A season of change wraps up this weekend in Toulouse, France, for the Canadian women's rugby sevens side.
While the eighth-ranked Canadians have not made the podium as they have in the past, coach Jack Hanratty believes the depth developed this year on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, in part due to a rash of injuries, bodes well for the future.
"We've left 11 players at home for this trip, which obviously is a tough thing to say," said Hanratty. "But it also means that we've used more players in a World Series event than any other team this year which has its positives.
"I'd much prefer to swap that and be challenging for an automatic Olympic place this weekend but it wasn't to be."
New Zealand (with 118 points), No. 2 Australia (102 points) and the third-ranked Americans (90 points) have already secured qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics by virtue of a guaranteed top-four finish in the season standings.
France is fourth (with 78 points) but has an Olympic berth as host, That leaves No. 5 Ireland (64), No. 6 Fiji (62) and No. 7 Britain (60) to fight it out this weekend in the season's seventh and final stop for the final automatic Olympic entry.
The Canadian women, who underwent a massive turnover following the Tokyo Olympics, are coming off back-to-back sixth-place finishes in Vancouver and Hong Kong, their best showing of the season.
"This was a program that was used to winning, used to being on podiums, so we knew that this was always going to be a time of transition," said Hanratty. "And it's not as if we go into these tournaments not wanting, expecting and really vying to get on podiums. But we also need to be very self-aware about the experience, we need to be self-aware with the training blocks, we need to be self-aware with the injuries.
"It's not excuses. It's just the stage that we are at. We don't want to go into an Olympic year not being able to be challenging (for) top five and top four and hopefully getting into those medal games."
Injuries have added to that challenge. By the end of the weekend, Hanratty says he will have used 22 players this season.
"For us to come out of that, it's not a success but it does give us that framework for us to make a really positive run over the next year."
Canada (36 points) is in Pool A with New Zealand, the U.S. and invitational side Poland in Toulouse.
New Zealand, which has won five of six tournaments to date this season, can clinch the World Series title by qualifying for the quarterfinals this weekend.
The tournament runs Friday through Sunday at Stade Ernest-Wallon with 16 men’s and 12 women’s teams in action.
It's the penultimate stop of the 11-event season for the men, who wrap up play May 20-21 in London where the 14th-ranked Canadians will be fighting to retain their status as a core team next season.
The men's field is being reduced to 12 from 16 teams next season to align with the women's competition and Olympic field.
After Toulouse the 15th-ranked men's team will be relegated. The 12th-, 13th- and 14th-ranked sides will join Tonga, the Challenger Series winners, in a four-team relegation playoff in London to determine the final core team for 2024,
Uruguay currently stands 11th with 49 points ahead of Spain (48 points), Kenya (37 points), Canada (24) and Japan (16).
Japan will escape automatic relegation if it makes the cup quarterfinals and the Canadian finishes last or second-to-last this weekend.
The Series-leading New Zealand men (160 points) qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympics by winning last time out in Singapore, with the three remaining automatic berths to be filled over the next two weekends. No. 2 Argentina (140 points) can qualify this weekend by making the cup semifinals, while No. 3 Fiji (130 points) can secure its spot if it wins the title in France.
France (122 points) stands fourth ahead of Australia (112), Samoa (111) and South Africa (106). Points available in Toulouse range from 22 for the winner to one each for the teams that finish tied for 15th.
The Canadian women have spent the last two weeks in France preparing for their World Series finale, a stay that included four days scrimmaging with the French development team.
Under Hanratty and women's 15 coach Kevin Rouet, there has been more cross-pollination between the sevens and 15s sides.
"It's a new mindset and it's new for the rugby community," said Hanratty. "Myself and Kevin work very closely together. He's been with us over the last number of weeks and I was with him at the 15s World Cup.
"We're trying to create this new hybrid model and we're trying to develop Canadian rugby players as opposed or sevens players or 15s players," he added. "That's because we have different problems and we've different opportunities than other countries. So if we specialize, it might mean that these players don't get to play and learn from different coaches or different pressures."
Canada 15s captain Sophie de Goede, a nominee for World Rugby Women's 15s Player of the Year award in 2022, will make her World Series sevens debut in France. She has already spent time training with the sevens squad.
"Sophie is a complete professional," said Hanratty, who named de Goede captain when he coached the Canadian under-20 team.
Fancy Bermudez returns to the sevens squad after making an impressive international 15s debut in March against South Africa. Former sevens player Sabrina Poulin is also back after being part of Canada's 15s campaign at the Rugby World Cup late last year.
Eden Kilgour, a speedster from the Maple Leaf Academy team, makes her international debut at the senior level.
Hanratty is missing the injured Bianca Farella, Florence Symonds, Nakisa Levale, Keyara Wardley, Charity Williams, Krissy Scurfield, Renee Gonzalez, Asia Hogan-Rochester, Pamphinette Buisa, Chloe Daniels and Carissa Norsten.
The French event marks the Canadian women's final competition ahead of the Rugby Americas North Sevens Olympic qualifier in August in Langford, B.C. Hanratty hopes that the majority of the injured players will be back for that tournament or the Pan American Games in October-November.
The Toulouse tournament marks the debut of Jocelyn Barrieau as Hanratty’s assistant coach. Barrieau has served as head coach of Concordia University’s women’s rugby team since 2018 and has experience with the women’s sevens team from the 2022 Commonwealth Games and 2022 Rugby World Cup Sevens.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press