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Remarkable Canada 'relish in the disregard the game often pays them'

By Ali Donnelly
Paige Farries of Canada and Alysha Corrigan of Canada celebrate winning the Rugby World Cup 2021 New Zealand Quarterfinal match between Canada and USA at Waitakere Stadium on October 30, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

England or New Zealand for the title? Or maybe even France?

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The conversation dominating the ongoing women’s World Cup has largely been focused on those three teams, with their players hogging much of the limelight and profile as the competition reaches its conclusion.

There is of course one other team in the mix, but outside of the Auckland bubble, many would be hard pressed to pick Canada out of a line-up as title contenders.

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Having topped their pool with three wins and three bonus points, and efficiently dispatched the USA last weekend, it’s somewhat remarkable that Canada continues to fly under the radar, particularly when to know anything about Canadian women’s rugby is to know that their success is one of the most remarkable stories in the game.

Quick research highlights that the barriers Canada have to overcome to even get on the field are manifold and complex.

Take the fact that the country is massive (it’s quicker to get from London to the east of Canada than it is to travel east to west internally), add in a diverse climate which covers large parts of the country in snow for most of the year and throw in the need to navigate several time zones and a bilingual population and you’ve hardly got the recipe for success for a sport which is as chronically underfunded as Canadian rugby is.

But its women’s team has been a success.

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World Cup finalists in 2014, they have rated amongst the world’s leading teams for two decades, and though no one fancies them to beat England this weekend, the fact that it is also quite possible, speaks to the tenacity of a team who relish in the disregard the game often pays them.

Star fullback Elissa Alarie, one of three players left at the World Cup who has played every minute of every game, believes all of it gives the team strength.

“I do think dealing with all of those challenges translates to performance and it does unite us. When you have to fight on and off the field it just brings you together. This has been part of our culture for a long time and we are not the first team to go through it. Our alumni has fought as well in the past and we have them to thank for getting rid of the pay to play model here for example and for progressing lots of other vital areas for us. We’re trying to do the same for the next generation.”

Alarie is referring to a situation where Canadian players for so long had to pay to represent their country.

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Former captain Leslie Cripps, who played in three World Cups, recalls well how difficult the model was.

“It was really tough. You were always having to firstly negotiate to get off work and then find the money to play. We had to do a lot of fundraising ourselves. One way we did this was through posing for what was a tasteful but still semi-naked calendar and then we had to sell them.

“It was awful. I hated it. We used to be sent the calendars to sell, and I was in England then and I used to just send the money back myself and keep them all. I was an adult, trying to sell semi-naked calendars of my team to my co-workers. It was just ridiculous.”

There was often sympathy levelled at Rugby Canada, who have scant finance to invest in their women’s programme, but Cripps recalls some appalling inequities where the men’s team – largely unsuccessful by comparison, were held in far higher esteem.

“I remember being at a Nations Cup in Vancouver once and the men and the women were staying in the same hotel. The women had to pay $500 to play in the tournament and the men were being paid $500 to play in it. It was the same tournament, in Canada at the same hotel. We actually had to move out at one point to stay somewhere cheaper. We were joking around asking if we could just give our money directly to the men. Things have obviously improved a lot but that was tough.”

In the lead up to the World Cup in New Zealand, the Canadian players determined that they would find a way to spend more time together, despite not having much money to do so.

Alarie picks up the story.

“Our coach put on the board how many days teams like France, England and New Zealand would be spending together before the World Cup and we were miles behind.

“We brainstormed and we came up with a plan to fundraise and be together. We were five in an apartment, finding rooms here and there and we managed to extend loads of our existing plans. When we had the Italy game in Victoria we said OK how long before this game can we realistically show up. Most people took a leave of absence to do things like this, and it’s been a huge personal sacrifice, but the benefits have been enormous.”

Francois Ratier, who coached Canada to the World Cup final in 2014, believes that the challenges the team has historically faced has had some upside.

“We have always had to fight for everything and with that comes huge sacrifices for everyone involved. The upside of this is that of course it builds resilience in the team and among the coaches and gives everyone a real togetherness, but there is obviously a downside too. It can be frustratingly difficult for example to plan in between major events and that lack of control can be exhausting.”

To England this weekend, and Canada are facing a remarkably similar opponent.

Both teams have impeccable set piece credentials, and both have ruthlessly used their driving maul to score tries.

Alarie thinks though that they can surprise England.

“We know England very well and we do have similarities, but I am not sure that they know us well yet. We have evolved a lot in the past year. If we can bring everything together, we have an underdog mentality that is a big asset to us.”

As for going under the radar, she adds that that suits the team well.

“Not being talked about has been fuel on the fire. Even before the World Cup started, you hear the conversations about the teams and it’s rarely about us. Yet here we are trucking away and at a World Cup semi-final. We feel we’ve had a secret power in our team, and we’re now getting a chance to express it and show the world.”

Whatever happens this weekend, the game in Canada is at a turning point. With more and more rivals turning professional, and with strong club leagues being established, Canada is in danger of being left behind. So, what next?

“The girls deserve so much.” Cripps adds.

“The best-case scenario is that there would be parity between the men and women and that in Canada games would be easy to find and get to. The game there needs to be marketed better – I want to see us celebrating success and celebrating the profile of these amazing athletes. There are other issues like properly paying our coaches too – there’s a lot to do.

Ratier agrees that progress must be made.

“Whatever happens this weekend I hope we can see a strong focus and strategy to support the country’s top players as well as building our club game. We need it.”

Can Canada beat England this weekend?

“Yes,” Cripps replies without hesitation.

Ratier holds back initially and says his team needs to do “something special” to win it, before adding- Canada will hope prophetically.

“We’ve not had an upset at this World Cup yet, so perhaps it’s time.”

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