Canada steps into the deep end at the Women’s Rugby League World Cup in Sydney, Australia, when it makes its international debut against three-time champion New Zealand.
While many of the Canada Ravens have impressive rugby union credentials, they are new to the 13-woman code. And Canada coach Mike Castle, a transplanted Brit who now makes his home on Australia’s Gold Coast, has had little time with his new team.
But he likes what he sees.
“I’ve been blown away by how quickly they’ve picked up the whole concept of the game,” Castle said after announcing his roster. “Athletically I didn’t expect it to be quite as good. I knew there were going to be a lot of quality athletes in Canada but I’ve been more than impressed.
“They’ve just transitioned over to rugby league really well. Obviously they’ve got all the basics. Now it’s understanding the intricacies of the game and the difference in the rules and what our aims are.”
The Canada-New Zealand game is set for 1:45 p.m. local time Thursday (6:45 p.m. ET Wednesday).
Canada rugby union internationals on the Ravens squad include Andrea Burk, Gillian Hoag, Mandy Marchak, Stevi Schnoor and Natasha Smith. Schnoor, a teacher in Coquitlam, B.C., is a also a running back/linebacker with the Seattle Mist of the Legends Football League, formerly know as the Lingerie Football League.
Marchak and Burk both started for Canada in the final of the 2014 rugby union World Cup. Burk was also a member of the Canadian team at this summer’s World Cup.
Barbara Waddell is one of the few Ravens players with rugby league experience. Born in Quebec, she spent time in Canada, Fiji and Australia and now makes her home in Sydney. She has played rugby in both codes, including three years with rugby league’s Forestville Ferrets.
Primarily played in England, Australia and New Zealand, rugby league is the sport’s lesser-known code although it has made inroads in Canada this year with the success of the Toronto Wolfpack.
League features 13 players instead of 15 with teams given six chances to advance the ball up the field. It can be a brutal game with gang-tackling on defence, but there is also room for creativity on attack.
It’s been a stiff learning curve for the Canadian women.
“Though we all have very extensive union and sevens background, rugby league — as we have learned — is definitely its own beast and we are all learning so much every time we step on the field,” Schnoor said.
And old habit dies hard.
Used to releasing the ball when tackled in rugby union, Burk was called for three consecutive knock-ons in the first league game she played in.
“The next practice I did about 40 repeats of keeping the ball in hand as I got up after the tackle, to drill it into my head,” she said. “I haven’t made that error since.”
Assistant coach Ben Hickey, head of physical performance Hayden Fisher and performance analyst Andy Ireland have been helping Castle drill the women on the new game.
After New Zealand, Canada plays Papua New Guinea on Nov. 19 and defending champion Australia on Nov 22. The other sides in the six-team women’s field are the Cook Islands and England. The top four will face off in the semifinals Nov. 26.
Canada is targeting Papua New Guinea, whose women’s program is also new, knowing one win could mean a berth in the semifinals.
“We certainly see that as an opportunity,” Castle said of the game against the Pacific Islanders.
Castle said the goal is to keep things simple — “and do those simple things really well. Who knows? I think we might turn a few heads.”
While the women kick off Thursday, the men have been at it since Oct. 27. Their 14-country competition wraps up Dec. 2 in Brisbane with a championship doubleheader that includes the women’s final.
The Canadian men were beaten in qualifying by the U.S.
Canada and the U.S. are hosting the 2025 World Cup, meaning the Canadian men and women will qualify automatically.
The 2025 tournament was one of the reasons that the Canadian women were given a berth to this event. The governing body of the sport wants Canada to be competitive. Canada Rugby League Association president Paul O’Keefe also pointed to the Canadian women’s sevens bronze at the Rio Olympics as proof of Canada’s rugby talent.
While the Rugby League International Federation has covered travel and accommodations, several Canadian players have turned to crowd-funding to help pay their bills while taking time off from their jobs.
The Canadian governing body has looked to sponsors for help, with several Australian-based companies stepping up.
“We started with zero dollars,” said Castle.
The Canadian women had limited training sessions before leaving for Australia, with players spread across the country.
Their first competitive game was one to remember as the Ravens defeating the Corrimal Cougars, an Australian club side, 26-20 in Richmond, B.C., in October after just one practice session. The Cougars, who had been unbeaten in 2017, won the second game 20-18.
In Australia, the Ravens lost a pre-tournament warmup 38-12 to the Queensland Maori.