A Good Conversion: Green Bay Alumna Lukan Competes in Olympic Rugby

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Watching NCAA women’s basketball alumni perform at the Olympics is typically a privilege reserved for the UConns, Baylors, and Notre Dames of the world. However at Tokyo 2020, Green Bay fans were able to join in on the fun – with a little bit of a twist. Several of them, actually.

Enter former Phoenix guard Kaili Lukan. Lukan enjoyed a highly-decorated HLWBB career from 2012-16 as a two-time all-conference second-teamer and the league’s defensive player of the year as a senior, when she had 75 steals. Green Bay was still at the height of its dynasty powers when Lukan roamed the Kress and accordingly, she helped the team to three Horizon League titles and NCAA Tournament trips, though 2015’s version was particularly notable given Lukan’s spot on the all-tournament team and the 17-and-8 line she fired off against Princeton at NCAAs.

Since graduation, Lukan has changed positions, to forward. Rugby sevens forward on the Canadian national team, to be specific, a side she joined in 2017.

This wasn’t something done on a whim. In fact, Lukan isn’t even the only member of her family to play both basketball at Green Bay and rugby for the national team; she followed her sister Megan, a similarly successful member of Phoenix from 2010-14, who went on to win rugby sevens bronze with Canada in Rio five years ago in both regards, first playing rugby at Barrie Central Collegiate Institute.

“It’s a dream come true,” their mother, Margaret Mulder, told CTV. “I had no idea that they would get to this level. She’s followed in Megan’s footsteps for many, many years, but she’s definitely standing on her own two feet.”

The younger Lukan was set back quite a bit by an ACL tear that forced her to miss most of 2018 with the national team (she also suffered an ACL tear as a freshman at Green Bay), but she’s still rolled up several accomplishments including gold at the 2019 Pan Am Games. Canada also finished third in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons of the Sevens Series, the first of which served as an Olympic qualification.

Changing the Game

To be clear, there are far better instructors for Rugby Sevens 101 out there in the world. I’m not even an expert, just a guy who’s watched it a few times and became interested. But it’s a fascinating sport and while it’s been around just as long as the 15-a-side versions of the sport, it’s currently enjoying an explosion of popularity worldwide (not the least of which is its inclusion in the Olympic program for the second time), so let’s get some basics out there.

As the name indicates, there are only seven players on the field for each team at a time which creates a game where brute force often takes a back seat to speed and conditioning, though there’s still plenty of physicality involved. Generally, the mechanics aren’t entirely different from American football (though we don’t know a ton about that in the Horizon League either) in that the basic object of the game is to advance the ball into the other team’s end through running, kicking, and lateral or backwards passing.

If you successfully touch the ball down – you do have to actually touch the ball down on the grass for it to count – it’s called a try, worth five points. The scoring team then has the opportunity to drop kick a conversion from 20 meters (just under 22 yards) away for an additional two points, but with the catch that the kick must be taken from a spot perpendicular to where the try was scored. As a result, the “easier” tries wider on the field create more difficult conversions, while managing to break the try line in the middle of the field makes for a less challenging one.

Of course, this entire time the side without the ball is trying to get it, usually by tackling the ball carrier, who then must let go of the ball, or by disrupting possession in other ways. Forwards like Lukan have the decidedly less-glamorous job of winning possession through scrums, which typically are awarded when the team with the ball illegally propels it forward, and lineouts, the name given to the out of bounds restarts that often look like jump balls. It’s not hard to imagine some rugby coach at Barrie Central saying to Lukan “hey, you’re big, you play basketball, get in that scrum” at some point.

Here’s a video that helped me out a bit on all of that, if you’re inclined to undertake some additional research and fill in some of the additional details and nuance that I’ve omitted here:

While “sevens” references a player count, it could also stand for the length of each half. Yep, the entire game time of a match is 14 minutes. Throwing in a brief halftime, stoppage time, and a handful of other short delays takes things to about 20 minutes total, so in the time it takes to watch a baseball or football game, you can literally watch, say, all four sevens quarterfinal matchups and a pair of 9th-12th placement contests. In fact, the entire women’s rugby sevens tournament lasted three days with morning and evening (or evening and overnight if you’re in the U.S.) three-hour slots on each day covering three pool round games, an eight-team playoff, and enough consolation brackets to decide every team’s final position on the field. In that sense it’s a little like 3×3 basketball, a sport seemingly tailor-made for our smartphone-truncated attention spans.

