Rugby·Analysis

Paquin wants to make emotional return to Canada 7s a winning one

Almost three years after becoming an Olympic medallist in Rio, Karen Paquin is finally healthy, back in Canadian colours, and raring to go as the HSBC World Series makes its fourth stop of the season in Japan beginning Friday.

Watch live action beginning Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET

Canada's Karen Paquin, shown here being tackled during the women's bronze-medal match at the 2016 Olympic Summer Games, will be back in the fold for her team's matches in Kitakyushu, Japan this weekend. (File/The Canadian Press)

She talks the way she plays.

There is no regret, no self-pity — just acceptance of a battle fought and won, and an eagerness to re-launch her career.

Karen Paquin is excited again.

"It's pretty special — it feels like a first cap if anything," she says about her return to the Canada women's sevens team.

It's been a while. A long while. Almost three years after becoming an Olympic medallist in Rio, Paquin is finally back in Canadian colours and raring to go as the HSBC World Series makes its fourth stop of the season in Japan beginning Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, CBCSports.ca).

WATCH | What you need to know ahead of the Japan Sevens:

Get ready for CBC's coverage of Women's World Rugby Sevens Series from Kitakyushu, Japan. 1:10

Paquin is a rare breed. A player who is equally adept at both Sevens and 15s rugby, she is known for her power and speed, coupled with the ability to spot an opportunity and make a break for the try line.

But all that skill and experience doesn't mean much when you're in rehab. A serious knee injury sustained at the Women's World Cup in 2017 has sidelined Paquin ever since. Multiple surgeries and endless hours of strength and conditioning have led to light at the end of her own dark tunnel.

"There was some tough times," she admits. "I would walk into physio rooms and I was crying. I was just sad about it. I didn't know if I was going to be able to come back."

It is every athlete's worst nightmare. Making the sacrifice to become an elite performer requires absolute dedication, singular focus and a willingness to push the body to a place beyond physical pain.

Then the sport kicks you in the teeth. Only after climbing the physical and emotional mountain of excellence must the athlete accept the biggest potential obstacle. One injury can end it all.

Tough choices

Paquin has won this round. She has proved she is physically fit. Canadian coach John Tait is delighted to welcome her back into the fold.

"We're as healthy as we've been in a really long time," he says. "This is probably the toughest selection we've had since Rio."

Those are good problems for any coach. But this cannot be a sentimental selection. There is simply too much at stake.

Paquin must now prove she still belongs and can still cut it. At 31, she's almost a senior citizen by rugby sevens standards – and returns to Team Canada as the oldest player on the roster. She has bags of experience of course but those powerful legs are not getting any younger.

How will the knee hold up in the uncompromising, fast paced world of World Sevens rugby? Paquin is bound to be a little rusty after so much time away, and all the practice in the world can never truly replicate the cut and thrust of tournament play.

There can be no question of her desire to succeed. Paquin is a welcome addition to a roster that stumbled in its quest for Olympic qualification last time out. Australia was not its finest hour.

WATCH | New Zealand's Michaela Blyde is an impact player:

New Zealand's Michaela Blyde shined at the World Rugby Sevens Series event in Sydney, Australia. 0:39

The Canadians scraped into the quarter-finals in Sydney only to come unstuck against unbeatable New Zealand. Their consolation was a fifth-place finish after a dramatic come-from-behind victory over France.

Tait's team needs to perform better in Kitakyushu. Canada opens up with a winnable game against Spain and should then pile up the points against China. The pool finale against Australia will give us a good idea of where this team really stands in the pecking order.

At its best, Team Canada is a true match for any of its rivals. The likes of Ghislaine Landry, Bianca Farella, Britt Benn and the returning Paquin are game changers but all must hit the ground running in Japan — a venue where Canada disappeared without trace a year ago.

WATCH | Ghislaine Landry says her team can beat the best:

Ghislaine Landry aspires in inspire a new generation of rugby players to pick up and learn the sport as a way to instill the belief that Canada is on the doorstep of greatness. 1:35

Canada must keep its eye on the current ball. With three rounds to go there is no point fretting about the permutations of Olympic qualification. Take care of the present and the future will take care of itself.

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