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Canadian women confident they can beat anybody at Rugby World Cup in France

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The Canadian women's rugby team has had more than a few slogans in its time. But this year's model is fitting.

As One.

As in Play as One.

"We're a tight group of girls," said captain Kelly Russell, who plays No. 8. "We really treat each other as family and every time we've come together we've got better and better."

The Canadian unity and skill gets its first test Friday against Spain as the IRB Women's Rugby World Cup kicks off in France. Canada plays Samoa on Aug. 5 before wrapping up Pool A play against three-time runner-up England on Aug. 13.

The Canadian women believe they have the goods to win it all.

"We've done the work. We believe in our systems and we can beat anybody," said Russell.

"My job is to make that happen five times in the next 15 days," said coach Francois Ratier.

Canada's best result is fourth, achieved in 1998, 2002 and 2006. The team was a disappointing sixth in 2010.

The target in France is sky-high.

"I really do feel like we're going to make some history with this team," said centre Mandy Marchak.

New Zealand, however, is the four-time defending champion and remains the team to beat.

The Black Ferns beat Canada 16-8 and 33-21 on its June tour. But there were reasons for encouragement. New Zealand led the second game 26-0 before the Canadians rallied, scoring the last 14 points of the match.

"We took a lot of experience out of those (games)," said Russell, whose younger sister Laura also plays on the team. "And we showed ourselves that we're able to compete with them. We really think next time that they're beatable."

Including the wins over Canada, New Zealand enters the tournament with a 4-0 record in 2014 having outscored its opposition 177-44. The U.S. is the only team to have beaten New Zealand on the Women's World Cup stage and that was back in the 1991 semifinals.

The Canada-England match will decide the Pool A winner unless there is a major upset. England has never finished lower than third in the six previous editions of the tournament and won it all in 1994.

But the other pool games will also be crucial for Canada.

The three pool winners at the 12-team tournament advance to the semifinals, along with the runner-up with the best record.

Four years ago, Australia pipped Canada for best runner-up, denying the Canadians a spot in the final four. Both teams finished with 10 points from 2-1-0 records but the Australians had a better point differential (49 points) than Canada (42) thanks to a 62-0 shellacking of South Africa in their final game.

The Canadian women went on to finish a disappointing sixth, losing 23-20 to the U.S. in their final qualification match.

Marchak still remembers the letdown for that team's talented veterans.

"The 2010 team, that was the team to win a World Cup," she said. "I think it stays with me to understand their disappointment, to know how they fell. And now me being a vet, going into this World Cup thinking this is going to be the team to win a World Cup. It reminds me of that very much."

Russell and Marchak are joined on this team by other 2010 veterans in Kim Donaldson, Barbara Mervin, Julia Sugawara, Brittany Waters and Julianne Zussman.

Russell calls the 2014 squad a hard-working, mobile outfit — "there's always options," she summed up.

Ratier, a former French top division player, took over the Canadian program in March 2013 so has had limited time to forge the team in his identity. Ratier is also based in Quebec, with the sevens players on his team centralized in Victoria along with several others.

Still the women speak highly of their coach, saying he is organized and open to ideas.

"I like his style of coaching," said Marchak. "Performance is important, but your attitude and what you bring to the daily training is the most important. And it's really cool because he focuses most on how you fit into the team and building a team as a whole. That is extremely important, to have everybody on the same page."

Added Russell: "We've really found a comfortable spot where we're happy with the systems we have in place. And he does a lot of behind-the-scenes work, getting everything prepared for us. And when we come out on the pitch, it's business. So it's been good."

Ratier says his team is confident in its ability to execute as needed. And he is pleased by the culture of the squad, saying his players have become one. He has emphasized sacrifice and playing for each other while leaving ego at the door.

"This team is a band of friends," he said. "They are now able to play for each other, for sure."

Canada is 7-5-0 under Ratier with the losses coming to New Zealand (twice), the U.S., England and France. The Black Ferns aside, the Canadian women have avenged those losses. Under Ratier, they are 2-1-0 against the Americans, 2-1-0 against the English and 1-1-0 against France.

The rugby world is slowly changing, however, with the introduction of sevens to the Olympics starting in 2016. Sevens programs are getting more funding, with the benefits bleeding into the 15-man game.

The Canadian sevens players have been centralized in Victoria for three years now and put their fitness up against anyone in the world.

"Definitely our strength," said Marchak.

The Canadians arrived in France on July 22 for their pre-tournament camp.

The commitment of the Canadian women is shown by the fact that they each paid $1,600 to take part in the tour Down Under. They do not have to pay for the World Cup, with the International Rugby Board helping out.

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Canada's Women's Rugby World Cup Roster: (with club and home town)

Elissa Alarie, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue Rugby Club, Trois-Rivieres, Que.; Emily Belchos, Barrie, Ont., Markham Irish RFC; Brittany Benn, Guelph Redcoats, Napanee, Ont.; Stephanie Bernier, Club de Rugby Quebec, Quebec City; Tyson Beukeboom, Aurora Barbarians, Uxbridge, Ont.; Latoya Blackwood, St. Anne de Bellevue, Montreal; Andrea Burk, Capilano RFC, North Vancouver; Olivia DeMerchant, Woodstock Wildmen, Mapledale, N.B.; Kim Donaldson, Burnaby Lake Rugby Club, Toronto; Jessica Dovanne, Velox RFC, Victoria; Magali Harvey, Club de Rugby Quebec, Quebec City; Mary-Jane Kirby, Highland RFC, Brampton, Ont.; Hilary Leith, Capilano RFC, Vancouver; Kayla Mack, Wild Oats RFC, Saskatoon; Mandy Marchak, Capilano RFC, Winnipeg; Barbara Mervin, Velox RFC, Peterborough, Ont.; Jacey Murphy, Aurora Barbarians, Alliston, Ont.; Karen Paquin, Club de Rugby Quebec, Quebec City; Marie-Pier Pinault-Reid, Club de Rugby Quebec, Quebec City; Kelly Russell (capt.), Toronto Nomads, Bolton, Ont.; Laura Russell, Toronto Nomads, Bolton, Ont.; Maria Samson, Calgary Hornets, Calgary; Julia Sugawara, Burnaby Lake RFC, Surrey, B.C.; Amanda Thornborough, Brandon Barbarians RFC, Brandon, Man.; Brittany Waters, Meraloma Athletic Club, Vancouver; Julianne Zussman, Town of Mount Royal RFC, Montreal.

Head Coach: Francois Ratier

Forwards Coach: Gary Dukelow

Backs Coach: Colette McAuley

Technical Adviser: John Tait

Strength and Conditioning: Steve Mackinnon

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