It’s been years since Canadian national team member Julianne Zussman has played a rugby game in her hometown, but she’ll get that chance when the NACRA Rugby World Cup 7s Qualifier comes to Twin Elm Rugby Park Aug. 25-26. Photo: Ian Moor
By Dan Plouffe
There’s no margin for error for Ottawa native Julianne Zussman and the Canadian women’s rugby sevens squad as they enter the NACRA regional qualifier Aug. 25-26 at Twin Elm Rugby Park, but the required must-win scenario to move onto the Rugby Sevens World Cup is not something that’s about to intimidate the members of one of the world’s top squads.
“Our goal is to go out and win and to qualify for that spot at the World Cup,” Zussman states simply. “Our program’s in a great spot. For the last year or so we’ve been improving and moving forward, which is really exciting.”
Rugby and school have brought Zussman to many places since her days at Ashbury College, where coach Jen Boyd plucked her away from soccer and started her on the quest she hopes will one day land her in the Olympic Games.
First, it was McGill, where she played for the Martlets and completed her BA. She spent some time with the regular 15s national team, but didn’t receive much playing time with them. This was before she discovered the sevens game – which suited her skill-set perfectly since she was more of an all-around player rather than someone who fits the more defined positions of 15-a-side games.
“You can’t hide in sevens,” notes the 25-year-old. “Every player has to be strong and fast and fit. You have to be able to play all roles. You have to be able to ruck, tackle and pass, make good decisions, kick – there’s an endless number of skills you can improve as a player. It makes it really fun to be a part of.”
But before getting her sport career back on track, Zussman elected to put the focus back on her education for a bit, attending the International Academy of Sports Science and Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland to complete a Masters degree in sports management.
That suited her perfectly when she moved back to join the national squad in Langford, B.C. since she was able to pick up work at the Canadian Sport Centre Pacific while training for rugby. It’s a long way from home, but the west coast is treating Zussman great.
“I love it,” she says. “I always thought B.C. was a beautiful part of Canada, and there’s definitely a culture of high-performance sport here too.”
The rugby team trains in the same facility as world-class swimmers, triathletes, divers, and rowers. She’s seen many head off to the London Olympics, and she like to follow them next time to Rio de Janeiro when rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut in 2016.
“I think about it every day,” Zussman says. “It’s a really exciting opportunity that I never thought I would have when I started playing rugby. It wasn’t an Olympic sport then, but now that it’s there, it’s definitely part of my goals.”
But first she’ll get to have another dream come true as she gets to play for Team Canada on her home pitch in Richmond.
“Hopefully we’re going to get a ton of people out,” says the former Ottawa Irish club player. “I am definitely relying on my friends and family to make up a serious part of the cheering squad.”
The Canadians built confidence from a tough tournament earlier this season in the Netherlands, where four of the 12 games were won or lost on the last play of the game – an indication of the wildness possible in the sevens game. They won the last NACRA sevens competition with a 38-0 victory over Jamaica last year.
The Canadian men’s sevens will also be in action at the same event as they vie for one of two qualifying spots in their Sevens World Cup.
For Zussman, it was great news to hear that the team’s lone domestic fixture of the season would be in her hometown.
“Oh my God, I was stoked,” she recalls. “It’s the visual for me. Getting to play around the world in these stadiums and seeing all the crowds and hearing all the fans.
“I sort of implanted that at Twin Elm and I can’t even imagine how exciting that would be to be at the field where I played growing up and just see people dressed in red and white cheering on our national team in the nation’s capital.”