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New Zealand trips Canadian women's rugby squad in Pacific Four Series match

Sophie De Goede Canada Kennedy Simon New Zealand Sophie De Goede Kennedy Simon - The Canadian Press

Playing in front of the largest crowd in program history, the Canadian women's rugby 15s team gave the reigning World Cup champions a little scare, but the New Zealand Black Ferns prevailed 52-21 in a Pacific Four Series match on Saturday in Ottawa.

Canada kept the score within seven midway through the second half, but powerhouse New Zealand took over late in front of a record 10,092 fans at TD Place.

"I think we underperformed," said Team Canada head coach Kevin Rouet. "We had some good moments, but it's not enough. You have to have your A game for 80 minutes if you want to beat New Zealand.

"I think we showed too much weakness on defence at some moments and offensively we missed some opportunities where if we'd scored, it could have changed the game. We are close and far from New Zealand at the same time — that's what I take from this game."

New Zealand opened up a 21-0 lead before the game was 20 minutes old on a hot summer night in the nation's capital. But the Canadians held their own for the next dozen minutes and slowly advanced in the New Zealand end.

When the Black Ferns got called for a penalty 10 yards from their try line, Canadian captain Sophie de Goede immediately snatched up the ball and charged ahead for a try while absorbing a big hit at the goal line. "I felt like tempo was something that we could try to inject more into the game and so I thought regardless of whether I ended up getting in or not, at least it would keep them on their toes," said de Goede, who loved hearing the cheers rain down from the TD Place supporters. "We're just so appreciative of Canadians and the Canadian rugby community," added de Goede, who just celebrated her 24th birthday on June 30. "I mean, there's no words, because that's never happened before.

"It was pretty cool. I hope that just as players before us inspired us … I hope we can inspire the next generation through games like this." The home side struck again within three minutes of de Goede's try thanks to some nifty passing. Fabiola Forteza scored the try as Canada clawed back within seven at 21-14 just before the end of the first half. New Zealand scored a try four minutes into the second half, but Canada answered back in the 53rd minute with an Olivia DeMerchant goal line plunge. De Goede then added her third convert of the game. It was all New Zealand from there though as the Black Ferns scored four unanswered tries to expand the final score line. "I'm just really proud of our ladies," said New Zealand head coach Allan Bunting, noting his squad travelled a long way for the game. "I think they felt a bit fatigued in the first half, but the second half I could really feel their energy."

Team Canada's players, meanwhile, revelled in the energy generated by what was the biggest crowd in Canadian women's 15s history by a wide margin.

Though vice-captain Justine Pelletier grew up in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., the match still felt like a homecoming for the athlete who was born in Ottawa. Many of her relatives made the six-hour trip to see the game live. "It's the first time for a lot of them, which is really cool," she said Friday after her team's final practice before the match. Pelletier felt "excited" to know there'd be a big crowd behind Team Canada in Ottawa and watching on TSN. Rugby Canada made free tickets available to school-age children and offered regular priced tickets starting at $20 to help pack the park. There are also piles of community events taking place around the series. Roughly 5,000 youth will have the chance to try rugby for free and local schools will get to keep 3,000 rugby balls.

"In Canada during COVID, rugby had a very rough time. It's been two years trying to work hard to bring rugby back up in the community," Pelletier said. "Now that we're playing here, I feel like rugby is back with big letters in the spotlight. Lots of people are going to see us play and that's big for us." The record-setting crowd was just one sign of growth for the Canadian women's rugby 15s team. When the Canadian women last played in Ottawa a decade ago, the roster was made up almost exclusively of amateur players.

Now, about half of the team's 23 members play for professional clubs in Europe. Along with a couple potential Olympians from the Canadian women's rugby sevens team and a few more university players, most Team Canada players can now say rugby is their primary daily pursuit. The last match Team Canada prop Alexandria Ellis played before returning home to Ottawa was a Premiership Women's Rugby semifinal on June 11 in front of over 4,000 fans. Her London, England Saracens club team lost that back-and-forth contest 24-21 to the Exeter Chiefs, who had Team Canada players Emily Tuttosi, DaLeaka Menin and Gabrielle Senft in their lineup. "People are just excited to see you and excited to see your team," Ellis said on Friday. "You see little kids being like, 'Thank you for playing. I want to be like you.' You're showing them there's a path: 'One day, you can be like this.'" Professional women's rugby is far from a lucrative pursuit. Ellis, 27, would like to come home more often, but with the cost of flights, she usually only gets to visit Ottawa once a year at the end of her club season.  The chance to play for Canada back where her rugby journey began was a special opportunity for the Barrhaven Scottish and University of Ottawa Gee-Gees product who once worked as an usher at TD Place.

“Having close to 10,000 people come is unreal. It's history-making,” said Ellis, who entered the game as a second-half substitute. “To say I'm proud is an understatement.” New Zealand's tries were scored by Luka Connor, Ruahei Demant, Mererangi Paul (two), Sylvia Brunt, Renee Holmes, Amy du Plessis and Kelsey Teneti. Holmes added six conversions. New Zealand now sits alone at 2-0 in the four-nation round robin series, while No. 4 world-ranked Canada dropped to 1-1 in a tie for second. In an earlier match at TD Place, Australia hammered the United States 58-17. Australia improved its Pacific Four Series record to 1-1, while the Americans remained winless at 0-2. Former Canadian international player Julianne Zussman served as referee for the match in her hometown.

On April 1 in Madrid, Canada defeated the U.S. 50-17 in the Pacific Four Series opener. With the win, the Canadians already took a big step toward claiming a berth in the top tier of World Rugby's WXV tournament — a new annual global women's rugby 15s event similar to world championships in other sports.

The top three teams at the end of the Pacific Four Series round robin qualify for the top WXV tier, while the bottom team will play in Tier 2. The final leg of the Pacific Four Series will take place on Friday, June 14 at TD Place. Canada will face Australia, while New Zealand takes on the U.S.

New Zealand will host the inaugural WXV competition for the world's top six teams starting on Oct. 21. England, France and Wales have already qualified. The Canadian women's under-20 team was also in action to kick off the triple-header at TD Place. Canada led the U.S 17-14 at halftime, but the Americans pulled ahead in the second half to win 40-24.

Carissa Norsten scored two tries for Canada, while Victoria Stanley and Tia Jordo each had one. Gerry Atkins and Lauren Maye each added a convert.

It was a milestone match for several of the Canadian senior women. DeMerchant earned her 55th cap, tying Maria Gallo for third all-time among Canadian women. Fellow prop DaLeaka Menin tied Julia Sugawara for seventh place with 46 caps. Florence Symonds made her international 15s debut on the wing. Fellow Canada sevens player Olivia Apps also earned her first cap off the bench, along with Claire Gallagher, another University of Ottawa Gee-Gees product who got a big roar from the home crowd when she entered in the 51st minute.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2023.