'Tight' Canadian rugby 7s women even closer following off-field upheaval
Club guided by Mick Byrne after players file complaint against ex-coach John Tait
Every Canadian Olympian has a story to tell about their road to Tokyo. Few are like those of the Canadian women's rugby sevens team.
Bronze medallists in Rio under John Tait, the Canadian women essentially earned a divorce earlier this year with their longtime coach after filing a formal complaint under Rugby Canada's harassment and bullying policy. While Tait was not found guilty of any breaches of that policy, he stepped down believing his job was untenable.
Rugby Canada has since approved an updated safe sport policy manual.
The true story may never be told, given mechanisms in place to protect complainants and whatever paperwork was signed as part of Tait's departure.
Adding to the upheaval, the sevens squad had to deal with an outbreak of COVID after returning from an April event in Dubai.
"I'm not going to lie. It's been a really tough time for the group off the field and on the field," said captain Ghislaine Landry. "You can't just turn that off when you show up. But credit to how tight this group is right now. We went through it together. We did get closer. A lot of honest, vulnerable conversations were had within our group to help each other out and to speak our truths.
"I don't think any of us would have planned or wanted to do this at the timing that it happened. But I'm so proud of the way we've come through it. And I think it's something we're proud to stand for. It's not water under the bridge but we're focused on moving forward and the positive aspects of our environment that we do have right now."
Rugby Canada plans, post Olympics, an independent assessment of the women's sevens and other programs "to help us understand the journey and experiences of our athletes and staff involved with our national teams."
Landry says the players will "stay close to the process."
'The team's lived stuff'
Australian Mick Byrne is now leading the Canadian women. At 62, with extensive coaching and life experience, he is taken by the women's fortitude.
"This team has lived some moments which have been good and some moments which have been bad," he said. "Some players have lived some personal stuff. The team's lived stuff. What it's done is it has created a real resilience in the group because they have had to deal with stuff that's been uncomfortable for them.
"Some players have had to deal with stuff that they've been targeted on. They've come out of it the other end."[
The team features six players who were in Rio: Landry, Britt Benn, Bianca Farella, Kayla Moleschi, Karen Paquin and Charity Williams. And Kaili Lukan, who is also going to Tokyo, is the younger sister of Megan Lukan, who was part of the Rio squad.
Landry says that experience is a "massive benefit."
The 33-year-old Landry, the all-time leading scorer on the World Series with 1,356 career points, is key to the group.
"She's a quiet, subtle leader and she leads on the field," Byrne said. "What I found from Ghis, her leadership is 'I'll show you how it's done. And I'll help you get there as well.' It's a perfect combo."
While Byrne says the depth of the women's game has increased, he believes the Canadian women have kept pace and has high hopes for Tokyo. Landry says the goal is gold.
The Canadian women are in Group B along with Brazil, France and Fiji.
Olympic opener July 28 vs. Brazil
Canada was third in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings when the season shut down after five events due to the pandemic. France was fourth, Fiji seventh and Brazil 12th.
The Canadians open play Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET (9:30 a.m Thursday in Tokyo), facing Brazil and then Fiji. Day 2 starts with a showdown against France before the quarter-finals.
The top two teams in each of the three groups and the two best third-place finishers advance to the quarter-finals.
Canada, New Zealand, the U.S., and Australia qualified for the Tokyo women's field via their World Series performance. Britain, China, Fiji, Kenya and Brazil joined host Japan through regional qualification, while France and Russia advanced via a repechage tournament.
Australia won Rio gold, defeating New Zealand 24-17. Canada won bronze, downing Britain 33-10.
The formal complaint by the women's team started with a "letter of concern," sent to Rugby Canada at the end of November. Tait, arguably Rugby Canada's most successful coach, was essentially put on administrative leave at that point.
Under Rugby Canada's guidelines, there is an opportunity for mediation. That failed to produce a solution, so the players' complaint became formal on Jan 31, prompting an independent review.
Almost all of Tait's staff have since left. Many of them believe justice wasn't done.
Landry says the team is in a better place.
"High-performance sport is a high-pressure, very intense environment. I've lived it for over 10 years now and I can honestly say I've never seen our group happier," said Landry, whose wife, Toronto-area firefighter Michaela Hoskins, is expecting. "And I think when you have happy people coming to training and happy people showing up, you're going to get a quality of work that's just so much better."
Canada women's rugby 7s roster
- Elissa Alarie, Trois-Rivieres, Que.
- Olivia Apps, Lindsay, Ont.
- Britt Benn, Napanee, Ont.
- Pamphinette Buisa, Gatineau, Que.
- Bianca Farella, Montreal
- Julia Greenshields, Sarnia, Ont.
- Ghislaine Landry (captain), Toronto
- Kaili Lukan, Barrie, Ont.
- Kayla Moleschi, Williams Lake, B.C..
- Breanne Nicholas, Blenheim, Ont.
- Karen Paquin, Quebec City
- Keyara Wardley, Vulcan, Alta.
- Charity Williams, Toronto.
Head coach: Mick Byrne
Assistant coach: Maria Gallo