Canadian women make presence felt at World Championship

Taking part in her third IFAF Women’s Football World Championship, the end is in sight for Laurence Pontbriand.

A receiver with Canada’s national team since 2013, Pontbriand will be on the field on Sunday, Aug. 7, at 9:30 a.m. ET (watch live by clicking here) playing against host Finland for the bronze medal. It’ll mark the conclusion of her third World Championship tournament and, as she decided earlier this year, the end of her competitive football days.

“I’m feeling a little bit old,” laughed Pontbriand, who started working for the CFL in 2018 and is currently the league’s manager of football and officiating development.

“As a receiver, the next (World Championship) would be four years (from now). I’m turning 34 this year. That would be pushing it a little.”

She’s navigated the World Championship with another CFL connection. Official Emily Clarke has been there on the field, working her first international tournament. She’ll also work the bronze medal game.

“It’s a totally different opportunity from anything else that I’ve ever gotten to do between junior football and university and CFL stuff,” Clarke said.

“There are some big differences in terms of rules, obviously and mechanics, language barrier to an extent with officials. We had some talk back-and-forth in an online forum (before the tournament) and everybody seemed to connect pretty well.”



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Emily Clarke, seen here in a 2021 photo, will work the bronze medal game at the IFAF Women’s World Championship on Sunday (The Canadian Press)

Through the three tournaments that Pontbriand has taken part in, she’s seen positive change in the game around her. On a personal level, she took the 2013 trip as a learning experience, where she faced opponents from around the world and got to see firsthand the depth of talent that the United States boasts.

In 2017, “I’m not going to be modest. I had a great tournament,” she said proudly. She was named a team MVP. “It went really, really well for me. I was at the peak of my career.

“This one I come in more as a veteran receiver, a bit of a leadership role on the team and just hoping to be able to show what I did in 2017. Trying to be that No. 1 receiver, still trying to prove myself to my team but also to the rest of the world. I always try to prepare to be the No.1 in the world.”

As she looks around at the team that she’s gotten to know so well, she sees growth in the group, which comes from a growth in the women’s game across the country.

“From the first (tournament) I did, I can definitely see some improvement,” she said.

“2017 was pretty good. We gave a better show to the U.S. in the gold medal game. I feel like in 2017 I started seeing true football players in a position of seeing true athletes from other sports coming to play tackle football.

“This year we have amazing athletes on the team and true football players as well. We have people that never really played tackle football before coming from rugby…that are starters. I’m not worried at all. I would have been back then.”

The pandemic certainly hurt the growth of the game over the last two seasons, but that hasn’t stopped that flow of athletes that Pontbriand mentioned. One of them is Emmarae Dale, who joined the Saskatoon Hilltops’ men’s junior team in 2020 as a linebacker.

“That’s really nice to have on our team,” Pontbriand said.

“We also have players now that are coming from the U18 level that are now on our senior team. Now you have players with a lot of experience that are still really young and athletic. It’s really good to see.”

A champion of growing the women’s game and someone that’s been key to the diversification of officials in the CFL, Pontbriand is thrilled to see Clarke, who made her CFL regular season officiating debut in 2021, making the trip to Finland. Clarke’s been a part of an officiating crew that’s a 50-50 female-male split.

Pontbriand and her Canadian teammates took their semi-final loss to Great Britain hard, but they’ll compete for bronze at the Women’s World Championship on Sunday (Supplied, Laurence Pontbriand)

“That’s going to show that there’s a high level of women officials that can officiate so I think that’s really, really positive,” Pontbriand said.

“She’s going to be a leader even if it’s only going to be her first time officiating at the World Championship. She’ll be a leader amongst those other women officials, and it’s going to push the quality of officiating up.”

Clarke sees an opportunity to set an example in this tournament, just as she does through her work in Canada.

“I think it’s really important,” Clarke said. “Between all of the different facets of involvement within football, whether it’s playing or coaching, because there are quite a few female coaches that I know, at least with the Canadian staff. I think it’s big any time you can get the representation from different genders to be involved in any type of capacity.”

After a tireless stretch of training and fundraising to get to the World Championship, Pontbriand has tried to keep the idea of her playing days coming to an end at the back of her mind. She’ll of course have her work with the CFL waiting for her after this weekend and she’s already thinking about moving into coaching. Football isn’t over for her, by any means but it will change.

Talking about it, she thought of her late father, Raymond. Always supportive of her desire to play football and to turn her passion for the game into a career, he was instrumental in her getting to where she is today, both on and off of the field.

When her family was losing him two years ago, he reiterated his support for her.

“He was just a big sports fan in general and he played football when he was younger,” Pontbriand said of her father.

“He really loved that I was playing football. Two weeks before he passed, he was starting to lose it a little bit but he said something.

“I was watching him that night and I woke up because he was moving during the night and he said out of nowhere, ‘Laurence. You know, at the beginning it was football and then it was hockey but really at the end it was football.’ He just left it like that. I took it as, ‘I love that you’re a football player. I’m really proud that you’re playing football right now and I’m really happy with that.’”

She’s carried that message and his memory with her to Finland, where her playing days will culminate on Sunday.