12/03/2014 02:00 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST

Canadian women's rugby sevens team takes first step along Olympic road to Rio

The first step on the road to Olympic qualification starts Thursday for the Canadian women's rugby sevens side.

And with the 2016 Games beckoning, Canadian coach John Tait is expecting everyone on the Women's Seven Series circuit to raise their game this season.

"I think the games are just going to get tighter and tighter," he said. "That's why Dubai is really important for us this year, to get off to a really good start because I think the pressure is going to build with each Series event as the desperation for points climbs."

The heat will be on as Canada plays Brazil, Fiji and England in Pool C play on the opening day of competition of the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, the first of six tournaments. The forecast calls for temperatures around 30 degrees.

Canada's men team starts play Friday in Dubai, which is the second stop on the HSBC Sevens World Series.

The top four men's and women's squads at the end of the sevens season qualify automatically for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The Canadian women finished third on the circuit last season, behind runner-up Australia and champion New Zealand.

The Canadians were the only team to make a final (in Atlanta) other than New Zealand and Australia.

Tait believes Australia, Canada, New Zealand and England can win each time out, with teams like Russia and Fiji capable of upsets.

"Every year's got tighter and I think this year is going to be the most competitive for sure, by far," said Tait, who had to deal with injuries in his squad last season.

Jen Kish, who missed the 2013 Dubai event with a hamstring injury, will lead a veteran Canadian squad that includes Ghislaine Landry, Mandy Marchak, Kelly Russell and Ashley Steacy. World Cup star Magali Harvey, the IRB Women's Player of the Year, is also on the roster.

Tait believes two-thirds of his squad is settled, with others still looking to make their case for the remaining berths on the Olympic team.

The Canadian women geared up for Dubai with a three-week tour Down Under in October that saw Canada defeat Australia 17-12 before losing 17-12 and 17-15 in games that went down to the last play.

"They were excellent games," said Tait, a former Canadian international forward of some note himself. "I was really pleased how we played."

The Canadians also held a joint camp with the Australians, with former Canadian men's seven coach Geraint John — now head of Australia's sevens program — refereeing one scrimmage.

"It was great for us because I think the girls now really know and believe in what we have to do to beat a team like Australia," Tait said of the trip. "And that was one of the purposes in going there as well."

The Canadians went on to win the Central Coast Sevens, going 6-0 while outscoring club opponents 221-21.

Should Canada not finish in the top four in the series, it can still earn Olympic qualification by winning the North American and Caribbean regional (NACRA) championship. There are similar regional championships in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and South America.

The regional events will take place between June 1 and Dec. 15, 2015.

A final 16-team qualification tournament will send one other team to Rio, with host Brazil rounding out the 12-team Olympic field.

The 204-15 women's season features 11 core teams, the top seven from the 2013-14 series (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Russia, England, Spain and U.S.) and four teams from the first series qualifier in Hong Kong in September 2014 (Fiji, France, South Africa and China). An invited team, mostly Brazil, will make up the roster of each event.

Tait is obviously hoping for automatic qualification. The alternative is a possible showdown with the U.S., led by former Canadian women's coach Ric Suggitt, in the NACRA regional championship.

The Canadians, who have 21 centralized players in Victoria, have not lost to the Americans recently but Tait knows Suggitt will have the Women's Eagles ready.

"They've got some dangerous players and big home-run hitters," he said. "They're going to be a dangerous side."


Canada Roster

Elissa Alarie, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue Rugby Club, Trois-Rivieres, Que.; Arielle Dubissette-Borrice, Toronto Scottish, Toronto; Bianca Farella, Town of Mount Royal RFC, Montreal; Julia Greenshields, Sarnia Saints, Sarnia, Ont.; Magali Harvey, Club de Rugby Quebec, Quebec City; Jennifer Kish, Edmonton Rockers, Edmonton; Ghislaine Landry, Toronto Scottish, Toronto; Mandy Marchak, Capilano RFC; Winnipeg; Kayla Moleschi, Williams Lake Rustlers,Williams Lake, B.C.; Karen Paquin, Club de Rugby Quebec, Quebec City; Kelly Russell, Toronto Nomads, Bolton, Ont., Ashley Steacy, Lethbridge Rugby Club, Lethbridge, Alta.

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