Canada’s rugby sevens squads will look to find a new rhythm following eighth- and ninth-place finishes at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Both the men’s and women’s teams are set to compete in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Vancouver from Sept. 18-19 and in Edmonton from Sept. 25-26.
The tournaments marks the first of their kind since the sevens circuit ground to a halt due to the pandemic after the Vancouver stop in March 2020.
With participation limited due to COVID-19 and pandemic-related travel restrictions, the women’s competition will feature just four teams: Canada, Britain, the U.S. and Mexico.
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The Canadian women, ranked third, will first play the sixth-ranked U.S., then No. 1 Great Britain, then unranked Mexico on Saturday.
The “Fast Four” competition format will see the teams each play each other once before the top two decide the gold and the other two meet for third. Former Canada captain Kelly Russell will coach the women’s sevens squad at the Canadian events.
“For some people who haven’t followed the Canadian women’s rugby landscape, you won’t see the same household names that we’ve all fallen in love with over the years,” analyst Andrea Burke told CBC Sports. “But what is so exciting about this is these are the opportunities for the young, up-and-coming talent to really build their skills and build their way into our hearts.”
“There are some veteran players on both the women’s and men’s teams taking a deserved rest after the competition at the Tokyo Olympics,” Rugby Canada said in a statement to CBC Sports.
“With a compressed three-year timeline heading into the next Olympic Games in France, the two 2021 Series events presented a great opportunity for some of our next-generation players to get needed game time. These players will join with some returning athletes later this Fall in advance of the start of the 2022 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.”
The team faced controversy throughout the year, first with a bullying and harassment complaint against former coach John Tait, followed by the firing of John Cudmore, the former head of the national development program, due to unacceptable social media posts.
Its finish in Tokyo was also below the standard set with a bronze medal five years prior in Rio.
“Success for this tournament is all about growing the team. Have a look at the roster — there’s a lot of new, young, up-and-coming talent. Some of the veterans on the team, the girls like Olivia Apps and Emma Chown, they’ve been in the program for some time,” Burke said.
“What Canada is bringing is this blend of the younger talent that’s been in the program — some of them maple leafs that are even younger than that. They’re [also] just integrating some of the fifteens players trying to bring some crossover athletes into the sevens tournament.”
Men’s team looks to potential future stars
Aside from the Olympics, the men’s team hasn’t competed since this very tournament in 2020, when it placed third.
Canada lost four players to retirement following its debut eighth-place finish at the Tokyo Games: Nate Hirayama, Connor Braid, Conor Trainor and Justin Douglas.
The roster in Vancouver features just three Olympians — Phil Berna, Jake Thiel and Andrew Coe. Berna will captain the side with Thiel as vice-captain.
With an abundance of young talent looking to prove its potential, head coach Henry Paul has his eyes set on what the future may hold for his team.
“Like the women’s side, and many other teams competing at the event, they are bringing a lot of brand new talent. To look at their roster sheet, there is no national sevens history for majority of their team,” Burke said. “Overall, there’s 60 per cent of men’s players, this goes for every team, [that] are brand new.
“I think this is a fantastic opportunity for all the new debutants to get their feet wet, get their shoulders into a couple of tackles, and really start to practise what it’s like to be a household name in the landscape of Canada, international sevens.”
Paul pointed to Jack Carson, Alex Russell, Matt Oworu, Nick Allen and Matt Percillier among the Canadian youngsters to watch.
Much of the young Canadian side trained with the Olympic team in the lead-up to Tokyo.
The 21st-ranked Canadians will face No. 30 Germany, No. 28 Chile and then the 16th-ranked Americans in Pool C action on Saturday.
Attendance in Vancouver will be capped at 50 per cent of B.C. Place Stadium’s lower-bowl capacity, making about 13,500 tickets available. Last year, a crowd of 39,533 — the largest single-day crowd in Canadian rugby history — saw the Canadian men reach the podium.
The crowd will be bigger outdoors at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. Rugby Canada is making half of the 32,000-capacity lower bowl available and may push that to 60 per cent if demand warrants.
World Rugby had said six men’s and four women’s rounds were scheduled in the final four months of 2021. But previously announced 2021 stops in Singapore (Oct. 29-30) and Cape Town (Dec. 10-12) will not take place. And the Hong Kong Sevens, slated for Nov. 5-7, was cancelled earlier.
Next year will also see rugby sevens at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (July 29-31) and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town (Sept. 9-11) following the World Series.
Last season, the men got in six of 10 planned tournaments and the women five of eight before the schedule stalled. A women’s event in Langford, B.C., scheduled for early May last year was one of the tournaments cancelled.