Home favourites Canada look like the team to beat this weekend as the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series reaches the penultimate stage of the season. They have named settled squad that features proven performers like Ghislaine Landry, Jen Kish and Brittany Benn lining up alongside exciting emerging talent like speedster Julia Greenshields and 19-year-old local hero Caroline Crossley.
A packed crowd is expected on both days at the Westhills Stadium in the City of Langford and the volume created whenever captain Landry and her team run out on the pitch is sure to give them a psychological advantage, provided of course they can keep their emotions in check and use the additional support to spur them on.
Landry said: “It’s exciting to be back home. A lot of us have family and friends in town for this weekend so there it is definitely a special time for us. We are here to do a job and it is just another tournament but obviously it is a little bit different because we are at home. It’s the first time we’ve played at home since Rio last year and hopefully what we achieved there will bring a few more supporters into the game… The fact that we are medal winners certainly gives us confidence.”
On a personal level, Landry could reach a couple of impressive milestones over the next two days. She is just eight tries away from reaching the magic 100 mark and 45 points shy of 800 in her career to date. Both landmarks are well within her reach, if not here then certainly by the time the series concludes in Clermont-Ferand, France, next month.
By contrast to Canada’s consistency of selection, New Zealand arrive in British Columbia without some of their best-known and most-feared stars, such as Portia Woodman, Sarah Goss and Kelly Brazier, who have been claimed by the Black Ferns (New Zealand women’s 15s team). While this does provide the Kiwis with the chance to blood some new talent and give some valuable experience to players from the wider squad, it would be naïve to think it won’t have an impact or embolden their opponents this weekend. Then again, what could be more naïve than writing off a New Zealand rugby team before a ball has even been kicked?
Canada’s main threat could come from Australia, who have a line-up strewn with potential match-winners and who are well drilled by their thoughtful and imaginative coach Tim Walsh.
Captain Sharni Williams is a welcome returnee to the squad while Tiana Penitani and Brooke Walker have both earned their spots back in the team. Put them together with Charlotte Caslick, Emilee Cherry, Shannon Parry and Alicia Quirk, it’s easy to see why teams will be eyeing them nervously.
However, it’s not all old faces in the Aussie team with exciting prospect Cassie Staples making her series debut this weekend. Walsh has described her (to rugby.com.au) as a “unique talent… fast, tough and agile but also, more importantly, she has a real point of difference”. She is certainly one to watch out for in the sunshine and fast ground at Westhills.
The HSBC Canada Sevens will also be a chance for some of the up-and-coming teams to stake their claims. In particular, Fiji and France have been impressive of late and both have named strong squads here. Key to their success will be the talismanic performances of their respective captains, Ana Maria Roqica (Fiji) and Fanny Horta (France).
For the teams not yet qualified for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 (that’s everyone except NZ, Australia, Canada and Spain) these final two rounds of the series will be a chance to secure places in San Francisco from 20-22 July next year. The top four not-already-qualified teams after Clermont-Ferand will book their trip Stateside and, currently, Fiji sit in pole position followed by Russia, USA and France. But England and Ireland are not far behind and strong runs now will see them put pressure on those above them in the standings as all of them try to avoid having to make it through the competitive and demanding avenue of regional qualifiers.