Story and Photos: Mark Janzen
Playing in front of a red and white clad, Maple Leaf-waving crowd in Langford, B.C., Canada’s Bianca Farella made a statement.
In the voice of the in-house announcer at Westhills Stadium on Langford Parkway in the Victoria suburb, “bee-YAWN-KA fuh-RELLLL-ahhhhh” (for full effect, say it out loud in the most stereotypical Italian accent you can muster…it’s kind of fun) is back.
The much-beloved Farella, 26, who was playing in just her second World Rugby Sevens Series tournament since returning from shoulder surgery in late March, was embraced by both announcer and supporters, as her name was bellowed over the speakers a whopping seven times – in recognition of her seven tries – on the second day alone at the Canada Sevens. The smiley speedster capped the event with a hat-trick in a 29-12 win over Ireland in the fifth place play-off, giving her a tournament-best eight tries.
Sure, the fifth-place finish wasn’t the result Canada was targeting, but for the six-year veteran of the sevens program who hails from Montreal, her individual success – and sheer joy emanating from the announcer’s voice each time he readied his Italian flair – was every bit a signal that the swift superstar might, in fact, be more than just “back.”
By the looks of Farella’s second-day form, the fourth-leading try-scorer in the history of the women’s sevens series – her 96 tries trails teammate Ghislaine Landry by just 11 for the Canadian all-time lead – might just be on the cusp of uncovering the best Bianca that fans have ever seen. And she might just have to thank her surgery for her success.
Back in Langford, following a well-deserved week off for her and her teammates, in which she took a quick trip back home to Montreal, Farella recalls the surgery in October that sidelined her for the better part of five months. A seemingly innocuous mid-practice knock sent an in-form Farella into the operating room. Soon after, the rehab began.
“It was definitely hard,” says Farella, who also had shoulder surgery in the summer of 2015 – which forced her to miss the Pan Am Games in Toronto. “But (it was also) definitely a reminder that I still wanted to play.
“It was a very long, dark, hard road of very long weight room and conditioning sessions. It’s honestly sometimes harder to be in the rehab group.”
For five months, she chiseled.
“I feel like a really look like a rugby player now,” she says. “I feel like now I’m busting out of shirts, and pants don’t fit me – just like a typical athlete’s body. But now I look more like an athlete.
“I would hate to do all that again, but it’s a blessing in disguise.”
Canada coach John Tait kept a close watch on Farella’s progress. Upon her return to training, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist embodied five months of hard work.
“She has come back bigger, stronger and faster than she has ever been,” Tait says.
Getting back into the mix, Farella, who first joined the national team program in 2013 when she was just 20 years old, returned in time to compete in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. While her role in Australia was limited, the following week she made her return to the series in Kitakyushu, Japan and scored four tries. That begat the first day in Langford, which begat her seven-try explosion on Day 2. To most observers, that was the Farella they thought they knew, but perhaps it was actually a Farella they’re just getting to know.
Beyond her five months of limelight-less effort, her on-field success was also the product of a mindset.
“One of my main goals was to just be more aggressive, both on attack and on defence,” says Farella, who has played in 141 matches on the series, collecting 480 points. “I’m not a particularly aggressive person, so I definitely have to remind myself that I play a contact sport and people are trying to run me over, so I have to 'run them over' back.
“My main goal (in Langford) was to get my groove back and it helps when you’re aggressive.”
Check and check.
But just two days after she and her teammates returned to training, Farella was put to tears.
A surprise fitness test, which largely featured seven-on-seven touch rugby, went particularly long. It wasn’t out of the ordinary, but, as Farella put it, “I just don’t think many of us expected it to be two days after our week off.”
With the crowds long gone, the team was back in the midst of the unwitnessed grind and Farella was reduced to emotional exhaustion.
“Behind the scenes, it’s hard and it’s grueling,” says Farella, who is as honest as she is kindhearted. “It’s mentally and physically demanding…and when you’re tired your mind can go to dark places.”
Yet, it’s in these moments – drained and fatigued – when Farella’s off-field worth to the team shines brightest.
When things are tough, she does her best to smile. “I want to be a ray of sunshine,” she says.
With the Langford tournament complete and her teammates circling up with Tait for a few final words, Farella looked up for just a moment, catching the lens of a nearby photographer. She gave a quick grin before returning her focus to Tait. The positive aura she endeavours to exhibit is abundantly evident.
Farella is the one who would spark a pregame dance party if the team was into it. In reality she might “sway a bit” but she respects her teammates preparations and keeps her songs inside her headphones.
She’s also the one who greets “pain” as an amiable companion.
Prior to Jen Kish’s retirement earlier this year, Farella would ask her former captain to say four words to her before every game:
“Pain is my friend.”
Now, with Kish no longer around, she simply reminds herself of the line and then tells herself to “suck it up and get used to it.”
Then she smiles and plays rugby.
Now more than two months since returning to the field from surgery, Farella is certainly back in form.
“I think she’s starting to find her form and defensively she’s doing really well as well,” Tait says. “She’s really growing into a role of using her speed and power to get us line breaks and get us to go forward in games at key times.”
Her 12 tries in 11 games this year is the proof. Of the top 20 try-scorers on the circuit, only New Zealand’s Portia Woodman (1.5) and Michaela Blyde (1.2) are averaging more tries per match than Farella (1.1).
With the season-ending Paris stop acting as the penultimate prize leading into this summer’s Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco, the satisfyingly Italian surname has long been household on the circuit. Yet, if form and trajectory prove accurate, Farella might just be on the precipice of dancing her way down the sidelines and into a statistical sevens stratosphere no Canadian has ever touched.