Some of Canada’s top young women rugby players took to the pitch this week as rugby sevens made its debut at the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games.
And for the record, Team Newfoundland defeated Team Manitoba 24-5 on Monday in the first-ever game played at the multi-sport event. Ten provinces have fielded teams with a roster of U18s and will play over three days at Brock University’s Alumni Field.
Rugby Canada sees this as a huge steppingstone in the development of its national program, one of the tops in the world with a bronze medal won at the 2016 Rio Olympics and a recent fourth-place finish at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England.
Even national senior women’s sevens head coach Jack Hanratty is at the competition scouting the talent which he’s excited about seeing go head-to-head.
“We’ve identified a couple players already from academies,” he said. What I’m more excited about is the players that I don’t know.”
With the lack of national tournaments over the last few years, even before COVID, Hanratty said the inclusion of women’s rugby in the Canada Games program signifies the government’s financial support behind the sport.
“This is special and, if anything, having the support of government and provincial governments to actually help get players out here is vital because now you’re actually picking from the best athletes,” he said. “And that’s really special.”
But top prospect Lucie Romeo, who plays for Team B.C., is just thrilled to be playing for her province again after such a long layoff due to COVID.
“This definitely has huge importance for rugby across the country to start growing it more and re-grow it from COVID,” she said after her team defeated Team PEI, 36-5, in its first game of round-robin play Monday.
But she admits she didn’t realize just how big the Canada Games were until she arrived here last week.
“I didn’t realize the severity of this whole event and how fun and cool an experience it was,” said the 17-year-old Abbotsford native who has been playing rugby since middle school. “I was just like: Oh, yay! Another rugby trip! It’s another time to represent B.C. which is always super fun. But being here, I’ve realized it’s really cool and such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
And that’s really what Hanratty wants to hear. He wants players to have the experience of a multi-sport event that the Canada Games bring.
“I just came back from my first multi-sport Games (the Commonwealth Games) where I brought a team with 13 debutantes,” he said. “We’ve only had eight competitions. … It’s the first time with their nerves. The first time playing in front of a crowd. The first time travelling -- all that sort of stuff and the Commonwealth Games was the first time a lot of them had done a multi-sport Games.
“And walking around here, and I’ve just come from the Commonwealth Games, there so much similarity. There are similar traditions. There’s similar community. And for athletes, first and foremost, to get that experience so that the first time they go away with their country, it’s not a new experience I think is absolutely incredible and valuable.”
Team Quebec head coach Jocelyn Barrieau says the U18 age group is at a pivotal time in their lives with some players moving on to university competition and perhaps the national team.
“Just getting to experience a multi-sport Games, this is going to be the highlight of some of these athletes’ careers,” she said. “It’s also a closing chapter in the age of their lives. They’re finishing high school, going on to universities, so it’s really like a great snapshot of where the country is in terms of its development every four years. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to express themselves as a province and try to compete and win at a big level.”
And its inclusion in the Canada Games program is significant for the sport.
“What it means is that they see us as a valuable sport and that they want to see us develop,” Barrieau said. “You look at all the notables in other sports, people came through these Games, ended up being Olympians and they probably ended up doing so well because they had so much pride in representing their province and then at this big scale getting this huge opportunity and having everybody, the best of the best be involved. And, obviously, the support we get from the government it makes it accessible for more kids.”
Men’s rugby sevens will join the Canada Games schedule in 2025.