Little more than a year after hanging up her boots, former Canada captain Kelly Russell has already been part of the coaching team for a Youth Olympic Games bronze medal campaign and attended the Americas Combine as a performance analyst, two invaluable experiences as she plans her next challenge.
Kelly Russell is enjoying life at the moment. Having hung up her boots at the end of last year, the 32-year-old is “just taking it as it comes” as she weighs up exactly what to do next, long-term.
Russell is keen to stay involved with rugby, and it seems that Rugby Canada is keen to retain the experience of someone who appeared in five Women’s Rugby World Cups across 15s and sevens.
Since signing off from her playing career as a member of the first female team to represent the Barbarians, she has worked with Canada’s age-grade sides at their regional base in Toronto.
Subsequently Russell was part of the coaching team as her country’s under-18 girls sevens team secured a bronze medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in October.
“The experience was great,” she said. “We don’t get a lot of high level competition at the U18 level in Canada right now, so to have that experience to see what maybe the next steps will be for them is great.”
For Russell, it was also a useful step in her development as a coach.
SO MUCH TO LEARN
“I like staying involved with the game and giving back, and it was great to have the opportunity right away to jump into it,” she said.
“It’s very different from the playing side of things, so I’ve learned so much already in a short amount of time.
“(There’s) so much more to learn at the same time.”
On exactly what she has learned since putting on a tracksuit, Russell added: “It’s more the management side of things, and just, I guess, managing players and player load, and where athletes are at and how do we get them to where we want them to be.
“Just lots of things to think of other than just playing the game when you’re an athlete!”
But coaching is not the only off-field discipline that Russell has tried her hand at since deciding to call an end to her time as a player.
The absence of an analyst at the academy in Toronto meant that the former Canada captain had already undergone some training in that area when she was offered the opportunity to attend the recent Americas Combine.
Russell worked as a performance analyst at the event in Glendale, Colorado, where some of the best amateur players in North and South America were put through their paces in the hope of earning a Major League Rugby (MLR) contract.
It wasn’t only the players who were able to treat the experience as a form of career development.
“I probably took 200 per cent more out of it than I thought I was going to get out of it just in terms of learning new tricks and methods on the analyst side of things,” Russell said.
“To be in an environment where people at the top of their game, (England attack coach) Scott Wisemantel and (ex-Waratahs coach) Chris Hickey and everybody involved in the coaching side of things and the staff side of things, was just an incredible experience and I took so much away from it, in all aspects of the game.”
OPEN-MINDED ON FUTURE
Russell was keen to soak up as much knowledge and know-how as possible from Wisemantel and Hickey.
“They were so open to me asking them questions and letting me pick their brain.
“I think the great thing about the whole experience was that you were involved in every aspect of it.
“So, we ate together, we were all at the training sessions, whether it was the testing (of) rugby skills, the meetings that they had, the presentations, so you were kind of immersed in a little bit of everything.”
Russell is keeping an open mind when it comes to what her next step will be, whether that is as an analyst or coach – or something completely different – and whether she works with men or women.
“I just enjoy coaching the rugby,” she said. “So for me, it doesn’t matter if it’s men or women – whatever opportunities come about.”
One certainty is that Russell does not regret opting to retire from playing.
“I’m happy with my decision,” she explained.
“The experiences that I’ve had coaching with the U20 Canada women, U18 Canada women and the academy, and this Combine, it’s really gotten me excited about the future of my career in coaching and then also where we can help grow the game back home.”
Looking back at her achievements in the game, it is easy to forget that Russell announced her retirement just shy of her 31st birthday.
At that age many players consider themselves still to be in their prime, and if not are attempting to eke out a couple more years on the international stage.
It would be understandable were Russell to have had doubts about her decision, especially given younger sister Laura is still very much a part of the Canada squad. However, a cursory glance at her career reveals why she might feel so content while walking away.
Beauty of rugby
A colossal performer in both forms of the game, Russell played in final of both the sevens and 15s Women’s Rugby World Cup, in 2013 and 2014 respectively – the latter alongside her sister and as captain.
In 2016, she was part of the Canada squad as rugby returned to the Olympic Games in Rio – winning a bronze medal – and finished her career a year later with 53 caps in the longer format.
“It is all fond memories,” she said. “That 2014 World Cup where we were quite successful getting to the final, that would probably be one of my highlights and obviously playing with my sister for the majority of my career – I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The Olympic Games as well, that was another amazing stepping stone, not just for us as athletes but also for the sport and to be involved in something like that was really special.”
It was fitting, therefore, that she would bow out as part of an historic Barbarians side – one that claimed a comfortable 19-0 defeat of Munster at Thomond Park to boot.
“It was such an amazing experience and actually we all still stay in touch,” Russell said.
“That’s just the beauty of rugby and the culture and the people that play it, is that we all knew that we were part of something special.”