Olympics in sight for Canadian women's rugby squad

This is when it gets serious.

The Canadian women’s rugby team can take a big step toward returning to Japan next year by doing well this weekend in the country. The Japan Sevens in Kitakyushu is the fourth of six 2018-19 World Series tournaments, out of which the top four teams at season’s end will qualify directly for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Canada opens today in Pool B against Spain, China and Australia.

The Canadians are tied for third place in the season standings with Australia behind the second-place U.S. and leader New Zealand. The dream scenario for Canada is to do well in Kitakyushu and be poised to clinch an Olympic berth at home in the Canada Sevens on May 11-12 at Westhills Stadium in Langford.

“Getting the points and qualifying is always in the back of your mind in the Olympic qualification year,” said Canadian head coach John Tait, before the national team departed from Langford to across the Pacific.

“Finishing in the top four was always going to be the goal for this season.”

If Canada does, it will avoid having to play in the Americas and Caribbean regional Olympic qualifying tournament July 6-7 in George Town, Cayman Islands. Not many people would want to negate a trip to the Cayman Islands, but captain Ghislaine Landry and her Canadian teammates certainly do, and want to get to Tokyo 2020 through the front door and the top-four World Series process.

“The goal this season is to qualify for the Olympics and it’s hard not to think about it,” said Landry.

“But you keep it in the back of mind and go out and do the next thing you have to do.”

The gritty yet swift Landry leads the World Series in scoring with 106 points after three events. Canadian teammate Bianca Farella is second in tries with 18 behind Michaela Blyde with 20.

Rust might be a factor for all the national sides in Kitakyushu. While the men play 10 World Series tournaments in a season, the women have only six and haven’t played since the Sydney Sevens on Feb. 1-3. The Canadian women are bursting to run in real game conditions after more than 21Ú2 months of training at Westhills Stadium and Goudy Field.

“It’s been a long mid-season break and we’re more than ready to go,” said Landry.

Returning to the Canadian lineup from injury this weekend in Kitakyushu, for the first time since being part of Canada’s bronze-medal performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics, is veteran player Karen Paquin.

That should give the Canadians an emotional lift as Canada is as healthy as it has been all season. It couldn’t come at a better time. Tait said this is the hardest roster selection he has had to make since Rio in 2016. Which is a good thing.

“We have 15-16 players [who deserved to go],” he said.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

Twitter.com/tc_vicsports

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