Toronto Star


Canada will be a medal contender when women’s rugby sevens (and its quirky terminolog­y) debuts on the Olympic menu,


The Olympics have the power to transform a sport even before a single game is played and that’s certainly been the case for rugby sevens, which debuts in Rio next weekend.

Once just a shorter, faster offshoot of the traditiona­l15-a-side game, sevens has become a highly skilled competitio­n all its own. With constant action — scoring, turnovers, breakaways and tackles — and games that last only 14 minutes (20 in the final) it’s easy to see why the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee, looking to attract new and younger audiences, added this sport.

Since sevens got the Olympic nod, countries such as Canada have centralize­d their training programs, and funding — particular­ly on the women’s side — has skyrockete­d. Canada, long a top-three team in the women’s game, is favoured — along with tradi- tional powerhouse New Zealand, season champion Australia and Britain — to make it to the semifinals from a pool of 12.

On the men’s side, Canada didn’t qualify and the tournament could well be won by Fiji, an island nation that has never won an Olympic medal in any sport. But one of the things that makes rugby sevens so exciting is that it’s rarely predictabl­e.

With so few players and such a large field, mistakes are magnified and it only takes a slight momentum shift for a lead to change hands. The speed with which seven players cover a soccer-sized field is astounding to see.

“It’s a simple game with a lot of different things that have to go right to make it simple,” says John Tait, head coach of the Canadian women’s team.

The sport has positions similar to the traditiona­l 15-a-side version — which was last played at the Olympics, by men only, in 1924 — but listening to Tait describe the “positions of difference” he looks for in players gives a far better understand­ing of the skills involved and what it takes to succeed in this dynamic game.

AERIALIST: There are no points for style here, but it takes height and/or an excellent vertical jump to capture the ball on kickoffs. In Canada’s semifinal win over New Zealand in a world sevens series stop this year, Toronto’s Kelly Russell hoisted team captain Jen Kish high in the air so she could grab the ball and then sprint some 60 metres, shaking off defenders along the way, to score.

X-FACTOR: These are the playmakers, like Ghislaine Landry, the top women’s world sevens series scorer for the last two years who, as Tait puts it, “can create something out of nothing and does that quite often.” These players, also including team veterans Ashley Steacy and Kish and newcomer Megan Lukan, have outstandin­g vision, fast decision making and creative flair that leads to line breaks and scoring.

KICKER: A try is worth five points and the conversion attempt, which follows as a drop kick, is worth two. Accuracy through the goal posts is key, obviously, but good kickers such

as Landry and Steacy also use attacking kicks during the game. That’s where they can kick the ball forward if they have nowhere to pass, then chase it down with their phenomenal speed.

HONEYBADGE­R: These are the outstandin­g defenders — such as Kayla Moleschi, Steacy and Kish — who consistent­ly make their tackles and create turnovers. “Moleschi is tenacious,” says Tait. “She and (Steacy) don’t just tackle people. They hit people. In the women’s game you don’t see a lot of that, but they’re punishing tacklers.”

SPEEDSTER: These players — including Karen Paquin, Bianca Farella, Hannah Darling and Charity Williams — score the tries once the team has strung out the defence and created a hole for them to race through. It takes sprinter-fast speed but also confidence in that speed, which is something Paquin has in spades. “She gets the ball and challenges whoever is there to catch me if you can and, more times than not, she gets away,” Tait says.

STEPPER: So much of sevens is about

speed, but straight-line speed is not enough. Players need to be able to beat defenders with footwork and direction changes, then accelerate away. Steppers such as Landry, Steacy and Natasha Watcham-Roy bring multiple skills to the game.

POWER PLAYER: They’re big, incredibly fit and still fast. Players such as Russell and Britt Benn are intimidati­ng on the pitch and use their explosive abilities to beat defenders and support their teammates in plays.

SOLDIER: Unlike other team sports, rugby sevens is a short tournament with multiple games in a single day. In Rio, Canada will play six games over three days — and normally it’s six over just two days — so a player’s ability to contribute for an entire tournament at a consistent­ly high level without losing speed is key. That’s something veterans Benn, Russell, Moleschi, Farella and Paquin are able to do. Rugby sevens will be played at Deodoro Stadium in Rio. The women’s tournament begins Aug. 6, and medals will be handed out Aug. 8.

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 ?? RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR ?? Jen Kish and the Canadian women’s rugby sevens squad get in the mood at last week’s sendoff at Nathan Phillips Square. The sport and its unique terminolog­y are new to the Olympic menu.
RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR Jen Kish and the Canadian women’s rugby sevens squad get in the mood at last week’s sendoff at Nathan Phillips Square. The sport and its unique terminolog­y are new to the Olympic menu.

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