For Canadian coach Francois Ratier, the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup marks an end to one chapter of his working life.
The French-born Ratier, who now calls Montreal home, took the Canadian women to the final in 2014 when they lost 21-9 to England. He hopes to go one better this time in his final tournament at the helm.
Canada, currently ranked third in the world, opens Wednesday against No. 23 Hong Kong at the 12-team tournament in Ireland. Group games against No. 9 Wales and No. 2 New Zealand follow.
Ratier firmly believes if his side plays to its potential, it can beat any team in the world.
“I have seen moments,” he said. “It’s there. And more important than me, they realize it’s there.”
Ratier’s job, at least when it comes to his paycheque, is deemed part-time. While the Canadian women are a world force, they are down in the pecking order at Rugby Canada. Unlike the men’s 15s team and both sevens sides, the women’s 15s are not centralized and do not receive carded funding, although some of the women get help from their provinces.
His players, split in training groups across the country, have sacrificed plenty to pull on the Maple Leaf. And they appreciate that the same fire burns in Ratier.
“He asks a lot out of us and I think we all like that,” said veteran forward Karen Paquin. “We all want to give him that … I think he’s a very very good coach.”
The 45-year-old wears his heart on his sleeve.
“He has a very fiery side,” said forward Latoya Blackwood. “He’s a Leo, I’m a Leo so I definitely share the same qualities as he does. When he gets upset … it’s he knows that we can do better and he wants us to know that we can do better. I love that in him.”
Added winger Frederique Rajotte: “He’s passionate about rugby and it shows.”
Ratier has brought a veteran team to the tournament, with captain Kelly Russell his on-field leader.
It’s a squad that despite its separation manages to stay connected thanks to technology.
“We go through a lot together — even though we’re geographically apart, we go through the same difficulties,” said Blackwood. “Someone from across Canada might have a breakup or someone might bomb a test but we’ve all kind of been there and we’re all there for each other.
“I think that’s what makes us stronger, that off-field kind of relationship. Yeah, we definitely fight for each other on the field. I think that will definitely be a positive advantage for us at the World Cup.”
Ratier’s future after the tournament has yet to be determined. But Rugby Canada will likely look to retain a man who held just about every rugby coaching job of significance in Quebec in addition to a variety of national roles including interim men’s head coach.
Born and raised in La Rochefoucauld, a small town in southwest France where his father was a mason and his mother a factory worker, Ratier played his club rugby on the wing for SC Angouleme. When injuries cut his career short, he turned to coaching and looked for a fresh start.
“Travelling was not in my DNA (growing up),” he said. “But I wanted to see the world.”
He knew rugby but not English at the time, so he looked to Quebec and, in 2003, offered his services for free.
“If you want nothing, it’s perfect because we have nothing,” was the answer.
He bought a plane ticket and took a leap of faith. It paid off quickly as he met his future wife in Montreal.
Ratier quickly added to his resume with coaching stints at the club, university and provincial level in Quebec. After a variety of coaching gigs with Rugby Canada, he took over the women’s team in 2013.
Money is still tight in Canadian rugby but Ratier is not one to complain. He surveys the landscape and looks to get on with the job.
On the plus side, donations to the Monty Heald Fund have meant his players no longer have to pay to represent their country outside of the World Cup, when World Rugby takes care of travel and accommodation costs.
More is needed, however, for a team he says is sometimes recognized more outside of Canada than within.
“But that’s what it is. It’s not all right but I understand why,” said the father of two.
He is also grateful for those who have dug deep into their pocket to help. “Without that it would be tough,” he said.
Rajotte says the team is well aware that a head-turning performance on the field in Ireland could pay off afterwards.
“That would be huge because we don’t know what the program’s going to look like after the World Cup … For younger girls, we need to set the tone for that to carry on.”