Canadian women’s rugby team has eyes on Rio

The women’s sevens players will be the first to contend on the opening day of sports competition in the 2016 Rio Olympics this summer. They will be the first rugby players to step on to an Olympic pitch since 1924.

That march to history comes through Westhills Stadium in Langford on Saturday and Sunday in the Canada Sevens stop of the HSBC World Series Tour. Last year’s inaugural Canada Sevens women’s tournament attracted more than 6,500 fans over the two days at Westhills and a similiar throng is expected this weekend.

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“Last year was about qualifying for Rio. This year is about getting gold,” said Canadian captain Jen Kish.

“The goal is Rio, and our training is solely based around the Olympics, but it’s a process and the World Series tournaments are a part of that process.”

Canada, ranked No. 3 in the world, qualified for the Rio Olympics by finishing second overall in last year’s World Series. There is still much on the line in this year’s series, as well.

“We want to place in the top three in the World Series standings this year to get in to a good pool at Rio,” explained Kish, the strikingly tattooed Canadian leader from Edmonton.

The hosts will have no shortage of support in the stands this weekend as they come out to the Canadian team’s theme song Hey Brother by Avicii.

“The lyrics [’Hey brother, do you still believe in one another? Hey sister, do you still believe in love?’] are something everybody can relate and connect to and it gets us super amped up. And our home crowd just loves it, and it gets our fans totally jacked up and stamping their feet,” said Kish.

But much was made of the hosts’ implosion in the Canada Sevens last year at Westhills and fade to sixth place. That proved a learning experience, however, as Canada regrouped from that home-field collapse in Langford to win 2015 Pan Am Games gold at home later in the year at BMO Field in Toronto.

“We’re not going to have a choking moment like last year,” vowed Kish.

“Last year in Langford was the first real big home crowd our players have played in front of. It’s the first time you weren’t just a player, and that people in the crowd actually knew your name and who you are. That throws you off. But we learned from Langford, later in Toronto at the Pan Am Games, to treat that just as white noise and to tune out all the extra distractions of playing at home.”

Kish was injured for last year’s Canada Sevens and didn’t play. In an ironic turn, Kish’s replacement as captain last year, Ashley Steacy, is now injured and will miss this weekend.

“That is so bizarre, especially since we are roomates,” said Kish.

“It is so weird that I am playing her role from last year [captain] and she is playing mine [injured].”

Third-ranked Canada (behind No. 1 Australia and No. 2 New Zealand) is in an opening pool Saturday with No. 10 Japan, No. 12 Ireland and No. 4 England.

The England fixture will be the swing game in the pool. The English beat Canada 26-14 in the bronze-medal game of the USA Sevens last weekend in Atlanta.

“We know Canada is at home this time and wanting to reverse that result,” said England captain Emily Scarratt.

“Our group is a challenge and Canada is going to be the toughest game of the day.”

It’s all part of the process in a big year for rugby sevens. For England, which competes in the Olympics as Great Britain, it will mean adding two Welsh players and one Scottish player later this summer for the Olympics.

“We’re taking everything step by step, going through all the stages, as we build to our ultimate goal in Rio,” said Scarratt.

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