Canada's teams enter the final stop of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Paris facing very different challenges.
While the men look to finish their campaign strong following just their second appearance in a Cup quarter-final this season, the women are in danger of finishing outside the top three on the circuit for the first time ever.
Both the men's and women's tournaments are being streamed live on CBCSports.ca, beginning with women's pool play on Friday at 8 a.m. ET. Men's pool play begins Saturday at 3 a.m. ET.
It's an unfamiliar situation for what has undeniably been the country's most successful rugby team, with accolades that include a bronze medal from the 2016 Summer Olympics and frequent appearances on World Series podiums.
"It's been a bit of a roller-coaster this year with the group," said Britt Benn, who returns to the squad after missing the previous tournament in Langford, B.C., due to injury.
"We're not changing how we play, we're just making some adjustments here and there."
The women's team enters Paris tied for fourth place in the overall standings with the United States and 10 points behind France. Should the hosts finish fifth or better this weekend, the Canadians would fall short of that proverbial podium. Even a tournament win wouldn't guarantee a spot in the top three for Canada.
For Benn, this season has been about "getting comfortable with the uncomfortable" in a sport with a razor-thin margin for error.
"When we dipped below top three, I think that was a big challenge," the 29-year-old from Napanee, Ont., said. "We just have to tighten up our game a little bit and make sure that we don't make those defensive errors or offensive errors."
Still believing despite struggles
While the women's team has had three and a half weeks since finishing fifth in Langford, the men enter Paris with momentum following a solid showing at last weekend's tournament in London.
A 2-1 pool record — which included Canada's first win over Samoa this season — kept the team in contention for hardware before dropping back-to-back games to Fiji and the U.S. The Canadians left Twickenham Stadium in ninth place, but will need another strong performance to remain in the top 10 by season's end.
Canada's 29-10 win over Russia secured them a spot in tomorrow's Cup quarter-finals at the men's HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in London. 0:49
Head coach Damian McGrath expects the team to finish the season strong, noting before London that his charges have played better this year than in his first season with the team — even if the standings don't reflect that.
"It's not been helped by having an injury-ravaged season, mixing and matching players who aren't 100 per cent fit or who aren't quite as good as the core players we have," McGrath said. "It doesn't help, but that's just one of those things we have to contend with."
While the men's roster remains the same from London, the women's team will be without top try-scorer Julia Greenshields. The women's team has also dealt with key players missing significant game time this season, something women's boss John Tait acknowledges has impacted the team's results.
"We've had a pretty inconsistent lineup for a lot of the year," Tait said, adding that it's allowed for younger players like Caroline Crossley and Breanne Nicholas to get valuable experience on the pitch.
"We just can't lose self-belief over some bad results. This group is not the last group [from the 2016 Olympics] and this group has to grow and learn and go through some of those growing pains that the other group did."
The Bay awaits
A fully fit Bianca Farella and versatile skip Ghislaine Landry will be critical to Canada's success
against pool opponents Australia, Russia and Fiji. While Canada is undefeated in three matches this season against No. 10 Fiji, the team is 2-2 against an improving No. 6 Russian side and 0-2 against top-ranked Australia in addition to a semifinal loss to the hosts at the Commonwealth Games.
On the men's side, Canada will face a pair of familiar foes in No. 2 South Africa and No. 15 Russia — both of whom were pool opponents in London — as well as No. 11 Scotland. The Canadians will need captain Nathan Hirayama and breakout speedster Justin Douglas to keep contributing if the team has a shot of earning its first win of the season against the vaunted Blitzboks.
Once this tournament wraps, both the men's and women's squads will set their sights on San Francisco. The Rugby World Cup Sevens takes place at the waterfront home of the Giants from July 20-22; the women's team earned silver at the 2013 tournament in Moscow while the men secured the consolation Plate.
While Benn is certainly looking forward to the revamped tournament, her immediate focus is on setting a physical tone in her return to the pitch.
"We're going to come into Paris and then come out flying and hopefully everything comes in our favour," Benn says.
"There's always going to be your challenges in high performance sport, but I think it's how you rebound from your mistakes, or not the results you want, that's what matters at the end of the day."
Join us for a Facebook Live on Friday at 12:30 p.m. ET, featuring CBC Sports host Andi Petrillo and former national team members Andrea Burk and Phil Mackenzie, who will be discussing the sevens season.
Full Canadian rosters
- Olivia Apps (Lindsay, Ont.)
- Britt Benn (Napanee, Ont.)
- Pam Buisa (Gatineau, Que.)
- Caroline Crossley (Victoria)
- Hannah Darling (Warsaw, Ont.)
- Bianca Farella (Montreal, Que.)
- Sara Kaljuvee (Ajax, Ont.)
- Ghislaine Landry (Toronto)
- Kayla Moleschi (Williams Lake, B.C.)
- Breanne Nicholas (Blenheim, Ont.)
- Natasha Watcham-Roy (Gatineau, Que.)
- Charity Williams (Toronto)
- Luke Bradley (Port Alberni, B.C.)
- Connor Braid (Victoria)
- Andrew Coe (Toronto)
- Admir Cejvanovic (Burnaby, B.C.)
- Justin Douglas (Abbotsford, B.C.)
- Mike Fuailefau (Victoria)
- Lucas Hammond (Toronto)
- Nathan Hirayama (Richmond, B.C.)
- Harry Jones (North Vancouver)
- Isaac Kaay (Kamloops, B.C.)
- Pat Kay (Duncan, B.C.)
- Luke McCloskey (Victoria)
- Matt Mullins (Belleville, Ont.)
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