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Written By: Mark Janzen
With Canada five metres from the try-line, Kelly Russell lined up at her usual No. 8 position with a pack in front of her that is as powerful as any in the world.
The fifth place match at this past summer’s Women’s Rugby World Cup was already a forgone conclusion. Russell and her Canadian teammates were well on their way to a convincing win over Australia. Entering the tournament, they hadn’t wanted to be in this position. Coming off a second place finish in 2014, Canada had championship aspirations. Yet, despite the disappointment of a missing out on the semifinals, there they were, following their captain’s lead and putting in an impressive tournament-ending shift against Australia.
Russell wouldn’t have allowed it any other way.
With the Canadian forwards driving the Australians back across their own line, Russell dribbled the ball forward, following her teammates' overwhelming push. On the heels of a 17-year rugby-playing career that was so often predicated on hard work, Russell’s final try wearing the Maple Leaf might have been her easiest. Tapping the ball across the line with her right foot, Russell simply touched it down.
It was her final try in a Canadian jersey. Her teammates surrounded her with an exuberance that was befitting of a celebration for Canada’s most decorated player in women’s rugby history. Fifteen minutes later, she walked off the field for the final time with the senior women’s team, marking the end of an historic era that will never be replicated. Russell, 31, can be encapsulated with the fact she was quite literally the driving force behind a history-making age in Canadian women’s rugby.
From a best-ever second place finish at the World Cup in 2014, to a gold medal in the debut of rugby sevens at the 2015 Pan American Games, to a bronze medal in the first-ever Olympic rugby sevens tournament at the 2016 Games in Rio, to captaining Canada at the World Cup in 2017, the Bolton, Ontario product will enter the history books having truly done it all.
Her final try against Australia capped a tournament in which she played every single minute, and it will put an exclamation point on an unprecedented career.
“I knew going into the World Cup that it would likely be the end for me, but I didn’t put a lot of focus on it at that time,” Russell recalls. “I just wanted to play and do well with the team.”
Sounds very Russell-like.
“I love the game and love playing the game, but I’m happy where I’m at right now and [with] what I’ve done,” she adds.
So she should be. Putting it all together – her two World Cup Sevens appearances, including a silver medal-winning effort in 2013, her three Women's 15s World Cup appearances, her Olympic and Pan Am Games performances and her 53 total caps – her accolades and contributions to women’s rugby in Canada are unmatched.
“Kelly brought leadership on and off the field,” says former Canadian fifteens coach Francois Ratier, who is now the head coach of the national fifteens academy. “She was a complete player. She was technical when she had to be technical and very physical when she had to be physical. She was also very mentally strong. She was the description of what it takes to be an international star.”
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Following in the footsteps of her father, Sandy Russell, Kelly took up the sport when she was 14 years old.
“As soon as I was able to get into it, I loved it from the first training session,” Russell says.
From Day 1, she made her presence felt on the pitch.
“I just remember hitting anything and everything that I could,” she says. “It’s a blur, but I remember having the biggest smile on my face. My shoulders were sore, but I was like, ‘this is awesome.’”
Her younger sister, Laura, joined a year later, and the Russell sisters started a journey that made them the most well-known rugby-playing sisters in the country. A leader by nature and with a professional approach to her rugby career from the outset, Russell was a star-in-the-making. Joining her father’s club, the Toronto Nomads, helped propel Russell into what would become a 10-year international career – a decade of excellence that Laura witnessed first-hand.
“She has that professional ability about her and that leadership quality that players look up to and aspire to be like,” says Laura, who remains with Canada’s fifteens program and recently returned from the team’s tour in England. “The way she handles herself and the work she does behind the scenes is really inspirational. She always did everything she could to make herself the best possible athlete.
“For me to have her so close and to be able to constantly push her and have her push me made us the best we could be. I’m the player I am because of her.”
The same could be said of Canada’s rugby culture within the women’s program. It is the way it is because of Russell.
When she earned her first senior cap in 2007 and then played her first sevens contest with the Canada’s senior team in 2008, women’s rugby was a minnow in the country’s sporting landscape. A decade on and it has been players like Russell who have helped catapult the women’s game into a stratosphere few envisioned when she was still plying her trade at the University of Western Ontario (2005 to 2008).
While still something of an under-appreciated sport in North America, the simple fact that Canada’s most recent three-game test series against England was televised on TSN is a statement of huge progress. Ten years ago, the idea of televising a women’s rugby test series would have been entirely unheard of.
“Just to look back and see how the game has grown, where it’s at and the future of the game – it’s so incredibly exciting,” Kelly says. “I’m proud that I’ve been part of this growth and have been able to give something to the game. It’s grown drastically. Now women’s rugby is on TV. People get excited about our team and watching women’s rugby.”
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As Canada’s women’s fifteens coach, Ratier had some difficult decisions to make during his tenure.
Selecting his captain for this past summer’s World Cup was not one of those.
“She has a very good understanding of the game of rugby, so she was able to transfer concepts from the coaches’ perspectives to the players’ perspectives,” Ratier says. “She was a perfect person to be a captain and was a great relay person between players and coaches.”
The celebration when she scored against Australia is proof the players thought the same thing.
“There wasn’t anyone better to be the captain,” Laura says. “It was pretty cool to see what she did for the girls and how much respect everyone has for her.”
Three months after the World Cup, Russell earned yet another prestigious honour as she was named to the first-ever Barbarians women’s team. Indeed, her on-field exploits have been well documented in Canada, but the invitation was an international nod to an impressive career.
“It was a great experience and one that I will cherish forever,” says Russell, who suggested she would be open to playing for the Barbarians again, if asked. “Having the chance to be part of that first-ever side was incredible.”
Now, for the first time in a long time, she’s back home in Toronto, relaxing. She didn’t tour with the fifteens team in the fall and she didn’t suit up for the sevens team in the World Series. For fans of Canadian rugby, it may have seemed a bit strange not to see her on the pitch. Instead, Russell watched from a distance and she had no regrets.
“It’s been an incredible thing to be a part of, but I’m thankful I’m doing it on my own terms. it’s nice to take a breath. For me, it feels right.”