Road To The Olympic Games

Rugby

Women's 7s team delivers 'empowering' win for Canadian rugby

The Canadian women's rugby sevens team leaves the Rio Olympics with an historic medal, while leaving an indelible impact on the sport back home.

Bronze-medal win at Rio Olympics leaves indelible impact

Canada wins the bronze medal in the women's Rugby 7's event at the Rio Olympics on Monday. (Kevin Light/CBC)

After Monday's bronze-medal win, Aug. 8 should be commemorated as a Canadian rugby holiday.

The Canadian women's rugby sevens team leaves Rio with a historic medal while leaving an indelible impact on the sport at home.

Like any good holiday, this achievement marks a triumph after adversity; the Canadians beat bitter rivals Great Britain to avenge an earlier pool loss. It also sends the team home on a high note after being dismantled by Australia in the semifinals.

As for the lesson of aspiring athletes, especially young women in Canada, Andrea Burk is certain of rugby's potential.

"Rugby builds so much confidence," said Burk, who is CBC Sports rugby analyst and a former Canadian national team member. "It's a really empowering sport."

Canada's rugby superwomen

The heroines of the holiday narrative are the 12 members of the team, and any gifts should be wrapped as tightly as a Jen Kish tackle.

It's Kish, the team captain, who is the emotional heartbeat of the team, that inspires teammates and fans alike.

The Edmonton native is easy to spot on the pitch; just look for a blur of short, blonde hair and tattoos that adorn her powerful biceps. While that may be a first impression, it's what lies beneath the surface that reveals Kish's true character.

Kish's father, Steve, is in remission after battling cancer. After winning bronze, she picked him out of the crowd and the two had a tearful embrace in the stands at Deodoro.

Would Magali have made a difference?

The team, as well as the growing number of Canadian rugby fans, deserve to rejoice. There is some consolation in losing to the eventual Olympic champions. However, head coach John Tait still rues the missed opportunity.

"It's bittersweet because I still feel if we'd been able to put that performance in against Australia, we'd be playing in the finals match for gold instead," said Tait "It's a hard lesson for us. The good news is we still got a medal out of it and the girls can be really proud of that."

Like every holiday, there's always the possibility of an "awkward Thanksgiving discussion" breaking out.

Critics of the team may not feel sympathy for Tait, citing his decision to leave the dynamic Magali Harvey off the Olympic roster. This heavily-scrutinized move, which Harvey herself called "a big slap in the face," drew a fair amount of attention ahead of the Games. 

Would Harvey's inclusion in the Australia match have made the difference? While the winger from Quebec scored a try against the Aussies in Canada's win against them in the Sevens Series, Burk doesn't think Harvey would have helped in the semis.

"In the semifinal, the team didn't do what they needed to do to maximize Harvey's strengths and really at the end of the day it comes down to a team effort," Burk said. 

"Would she have made a difference in the bronze-medal match? It was still 33-10, right?"

'Standing on the shoulders of giants'

The word most often associated with rugby in Canada is "growth."

Whether it's at the youth level, club interest or the carnival atmosphere at Vancouver's Sevens Series event in March, there is tangible growth of the sport in this country.

However, it's the women who lead the way after another inconsistent year from the men's program.

"Women's rugby has been around since the 80s and the program that we see today really is standing on the shoulders of giants," Burk said. "People like Steph White, Leslie Cripps, Maureen MacMahon, Maria Gallo, Gillian Florence [and more,] these women paved the way for women's rugby in Canada."

"It only means good things for the sport and the nation."

With files from The Canadian Press

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