The No 8 is following in the footsteps of both her parents in captaining Canada at a World Cup. Tom English reports
Sophie de Goede and a Canadian rugby dynasty
Sophie de Goede is talking about her mum, Steph, and the history she made as the first woman to captain Canada at a Rugby World Cup, in Wales in 1991, and then how she did it again in 1994 in Scotland.
Now she’s talking about her dad, Hans, who was the first man to captain Canada at a World Cup, in 1987 in New Zealand, and how he had stayed in the national team for 13 years.
“You might say I lucked out on the gene pool,” says the 23-year-old No 8 who, guess what, is captaining her country at the World Cup. Mother, father and daughter all leaders of their nation on the biggest stage. The de Goedes are not just a rugby dynasty, they are a living and breathing trivia question.
A big, forceful ball-carrier with goalkicking prowess that dates back to her days as a fly-half, de Goede has presence, not just in what she does on the rugby field but in what she says off it.
When she talks about what this tournament in New Zealand means to her personally, and what she wants it to mean to the next generation of Canadian girls coming in her stead, it’s easy to understand why she was chosen to lead this team. She’s a brilliant communicator.
Her back story ain’t half bad either. “Mom captained Canada in our first-ever game and she was with the team for ten years. There’s not a lot, if any, footage of her playing but I hear about the legend she was. Mom always says that the older she gets, the better she becomes.
“I actually met somebody recently who played with her and she talked about her presence on the field and how calm she was and what a great leader she became. It was neat to hear that. Apparently she was a pretty ferocious flank.”
That’s mum. What about dad? Well, Hans captained Canada in the sport’s first-ever World Cup back in 1987, in the same country, New Zealand, where his daughter is leading them all these years later. Hans won one game and lost two. As part of a talented Canadian squad currently ranked third in the world, Sophie is intending to do a whole lot better than that.
“Dad always has pearls of wisdom for me,” she says. “He sends me an email every few days with notes about leadership and how to mould a team and how to speak to players. I’m a young captain so having their insight is fantastic for me. I ask them a lot of questions.
“I’m lucky to have them but not just them. Some of the other girls in the squad have captained before and we just guide each other along. We’re all in this together. We’re such a close group.”
As a kid, de Goede dabbled in many sports. There was cross country and track, rowing and soccer, volleyball and field hockey, basketball and rugby. All bar two went by the wayside: basketball and rugby. She remains a fine operator in the former – she played and excelled for her university team – but rugby was always the game that stole her heart.
“Playing many different sports helped me, not just in developing my physical capabilities but on the emotional side. I mean, I wasn’t the best volleyball player, for instance. I was coming off the bench a lot and I’d like to think that spending time in that role helped me mature. I wasn’t the star player but I had to contribute in other ways. I’m sure that helped me.”
She remembers her school days and coming home and watching Test rugby on tape. She was always a Dan Carter fan and played ten in those days. That’s because, as the daughter of two internationals, she had an innate understanding of the game, an ability to see things that her peers could not. It was only when she grew into her body that she moved into the pack, from playmaker to ball-carrier. Richie McCaw, her mum’s favourite, became a favourite of hers too.
“I know more about rugby history than, say, Canadian ice hockey history, which is very rare in Canada,” she says. “I could tell you more about Carter and McCaw than Wayne Gretzky. In 2006 the women’s World Cup was in Canada and I remember the thrill of it. I was six.
“Then, in 2014, we were on a family holiday in Amsterdam because my dad has a Dutch background. The women’s World Cup was on in France. We hadn’t expected Canada to make the final, but they did. We beat France and it was unbelievable. So my mom and dad say, ‘Right, come on, we’re not missing this final’, so we left for Paris and were there on the day.
“I can’t express how much it meant to us to have a Canadian team in a World Cup final. Growing up a rugby fan, we always watched these other nations winning things and we wished it could be us. You cheered for Canada, of course, but you also had another team that you’d cheer for because you knew it might not work out for Canada. So to actually watch your own country compete in a World Cup final was so special.
“There were so many role models on that team that I looked up to and wanted to play like. That really cemented my dream. They lost the final (21-9 to England) but it just means that we can create history by going one step further. We want to make history by winning it and have that story echo on in the future.”
For de Goede it all began with Castaway Wanderers in Victoria, the club that put her on the path to where she is now. In 2016, she was named Canada’s Young Female Player of the Year, followed soon after by a spell with the national sevens team. In 2018, she scored four tries in an U20 Tri-Nations game against the USA. Her athleticism, power and skill-set stood out, and she made her Test debut in 2019.
She went to Queen’s University in Ontario and her reputation grew. In 2020, she spent a successful season with Saracens in the Premier 15s. “I loved being a part of the club,” she says. “It was win-focused and very competitive and I really got a kick out of that. I enjoyed living abroad and what the league and the country offers, then I had to come back and finish my degree.”
She talks about the determination of her team, part of it coming from the fact that they are amateurs where the top nations these days are mostly, or totally, professional. In the current Canada squad there are students and those holding down day jobs. De Goede herself has just finished a commerce degree and is looking to get into the workplace.
“Quite a few of our players who have jobs would get up at 5am, be in the gym by six, go off to work between eight and four and then go training from five to seven. It’s a challenge but it’s special to know how committed everyone is.
“At times you’re going, ‘Man, imagine how good we could be if we could train full-time together?’, but the flipside is a strength that comes with knowing that everyone is making a big sacrifice to do what we’re doing. We don’t have the contracts that they might have in England, France and New Zealand.
“Rugby Canada supports us as well as they can – they’ve been great – but we don’t have the same resources that some of the other bigger unions do. To prepare as best we can for the World Cup, girls have either quit jobs or taken leaves of absence.
“As tough as it is, it does bring you a lot closer. We feel responsibility on our shoulders to make a big statement at this World Cup. We want to show that Canada is a team for the present and the future and if we can make a statement then we’ll have a leg to stand on when we ask for more resources in the years ahead.”
Does she see her mission as more than a bid for a World Cup? “That’s what it feels like. You don’t think about that every day, but when you think about the broader perspective we do feel like we’re playing for the future of Canadian rugby, not just women but men as well.
“We need to drive the sport forward and try to get more profile and more backing, and that only comes with success. Seeing it that way brings a certain amount of pressure but it’s also a big opportunity. There’s a lot riding on this.”
What can we expect from Canada at this tournament? “You look at England and they have a structured game and France who play an unstructured game and we are trying to find a balance of the two. We want to navigate between a structured attack that gives us opportunities to then go and play unstructured rugby. Defensively we want to be a really physical presence, we want to put a real stamp on the game from kick-off.”
They won all three of their pool matches, against Japan, Italy and the USA, with a bonus point to finish second in the seedings for the last eight – and they face their North American rivals again in the quarter-finals. She says that they’re far from the finished product but they feel that they’re bubbling nicely and should be in peak form at the right time.
“It’s my first World Cup after having watched so many. We all just want to be part of history, to do something that will make young Canadians – girls and boys – say, ‘Hey, that’s pretty neat, let’s try to do what they did’. It’s about the here and now but it’s also about the future. That’s the way I see it.”
This article originally appeared in Rugby World magazine’s November 2022 edition.
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