TORONTO — While the Canadian men's sevens side butts heads off the field with Rugby Canada, the Canadian women open their season Saturday in Glendale, Colo.
The U.S. stop is the first of six on the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series, which this season comes with the promise of Olympic qualification for the top four finishers.
Australia won the 2017-18 title with Canada finishing a disappointing fourth after an injury-plagued campaign. The Canadian women were third in four of the five previous seasons, with a second-place finish in 2014-15.
The 10-event men's series kicks off Nov. 30 in Dubai. The Canadian men are currently a no-show at training, upset with Rugby Canada over their proposed player contract and training conditions.
Coach John Tait enters the season without Hannah Darling, who recently announced her retirement. The 22-year-old stepped away from the game last season for personal reasons and has since decided to return to school.
Former captain Jen Kish, Natasha Watcham-Roy and Megan Luken have also moved on.
All four players were part of the Canadian team that won bronze at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
But Tait's side is healthier than it was prior to the start of last season when Bianca Farella, Sara Kaljuvee, Charity Williams and Kaili Luken (Megan's younger sister) were all sidelined by injury.
"This year we're starting the year off healthy and I think we have a lot more depth," said Tait.
His team played virtually no games outside of the World Series stops last season because it had so many players injured. Training was also disrupted.
"I think that affected our defence big-time," he said. "You need live reps to be good and confident."
The Canadians were also hurt by an 11th-place showing at the tournament in Japan, which only earned them two points. The French, who finished third overall in the season standings by six points over Canada, collected 18 points in Japan by finishing runner-up.
Australia won the season title with 92 points, two ahead of four-time champion New Zealand.
Late-season injuries to captain Ghislaine Landry, the all-time women's leading points scorer with 984, and Britt Benn did not help the Canadian cause.
"You have to keep it in perspective. We hardly had a consistent lineup through whole year," said Tait.
On the plus side, Tait got to blood some young players on the circuit.
The retirements have opened the way for the likes of 21-year-old Pam Buisa, a wrecking ball of a player who turned heads late last season when she steamrollered several tacklers.
"She's definitely a physical presence out on the field," said Tait. "She's picking up the role of (former captain) Kelly Russell and Karen Paquin."
The Canadian women geared up for the season with a training camp in France that saw games against Belgium, Ireland and France.
They open Saturday against Fiji, Ireland and France.
The top four in the final World Series standings will join host Japan at the 2020 Olympics. Six more countries will join them via regional qualifying tournaments in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America from June to December 2019.
The final Olympic berth will be decided at the 12-team World Rugby Olympic repechage tournament.
Canada's goal is to qualify via the World Series standings to get as much time as possible to prepare for the Olympics.
"The only goal we've set as a team is to take one of those top four spots," said Tait.
Olivia Apps, Lindsay RFC, Lindsay, Ont.; Britt Benn, Guelph Redcoats, Napanee, Ont.; Pam Buisa, Ottawa Irish, Gatineau, Que.; Emma Chown, Aurora Barbarians, Barrie, Ont.; Caroline Crossley, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Bianca Farella, Town of Mount Royal RCF, Montreal; Julia Greenshields, Sarnia Saints, Sarnia, Ont.; Sara Kaljuvee, Toronto Scottish, Pickering, Ont.; Ghislaine Landry (capt.), Toronto Scottish, Toronto; Kaili Lukan, unattached, Barrie, Ont.; Kayla Moleschi, Williams Lake Rustlers, Williams Lake, B.C.; Breanne Nicholas, London St. Georges RFC, Blenheim, Ont.; Charity Williams, Markham Irish, Toronto.
2018-19 HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series
Glendale, Colo. – Oct. 20-21, 2018
Dubai, U.A.E. – Nov. 29-30, 2018
Sydney, Australia – Feb. 1-3, 2019
Kitakyushu, Japan – April 20-21, 2019
Langford, B.C. – May 11-12, 2019
Paris – May 31 – June 2, 2019
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press