We continue our columns counting down to Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 with Canada wing Julianne Zussman, who looks back on last month's test series with rivals USA and the realisation that the tournament in England is looming fast on the horizon.
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2010 means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some, it's the beginning of a new weight loss regime. For others, it's the beginning of a decade of possibilities. For a select few, it's the quest for an Olympic medal.
For the 29 of Canada's top women's rugby players who travelled to Lakeland in Florida last month, it meant just three words: World Cup year.
The mood was different when the team arrived in Florida just one week into 2010. There are only seven months left to prepare for the World Cup and we're all feeling the sense of urgency.
In 2009, our team played eight matches against countries worldwide, and 37 girls had the opportunity to wear the Maple Leaf. We all know that this year is going to be different. This year is World Cup Year.
What better way to kick off 2010 than with a set of matches against our North American rivals?
Two out of the last three times that Canada faced the USA, the point differential was five points or less. We always know it's going to be a physical game in which we have to contest for every possession and every point.
The first match in Lakeland didn't disappoint; it was exactly the challenge that we had signed up for.
We had to defend on our goal-line for what felt like 75 percent of the first half and finished it trailing 8-0. The USA came out on fire and put us under a lot of pressure. We were a little disorganised at times, but there was still a general sense of composure on the field.
In the second half we managed to shift our game plan and put some points on the board. Sarah Ulmer's first try - a clean crack through the USA backline - brought us the momentum we needed to turn the game around.
Cheryl Phillips scored her second international try in the far left corner, and Anna Schnell's foot did the work between the posts. We were relieved to finish the game with an 18-8 win.
There were several unforced ball-handing errors, and with a number of stoppages by the referee, the game was anything but smooth. That said we managed to escape with a win.
Our line-up for the second game saw 11 changes to the starting 15. The USA also made 13 changes, but regardless of the personnel switches, the second match was just as tight as the first one.
At half time the score was 0-0, but despite the stalemate, the game was far from boring. The points started to accumulate in the second half, although with 10 minutes left we were trailing 11-5. Cue a dramatic finish.
In injury-time Mandy Marchak scored off a sequence of forward drives to bring us to within one point. Unfortunately the conversion - and with it the win - sailed six inches right of the far post. We lost 11-10.
The positive side of the outcome - a shared test series - was that we proved to ourselves that we could get the points in when the pressure was on, and we maintained composure when we were down in the last play of the game.
The other side was equally clear - there's still a lot of work to be done between now and Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 in August.
Next up for the Canadian women is a trip to New Zealand in April. We don't know where or when we're playing yet, but we're hoping to play a couple of test matches as well as a couple of exhibition games against strong regional competition.
Needless to say, the team is excited to travel across the world for the opportunity to play in a country where rugby is the national religion.
In Canada we're accustomed to answering everyday questions such as "Rugby… what's rugby?" and "Women play rugby too? "In Canada?" Though rugby is still perceived as a fringe sport in the eyes of the hockey-crazed Canadian public, we've got our eyes set on the international stage.
The trip to New Zealand should provide us with a benchmark of where we stand in our World Cup preparations.
We haven't played against New Zealand since 2006 - they beat us 66-7 in our own backyard at the last World Cup - and the three-time defending champions will present a real challenge. There is very little room for error against them, as they will capitalise on all opportunities.
With only a handful of international tests left before the World Cup, we all feel the significance of each game. Over the past three years, each test match has been challenging in-and-of-itself, but the ultimate goal of all teams is to perform at the World Cup.
Now that the calendar year finally reads 2010, the World Cup is feeling closer than ever.
Next week we hear from Sweden captain Ulrika Andersson-Hall, who led her country to World Cup qualification at the expense of Italy and Spain. Twelve years have passed since Sweden and Andersson-Hall played on the World Cup stage, so the achievement of qualification is not lost on the fly half.
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- Listen to this week's Total Rugby show
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