TORONTO — Kelly Russell, a hard-hitting high-flying forward who helped Canada to some of its finest rugby moments, has announced her retirement from the international game.
As a sevens player, the 30-year-old from Bolton, Ont., won gold at the 2015 Pan-American Games, silver at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens and bronze at the 2016 Olympics. She won 53 caps in the fifteens game and played in three World Cups, captaining Canada to the final in 2014.
Russell was named Rugby Canada’s women’s fifteens player of the year in 2013 and was a finalist for World Rugby’s player of the year award in 2014, when teammate Magali Harvey won.
“One of our best players,” said Francois Ratier, who coached her at the 2014 and 2017 World Cups. “The kind of player, male or female, that you could put anywhere on any team and she’s going to make the team better.”
“She’s done a good job of leading our program by example for a long time,” added Canadian sevens coach John Tait.
And when she spoke, her teammates listened. She backed up that talk with her play.
A powerfully built five foot 10, Russell was easy to spot in the sevens game, leaping high in the air to haul down a restart or delivering a punishing hit. She was a hard-nosed No. 8 in the fifteens game, barrelling though would-be tacklers.
Russell leaves on a high. Her last game was for the Barbarian women invitational team, its first ever match — a win over Munster on Nov. 10 in Ireland.
While stepping back from playing the game, Russell is not leaving rugby. After six years in Victoria, she has moved back to Toronto to coach at the Canada Sevens Academy where some 40 young female players are honing their skills.
“It’s great … To be able to give back to the game in a coaching role has been nice,” she said. “These girls are so young, they’re so full of energy and wanting to learn.”
Said Tait: “There’s still a lot of rugby in Kelly.”
Russell comes from a rugby family and followed her father’s footsteps in joining the Toronto Nomads rugby club after taking up the sport in high school. While Barbarian players wear the famed black-and-white hooped jersey, they stick with their club socks.
“It was an honour to put on those (Nomads) socks with that jersey to represent them as well,” she said.
Russell earned her first cap with the fifteens team in 2007 against Scotland — “It was a bit of a blur but I remember having a smile on my face the whole time. It was a dream come true to be playing for your national team” — and made her sevens debut a year later.
Russell, named to the tournament all-star team at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, switched back to the fifteens game after Rio to focus on the 2017 World Cup where Canada finished fifth.
She had known going into the tournament that it would likely be her last.
“I took a break after (the) World Cup and I went away and travelled the East Coast for a month and just kind of processed everything myself before putting it out there even to friends and family.”
Russell sacrificed for the cause.
As a carded athlete, she was a full-time rugby player when she was with the sevens team during the last Olympic cycle. In moving back to the fifteens team for the World Cup, she worked as a residential facility assistant at Brentwood College School in Mill Bay, B.C., when not training.
After the 2017 tournament, she handed the captaincy to younger sister Laura for the Canadian women’s November tour to England.
“To have that journey together … that support system all the way through has been incredible,” she said of her sister.
Both Russell sisters have helped grow the sport in Canada, with Kelly pointing to the Olympic bronze medal in 2016 and runner-up finish at the 2014 World Cup as tournaments that helped highlight women’s rugby.
“It’s always kind of been in the shadow of the men’s game but we can be strong and powerful and be an exciting brand of rugby,” she said. “Both times there was a lot of coverage back home which helped the game explode a bit in Canada. It was so neat to come back to.”
Part of the inaugural sevens program in 2007, Kelly started at a time when players had to dig into their own pocket to help cover the costs of attending a tournament.
“I feel very lucky to have been involved in the game at this point of growth,” said Russell. “To be able to see when I started where it was and where it’s come to now. It’s pretty incredible and it’s only going to keep growing.”
Still more work is needed to keep building the program, she said.
Russell, who has a degree in bioarchaeological anthropology from the University of Western Ontario, says the time is right for her retirement. She has no regrets.
“It’s been an incredible, incredible journey,” she said.