Canadian women prepare for second appearance at Rugby League World Cup
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Student, police officer, nurse, teacher, biologist and firefighter. Just some of the occupations represented in Canada’s 24-women team for next month’s Rugby League World Cup in England.
Add unpaid Australia-based coach Mike Castle, who commutes from Down Under, and you have a Canada Ravens squad ready to sacrifice for the cause.
Under Castle, a fledgling Canada side lost 50-4 to New Zealand at the 2017 World Cup in Australia before beating Papua New Guinea 22-8 for its first-ever international win. The Canadian women finished the pool stage of the six-team event with an 88-0 loss to Australia and were beaten again, 58-6, by the Jillaroos in the semifinals,
Australia defeated New Zealand 23-16 to win its second straight world title. The Canadians finished joint third with England.
Everything was new for the Canadian women five years ago, although Mandy Marchak and Andrea Burk were seasoned rugby union veterans who had represented Canada at the Rugby World Cup before transitioning to rugby league
This time, Castle can draw on six veterans of that 2017 tournament: Nina Bui, Sab McDaid, Jade Menin, Megan Pakulis, Liz Steele and Natalie Tam.
“That’s going to be massive. They’re all leaders as well, which is great,” said Castle, speaking from the Gold Coast where he makes his home in Australia.
And there is more experience in 41-year-old Laura Mariu, a former New Zealand captain who competed in the five previous World Cups (2000, ’03, ’08, ’13 and ’17). Mariu, whose mother is Canada, has since switched her international allegiance.
In 2018, Mariu was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, similar to the Order of Canada.
Lauren Mueller has rugby league experience in England, having played for the London Broncos in the Women’s Super League South Competition this year.
Both will making their first appearances for Canada, along with five other members of the World Cup roster.
Canada will be captained by Gabby Hindley, a former all-Canadian rugby union player at the University of British Columbia. Prior to the pandemic, Hindley played rugby league for the North Sydney Bears in Australia.
“I think we’ve got more depth than the previous tournament. I reckon we’re far more prepared and ready for the challenge than what we were last time,” said Castle, who played for England’s London Skolars and now works in the developmental side of rugby league Down Under. “So I’m very excited about what we could achieve.
“But I recognize that it’s going to be a huge challenge because every other team’s improved no end as well.”
The Canadian women are ranked sixth in the world. They open play in the eight-team competition in Group A against No. 4 Papua New Guinea on Nov. 1 in Leeds before facing No. 3 England on Nov. 5 in Wigan and No. 13 Brazil on Nov. 17 in Leeds.
England and Papua New Guinea split a two-test series in 2019. Brazil is a bit of an unknown quantity, according to Castle.
Sixteen teams will contest the men’s title with host England, defending champion Australia, New Zealand and Tonga heading up each of the four groups. The men’s competition opens Oct. 15 and runs through Nov. 19 when the tournament wraps with both the men’s and women’s finals.
The Canadian men, known as the Wolverines, failed to qualify.
The Ravens are drawn primarily from rugby union ranks, although some get occasional rugby league exhibition play in B.C., Alberta and Ontario.
“It’s definitely still a developing sport but they certainly get more rugby league than they did five years ago when we were last at the World Cup,” said Castle.
The Canadian coach points to Petra Woods, Britanny Jones and Karina Gauto as speed threats on the team. Woods was sidelined by injury just prior to the 2017 tournament but came with the Ravens as a team official.
Ada Okonjwo and Kristy Sargent bring toughness in the forward pack. Sargent was in Canada’s rugby union squad for the 2017 World Cup.
McDaid, Alanna Fittes and Natasha Naismith are among the options at halfback
Group B at the tournament is made up of No. 1 Australia, No. 2 New Zealand, No. 5 France and the 11th-ranked Cook Islands.
The group winners cross over to face the runner-up in the other pool in the semifinals.
Katie Grudzinski and Stevi Schnoor, who were part of Canada’s last World Cup playing squad, have transitioned to team manager and assistant coach, respectively.
The roster announced Thursday was chosen after a Canada East versus Canada West trials match on Sept. 4 in Abbotsford, B.C., a game that saw Gauto earn her place on the World Cup squad in her first rugby league experience.
The Canadian team is slated to arrive in England on Oct. 22 for a weeklong camp in Bradford, that includes a warm-up game against 14th-ranked Ireland in Orrell, England.
The World Cup, which also features wheelchair play, was originally scheduled to start in October 2021. But it was pushed back to 2022 after Australia and New Zealand pulled out in July 2021, citing safety fears due to the pandemic.
The delay allowed more practice time with Canadian camps this year in April and July prior to the recent trials match in B.C.
The Canadians defeated the U.S. 42-10 in April when seven members of the World Cup squad made their international debut.
New Zealand won the first three editions of the women’s World Cup and was runner-up to Australia in 2013 and ’17. Australia has won 11 of the 15 men’s World Cups to date with Britain, which no longer competes, taking three titles and New Zealand one.
Australia defeated New Zealand 23-16 to win the 2017 women’s tournament.
Rugby league is different from rugby union, the more popular of the two codes. League is primarily played in Australia, England and New Zealand.
A rugby league team is made up of 13 players with four on the bench. Each team is only allowed six tackles (plays) before the ball changes hands. A try is worth four points and a conversion two.
Rugby union teams are made up of 15 starters with eight substitutes. Play is more continuous and a try is worth five points and a conversion two.
Canada’s Rugby League World Cup Roster
Maddy Aberg, B.C.; Nancy Bui, Ontario; Rachel Chaboter, B.C.; Brittany Douglas, Ontario; Dani Frananda, Alberta; Alix Evans, Alberta; Alanna Fittes, Alberta; Karina Gauto, Alberta; Gabrielle Hindley, B.C.; Britanny Jones, Alberta; Sarah Maguire, Alberta; Laura Mariu, New Zealand; Sab McDaid, Ontario; Jade Menin, Alberta; Lauren Mueller, London, England; Natasha Naismith, Ontario; Ada Jane Okonjwo, B.C.; Megan Pakulis, Ontario; Ferris Sandboe, Alberta; Kristy Sargent, Alberta; Zoey Siciliano, Ontario; Liz Steele, Alberta; Natalie Tam, Ontario; Petra Woods, Ontario.
Coach: Mike Castle.
Assistant Coaches: Ben Hickey, Stevi Schnoor, Darryl Fisher.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2022