Canadian women’s rugby 7s Olympic pursuit goes beyond the physical challenges

Canadian rugby’s most successful team needed a bounce-back season. So far, the women’s sevens squad has delivered.

“Considering last year’s outcome, we’ve really stepped it up at the beginning of our tour schedule and we have some big momentum going forward,” said Britt Benn, an indispensable part of Canada’s core and a member of the bronze-winning Olympic squad from Rio in 2016.

The team sits in second place overall on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series after earning bronze and silver in the first two tournaments of the season and playing with the type of composure and consistency that was absent at times last year when they finished outside of the top three for the first time ever.

Canada’s timing couldn’t be better; the top four teams at the conclusion of this World Series season will earn automatic berths for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. There are still four tournaments to go, not to mention a tightly contested field of teams each with the same goal — something Benn is acutely aware of.

“Time off isn’t really time off,” Benn said. You go home and see your family for Christmas break, let’s say, and you’re still responsible for getting your workouts in, getting your conditioning workouts in because honestly there’s going to be some other player or some other team out there training when you’re not.

“You can’t fall behind. You work so hard and tirelessly that you can’t slip, otherwise it’s going to catch up with you on the field.”

The continued efforts of Benn and fellow vet Bianca Farella will be critical when the Canadian squad returns to the pitch in Sydney on Feb. 1. Farella has scored 12 tries in 12 matches so far this season — one try behind New Zealand stalwart Michaela Blyde in the season standings —  but is quick to credit her teammates for her offensive output.

“The main reason why I am able to touch the ball down in the end zone is because of the collective work of our team,” said Farella, whose go-ahead score in the Dubai 7s semifinals propelled Canada past Australia and into the final against the Black Ferns.

Watch Canada’s thrilling semifinal win over Australia:

Bianca Farella scored a try on the final play of the match, as Canada beat Australia 15-10 to advance to the final of the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series stop in Dubai. 20:41

Farella’s lone blemish of the tournament happened in that final — a costly yellow card that forced Canada to play short-handed and contributed to a 26-14 loss to New Zealand.

“The yellow card in the final was an unfortunate occurrence,” the 26-year-old from Montreal said. “It was not intentional and it is very uncharacteristic of my style of play.

“Without the card I think the final result would’ve been different.”

Battles beyond the pitch

This Olympic qualification season comes on the heels of perhaps Canada’s longest-ever calendar year of rugby. In addition to the bulk of the World Series, 2018 featured the Commonwealth Games in Australia and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco — tournaments where the team failed to meet both internal and external expectations.

“After our longest season, we had a long break to allow each of us to recharge physically but most importantly mentally,” Farella said.

She credits her part-time enrolment at the University of Victoria as a psychology major for helping her achieve a “good life balance.”

“The results [at the] start of this season are a testament to our mental and physical state,” she said. “I believe if our mental well-being remains the same — positive and well-rested — we will achieve Olympic qualification.”

Benn echoes her teammate’s sentiments.

“It’s a constant battle that we have to fight, it’s a physically demanding sport — it’s not just physically, it’s mentally and emotionally too,” the 29-year-old Napanee, Ont., native said.

Canada will rely heavily on Farella, left, and Benn to earn automatic qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Muhannad Darwish via Rugby Canada)

Should the team earn a spot at the Tokyo Games — regional qualification and a repechage tournament will determine the remainder of the field beyond the four automatic qualifiers — it opens the door for a second shot at Olympic hardware for 2016 holdovers like Benn and Farella. That experience is something Benn still finds hard to put into words.

“Nothing could really prepare us for the first Olympics,” Benn said. “I mean, they tried to tell us how it was going to be, but nothing can replace the first time.”

One of her biggest takeaways from Rio was having to regroup for a bronze-medal match just three hours after losing in the semifinals. While that type of resolve only comes from experience, Benn is confident in the determination of the Canadian players vying for their first shot at Olympic glory — or one more chance to stand on the podium.

“I think the girls, and myself included, we’re ready to prove to the world that we deserve to be at the Olympics,” she said. “That’s what we’re gunning for right now and you can tell on the field that’s what we want in our hearts.”

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