11/24/2017 08:43 EST | Updated 11/27/2017 05:02 EST

Canada set for semifinal against mighty Australia at Rugby League world Cup

Canada was thumped 88-0 by defending champion Australia in group play at the Women's Rugby League World Cup and chances are it will be another tough day at the office this weekend when the two meet in the semifinal.

But whatever happens Sunday at Southern Cross Group Stadium in Sydney, Australia, the tournament is already a success for the fledgling Canada Ravens.

The Canadian women had only played three matches — ever — prior to the World Cup. And they were against club sides.

Canada coach Mike Castle, a transplanted Brit based on Australia's Gold Coast, assembled a roster long on rugby union experience but short on rugby league knowledge. But he liked its athleticism and desire to learn.

"Who knows? I think we might turn a few heads," Castle said prior to Canada's opening game against three-time champion New Zealand on Nov. 16.

The Canadian women held the Kiwis to a 16-4 lead at the half before being overwhelmed in the second half, losing their international debut 50-4.

They bounced back three days later to score a historic 22-8 victory over Papua New Guinea.

And despite the lopsided loss to Australia that followed last Wednesday, the lone win was enough to move Canada into the semifinals at the six-team event that is running in conjunction with the 14-team men's World Cup.

 "We've definitely had some ups and downs. But more ups than downs, which is good," Castle said Friday.

Canada rested Andrea Burk, Mackenzie Fane, Nina Bui and several others for the first Australia game. 

"I think it will excite everybody to have those players back," Castle said. "I think we approach it exactly the same as we have done every game really. We're going in there to learn, enjoy ourselves and work hard for each other."

The Canadians' enthusiasm for the game has also been appreciated Down Under. As has their progress.

Canada captain Mandy Marchak, a former rugby union international of some renown, led all women at the tournament with 356 running metres after two rounds.

"She's got an incredible motor," Castle said. "She's always there to catch the ball and take the team forward. She's a perfect choice to lead the team. She runs hard, she runs with intent. She's got a huge work rate. She is a real inspiration to our teammates."

Canadian teammates Natasha Smith, who scored three tries against Papua New Guinea, was fourth in metres gained (279) and Gillian Boag was seventh (258).

"Every time we've taken the training field or played (a game), I think we've improved by about 50 per cent," said Castle. "Each time we finish playing, we identify a few things, work hard on them over the two-day break."

One such focus was attacking kicks. The work paid off against PNG when Sabrina McDaid touched down a slick Stevi Schnoor grubber kick for a 16-8 Canada lead. 

Not all the reviews have been good, however.

Canada centre Janai Haupapa will miss Sunday's semifinal after receiving a two-game suspension for biting. The victim of the fourth biting allegation — the World Cup's fourth — was Jillaroos co-captain Renae Kunst in the group match.

Castle called the action "out-of-character" for his player.

Natalie Tam, who was taken off on a stretcher in the PNG game after being knocked out making a tackle, has recovered and is available for selection Sunday.

After the World Cup, the Canadian women will set their sights on the Commonwealth 9s — rugby league's version of rugby union's sevens game — in February in Brisbane.

Castle and his staff hope to continue working with the team.

Primarily played in England, Australia and New Zealand, rugby league is the sport's lesser-known code although it has made inroads in Canada this year with the success of the Toronto Wolfpack.

League features 13 players instead of 15 with teams given six chances to advance the ball up the field. It can be a brutal game with gang-tackling on defence, but there is also room for real creativity on attack.


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter.