The Canadian women's rugby sevens team heads into the 2022 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series season with an overhauled roster and new interim coach.
Irish-born Jack Hanratty has been tasked with steering the team through the end of the year, with back-to-back events in Dubai. The first starts Friday behind closed doors at the Sevens Stadium. Spectators will be allowed in the second event Dec. 3-4.
The Canadian women are in a pool with Fiji, Ireland, Britain and Russia. The Canadian men will play in a pool featuring Olympic champion Fiji, Australia and France.
It has been 663 days since the last women’s Sevens Series action, with New Zealand winning the Sydney Sevens on Feb. 2, 2020.
Due to the pandemic, the 2021 women's season was cancelled although the Canadian women took part in two mini-events -- in Vancouver and Edmonton in September -- with several top teams unable to take part because of travel restrictions.
As it is, New Zealand’s men’s and women’s teams, the 2020 Series champions, and the Samoan men won't participate in Dubai. The Canadian women finished runner-up at the last two events in Dubai.
The only returnees from the Canadian Olympic team on the Dubai roster are Elissa Alarie, Olivia Apps, Pam Buisa and Breanne Nicholas, who captains the squad.
Those four plus Emma Chown have a combined 51 World Series tournaments under their belt. The other eight will be making their debut on the circuit.
Rugby Canada says Olympic veterans Charity Williams, Keyara Wardley, Julia Greenshields and Karen Paquin were unavailable for selection, either through injury or other reasons.
Buisa, Gonzalez and Paquin were part of the recent 15s tour to Britain.
Former captain Ghislaine Landry and fellow Olympians Britt Benn, Bianca Farella, Kaili Lukan and Kayla Molesch have either retired or are taking time away from rugby.
Dubai represents a new beginning for the women's sevens program, in the wake of a formal complaint under Rugby Canada's bullying and harassment policy and a disappointing ninth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics.
Rugby Canada said while an independent review into the complaint concluded "the conduct described in the complaint reflected the experiences of the 37 NSW7s (national senior women's sevens) athletes,'' it was not behaviour that fell within the then-policy's definition of harassment or bullying.
The exact nature of the allegations against former coach John Tait has not been made public. Tait called them "unfounded' but stepped down. He is now technical director of B.C. Rugby.
"We've really been focusing on just giving a love back to the game," said Hanratty. "And kind of re-starting."
"The one thing I'll say is I think the athletes have been really open," he added. "With new coaches, there's a certain element of trust that needs to be built up. Obviously they have to understand us and our philosophies and our styles of coaching and we have to understand them as athletes and how they explore the game."
Hanratty, 32, is being assisted by former 15s and sevens player Brittany Waters, head coach of the University of Victoria Vikes women's team. With the search for a permanent coach ongoing, he says they are just concentrating on the two Dubai events.
"What we're focusing on is what things can we do on a day-to-day (basis) to make this a really positive fun environment where athletes are getting to focus on the game of rugby and develop their knowledge of the game of rugby."
The sevens women, who won bronze under Tait at the 2016 Rio Olympics, were coached by Australian Mick Byrne in Tokyo this summer.
Hanratty served as an assistant to Kelly Russell at the two September sevens events. He is also an assistant coach with the women’s 15s team, head coach of the women's under-20 side, head coach of the Nova Scotia men's and women's teams, and a Rugby Canada academy coach at the Canadian Sports Centre (CSC) Atlantic in Halifax.
Canada women's 15s coach Sandro Fiorino calls Hanratty "a strong communicator" who knows the landscape of rugby in Canada.
"A breath of fresh air. And that's ideal. He's got a lot of energy, which is great," said Fiorino.
Hanratty first got involved with rugby in his hometown of Skerries, a coastal town 35 kilometres from Dublin.
He has continued in an advisory role to CSC Atlantic and Rugby Nova Scotia during his time with the sevens squad.
He was working as a development officer for Leinster Rugby when he came to Canada nine years ago, initially for seven days to run a course for a rugby club in Halifax. That turned into a sabbatical for the summer.
After returning to Ireland, he interviewed for a job with Rugby Nova Scotia, thinking it might last a year or so. He is still there.
"Although the Irish accent is there, I feel like an absolute East Coaster, through music and my love of seafood and everything in-between," said Hanratty, who passed his citizenship test in October prior to coming out west to take charge of the sevens squad.
Olivia De Couvreur, Ottawa, Ottawa Irish; Renee Gonzalez, Toronto, University of Victoria Vikes; Pamphinette Buisa, Gatineau, Que., Ottawa Irish/University of Victoria; Olivia Apps, Sarnia, Ont., Lindsay RFC; Breanne Nicholas, Blenheim, Ont. London St. Georges; Emma Chown, Barrie, Ont., Aurora Barbarians; Sabrina Poulin, St-Georges de Beauce, Que., Town of Mount Royal Rugby; Nakisa Levale, Abbotsford, B.C., Abbotsford RFC; Asia Hogan-Rochester, Toronto, Toronto Nomads; Fancy Bermudez, Edmonton, Nor'Wester Athletic Association NWAA; Elissa Alarie, Trois-Rivières, Que., Westshore RFC/ Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue RFC/Braves de Trois-Rivières; Chloe Daniels, Sutton, Ont., RC Maple Leafs Academy/Queen's University; Krissy Scurfield, Canmore, Alta., University of Victoria Vikes.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2o21
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press