Of course, the unfortunate side of that, particularly in circling things back to Lukan and Team Canada, is how quickly the Olympic experience comes and goes. Sure, it might not be quite as fast as a swimmer only entered in one event, but it’s a stark contrast to something like the basketball tournaments, which sprawl over two weeks. And for Canada, it certainly went.

Opponents Appear On and Off the Field

The Games started well enough, with a 33-0 thrashing of Brazil to open Pool B play led by captain Ghislaine Landry and her 13 points on a try and four conversions, though things took a turn downward seven hours later when Canada fell 26-12 to an upstart Fiji team, a result that proved a critical blow. The ascendant Fijians, who finished 11th at the 2018 World Cup and 8th at the Rio Olympics, were just beginning a surprising run that would take them all the way to the bronze medal. In addition to placing Canada in their hole, they eliminated 2016 gold medalists Australia on the way to the podium and nearly took down 2020’s eventual gold medalists, rugby superpower New Zealand, as well.

The 1-1 mark set up a wild second day for the Canadians, one which more or less ran the full emotional gamut both on and off the field. Early in the first session, France dominated Canada 31-0 to win the pool and put Lukan and company on the ropes.

Roughly around the time that the France match was ending, a man named Jamie Cudmore logged on to Twitter to revel in the Canadians’ misfortune. Cudmore, a former national team player who holds coaching and administrative roles with Rugby Canada, probably should’ve thrown his phone in the toilet instead.

Some background is in order: In January, Canada’s team (including Lukan) filed a harassment and bullying complaint with Rugby Canada against former coach John Tait. That ultimately led to Tait’s resignation in April, although an independent investigation cleared him of wrongdoing. Bad feelings remain on both sides of the issue, with the players asserting that their concerns weren’t properly heard and Tait loyalists within the governing body continuing to do what they can to make the team’s lives miserable.

Cudmore, for what it’s worth, was fired the next day.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s been a really tough time for the group off the field and on the field,” Landry told the Canadian Press just before the Olympics started. “You can’t just turn that off when you show up. But credit to how tight this group is right now. We went through it together. We did get closer. A lot of honest, vulnerable conversations were had within our group to help each other out and to speak our truths. I don’t think any of us would have planned or wanted to do this at the timing that it happened. But I’m so proud of the way we’ve come through it.”

Given the timing of Cudmore’s abuse and the old wounds it re-opened, it’s likely Canada’s team didn’t fully process the swings their tournament fate took in the hours after the loss to France.

Essentially, the squad’s remaining hope centered around the fact that the eight quarterfinals participants included the first and second place teams from each of the three pools, as well as two of the three third place finishes. Low seeds are low for a reason of course, but it’s still on the medal track, so Lukan and company sat through the rest of the late session and scoreboard watched, particularly with respect to the point differential tiebreaker.

Major damage to the Canadians’ remaining quarterfinal hopes came when China (Pool C’s third-place team) blew out Japan 29-0 in what was expected to be a closer affair, vaulting the Chinese ahead on point differential. However, the final punch was the most crushing, as the Russian Olympic Committee team (which occupied third in Pool A) lost to New Zealand 33-0. The result gave the Russians the last quarterfinal spot by the narrowest of margins, as they were tied with Canada on point differential and advanced on their 47 points for to Canada’s 45. It was tantalizingly close to flipping the other way, as New Zealand had the ball deep in ROC territory when the game ended, and any additional points from the Black Ferns would have seen Canada advance.

Nobody dreams of playing in a 9th-12th placement mini-tournament, particularly not if you’ve squared up with Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament before. Nevertheless, once Canada found themselves there they made the best of it, first dominating Brazil once again, then taking down Kenya 24-10 to clinch 9th place.

Lukan played her best rugby of the tournament against Kenya and was instrumental in Canada’s first two tries that made things fairly comfortable for the remainder of the contest. First, she set up Charity Williams 1:42 into the match with a long run deep into the Kenyan end. Then, just over a minute later, the woman who had 253 basketball assists in her Green Bay career dropped this dime to Bianca Farella:

For a team that had entered the Olympics as a second seed with strong medal hopes, things didn’t go as planned, to understate it by quite a bit. But, if nothing else, Canada now has the opportunity to continue healing from a brutal situation and prepare for their next tournament as well as the next Olympics, which is just three years down the road thanks to COVID, while their HLWBB alumna forward continues doing the conference proud.

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