Four months after finishing fourth at the Women's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, Canada returns to action Saturday.
The fourth-ranked Canadians face No. 13 South Africa before opening the Pacific Four Series against the seventh-ranked U.S. on April 1. Both matches will be played at Estadio Nacional de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
The Americans are using a match Saturday against No. 11 Spain to prepare for Canada.
While the Canadian women beat South Africa 53-15 the last time they played, at the 2013 Nations Cup in Colorado, Canada coach Kevin Rouet expects an improved South Africa side given recent investment in the team.
"It's going to be challenging," said Rouet, noting his side only arrived in Spain on Monday and that some of his squad have played little rugby since the World Cup.
The South African women lost all three matches at the World Cup, to No. 3 France (40-5), No. 17 Fiji (21-17) and No. 1 England (75-0).
Canada pushed England to the limit in a 26-19 semifinal loss before falling 36-0 to France in the bronze-medal game.
Rouet noted that South Africa led the World Cup when it came to the collision dominance category.
"What does that mean for us? … It's going to be a tough challenge, a physical challenge, for sure," he said.
Canada, No. 2 New Zealand, No. 6 Australia and the U.S. are contesting the third edition of the Pacific Four Series.
Australia will host New Zealand in June with all four teams converging on Canada in July for the final matches of the series. The top three teams qualify for the inaugural WXV, a new three-tier annual global women's international 15s competition, while the bottom team will move on to the WXV second tier.
Canada is due to host a European team in September with more specific details yet to be announced. The WXV is scheduled for October-November.
It's good news for Rouet and the Canadians, who have been looking for a busier fixture list.
"It's the first year where we could have 10 games after a World Cup, so I think it's very exciting for us," said the coach, who expects another 10-11 games in 2024.
Having the players available for such a schedule may also be a challenge, given work and other commitments.
Canada has won its last seven outings against the U.S., a streak that dates back to July 2019 and includes a pair of victories at the recent World Cup (29-14 in group play and 32-11 in the quarterfinals).
Thirteen of Rouet's matchday 23 for the South Africa contest dressed for the fourth-place game at the World Cup. The tour roster includes 19 members of Canada's World Cup squad.
Twelve players, including Brianna Miller, Elissa Alarie, Karen Paquin, Maddy Grant, Olivia DeMerchant and Taylor Perry, were unavailable for the trip to Spain through injury or other commitments.
Miller and Perry were both injured at the World Cup.
"We have players who have gone back to jobs ... We know we are going to be maybe more in-development than the World Cup but it's a good time anyway to try new players to be ready for (the World Cup in) 2025," said Rouet.
Captain Sophie de Goede and hooker Emily Tuttosi, both named to World Rugby's 15s Dream Team of the Year in 2022, will lead the Canada forwards.
Veteran lock Tyson Beukeboom is set to earn cap No. 57 Saturday, second only to the retired Gillian Florence's 66 caps.
Edmonton’s Fancy Bermudez starts at outside centre, earning her first international 15s cap. Bermudez has played in 51 matches in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, scoring 45 points.
Cassandra Tuffnail and Mahalia Robinson, both starting on the bench, could earn their first caps as well.
A former No. 8 at the University of Guelph, Tuffnail now plays loosehead prop for Richmond Rugby in England. Robinson, a fly half, led Concordia University with 55 points in the 2022-23 season and scored all 24 of its points in the 34-24 overtime loss to Concordia the RSEQ bronze-medal match.
According to World Rugby, Canada cannot rise in the rankings no matter the outcome Saturday. But it could fall to No. 5, behind Italy, if the Italians beat No. 3 France by more than 15 points and the Canadians lose by the same margin to South Africa.
Brittany Kassil, Guelph, Ont., Guelph Redcoats RFC; Emily Tuttosi, Souris, Man., Calgary Hornets/Exeter Chiefs; DaLeaka Meninm Vulcan, Alta., Exeter Chiefs; Tyson Beukeboom, Uxbridge, Ont., Cowichan RFC; Courtney Holtkamp, Rimbey, Alta., Red Deer Titans Rugby; Fabiola Forteza, Quebec City, Club de rugby de Quebec/Stade Bordelais; Sara Svoboda, Belleville, Ont., Belleville Bulldogs/Loughborough Lightning; Sophie de Goede (capt.), Victoria, Castaway Wanderers RFC; Justine Pelletier, Riviere-du-Loup, Que., Club de rugby de Quebec/Stade Bordelais; Julia Schell, Uxbridge, Ont., Guelph Redcoats/Castaway Wanderers; Paige Farries, Red Deer, Alta., Westshore RFC/Worcester Warriors; Alexandra Tessier, Sainte-Clotilde-de-Horton, Que., Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue RFC; Fancy Bermudez, Edmonton, NorWester Athletic Association/Westshore RFC; Sarah-Maude Lachance, Victoriaville, Que., Club de rugby de Quebec/Lons Section Paloise; Sabrina Poulin, St-Georges, Que., TMRRFC/Eibar Rugby Taldea.
Gillian Boag, Calgary, Capilano RFC; Maya Montiel, Dieppe, N.B., University of Ottawa/Saracens; Cassandra Tuffnail, Heidelberg, Ont., Richmond FC/Brunel University London; Emma Taylor, Scotsburn, N.S., Halifax RFC; Marie-Pier Fauteux, Sherbrooke, Que., Club de rugby de Quebec/Universite Laval; Laetitia Royer, Loretteville, Que., St-Anne-de-Bellevue/ASM Romagnat; Mahalia Robinson, Fulford, Que., TMRRFC/Concordia Universite; Renee Gonzalez, Scarborough, Ont., Westshore RFC/University of Victoria.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press