Six Nations tournament that guarantees test matches — and revenue.
“We’re going to need a calendar and start building out an annual calendar,” said Bombrys. “We’ve had some good positive discussions with World Rugby about how to do that. Obviously we need other nations. We can’t do that in isolation. We’ve got to play somebody.”
The Canadian women played 22 matches between the 2017 World Cup and last November’s tournament. In contrast, the England women had 45, including 26 at home.
Canada’s 34-24 win over Italy last July in a World Cup warm-up in Langford marked the women’s first home international test match in seven years.
Canada took part in the women’s Pacific Four Series last summer. World Rugby has also announced plans for the WXV, a new three-tier annual global competition that it says “will revolutionize the women’s international rugby landscape, providing for the first time a meaningful pathway for all unions and a competitive springboard towards an expanded 16-team Rugby World Cup in 2025.”
Still, Bombrys says “at this point” there are no fixtures confirmed this year for both the Canadian men and women 15s squad.
“I’m told that’s not unusual,” he said. “We need to change that.”
Canadian sevens rugby players are eligible to get carding money from Sport Canada with Own The Podium also contributing. While the Canadian men’s 15s players can make a paycheque playing professionally in North America, the women have to head overseas — typically to England or France. And their pay is usually minimal.
Bombrys describes it as “kind of sleeping on a sofa.”
“You’re getting paid a bit but you’re putting other parts of your life on hold to play rugby, That’s your choice. You’re talking to someone who’s done that himself.”
Canada men’s coach Kingsley Jones says he expects 54 Canada-eligible players in Major League Rugby this season. None is getting rich with the top salary for MLR players at US$45,000 ($60,200). Few make that top dollar with team salary caps at some US$550,000 ($735,805).
Rugby Canada has already partnered with the Toronto Arrows, bolstering the Canada’s lone MLR team with assistant coaching help from its own staff. The Arrows have 22 Canada-eligible players on its 2023 roster including 10 who have already won caps.
The Canadian 15s players get match fees for playing internationally and “some basic expenses” while in camp. The men and women get the same amount.
“It’s just about within Rugby Canada’s means,” said Bombrys.
“No one’s going to get rich,” he added. “It’s not a full professional contract like you might find like in a Six Nations or [Southern Hemisphere] Rugby Championship country. But it is a level of financial recognition for the compromises and sacrifices. All of our players make compromises and sacrifices to represent Canada and should be commended for doing so.”
Still coming out of the pandemic, Rugby Canada reported some $12-million revenue in 2021 with World Rugby contributing $2-million and Sport Canada $5.4-million. Revenue was $9.2-million in 2020.
Last week, Rugby Canada announced a memorandum of understanding had been signed with the Canadian Rugby Players Association, which sets the stage for negotiations for a collective agreement covering all national teams.
Bombrys welcomes the move and the chance to move forward together with the players, but cautions that Rugby Canada’s resources “are what they are at this moment in time.”
“We need some time to work on those [resources] … I think the players are in a position where they recognize that. And now they’ve got a voice and we’re listening to them. And they’re able to listen to the organization.”
England’s RFU started handing out central contracts to its women in 2019 with players reportedly receiving between £26,000 and £33,000 a year (between $43,405 and $54,635) for their national team involvement.
While such contracts are not in Rugby Canada’s reach at present, Bombrys looks to “professionalize the program” by improving the framework around Canada’s national teams.
He says the player feedback has been to put the money “into making the national team experience a great experience.”
Bombrys noted that much of support around the women’s team at the World Cup was volunteer or on short-term contracts. While he says they did an “amazing” job in New Zealand, the immediate goal is to have full-time resources behind the women.
“Step 1 is how do we professionalize the program? Step 2 is how do we look after the players? And we have this same exact problem with the men’s [team].”
Rugby Canada is making changes in the wake of last year’s independent review into its high-performance programs that painted a damning picture of a dysfunctional organization at odds with its athletes, staff and supporters.
It is hiring a director of governance and regulations, has rewritten its human resources policies and looking to create stability within the organization.