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Written By: Mark Janzen
Harry Jones kind of laughs when he recalls his first-ever sevens game.
You would too if the first time you ever played in a sevens contest was against New Zealand, with your direct counterpart being the legendary Victor Vito; and when you ran onto the pitch, you did so in front of a packed house at the 2008 Wellington Sevens on the Sevens World Series.
“It was crazy.”
Jones was an 18-year-old rugby-playing student at UBC walking to anthropology class when he received a call from then Canadian sevens coach Shane Thompson.
A little over a week later, after spending a few days training with the Canadian side in Victoria, Jones was on the sidelines watching his team take on the Kiwis in Canada’s tournament-opener in Wellington. In a game that eventually ended with New Zealand earning a 43-0 victory, Jones entered the contest just a few minutes before full-time.
Remembering the moment, he’s still a bit in awe of what happened.
“The field looked like it was four times the size than it feels now,” Jones says. “It just looked so big. My first game I was playing center and there was just so much space. I’m looking around and the stadium is going crazy.”
Jones stared at Vito.
“I’m just thinking, ‘How on earth am I going to tackle this guy?’”
He saw action in one more game in that tournament, coming in as a substitute in the Bowl Quarter-Finals against England. They lost that game and the next against the USA, ultimately finishing tied for second last overall alongside Papua New Guinea. Jones barely remembers those final details. His debut however, proved unforgettable.
“Going from playing with UBC against Rowers with maybe 50 people on the sidelines to that, was a pretty dramatic change,” he says. “I was lucky to be there and to have the opportunity to get on the field was a bonus.”
With a salivating crowd of 20,000 screaming Canadians set to explode into delirium, Jones wasn’t going to be denied.
Seven years after getting his first taste of the sevens game, Jones was on the doorstep of the Argentinian try line and on the verge of lifting Canada to the gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. Collecting a short kick nearly 10 metres out, Jones – enraptured in the wave of nationalism that had engulfed the stadium and coupled with a healthy dose of will and sheer power – barged his way through two Argentinian defenders to touch down for what would be the winning try with 17 seconds left on the clock.
Not more than a few minutes later, he and his teammates were standing atop the podium hearing their national anthem as gold medalists. The product of North Vancouver, B.C. was already a regular with Canada on the sevens circuit, but that moment was an unfettered statement: this is Harry Jones. Be warned.
“He’s a warrior,” says Canadian sevens coach Damian McGrath, who wasn’t the coach at the Pan Am Games, but his description remains apt. “He goes and he goes and he goes, and he puts his body on the line for Canada every time he steps on the field.”
Along with several of his Pan Am Games teammates, Jones joined Canada’s fifteens side for the 2015 Rugby World Cup less than two months later. But the sevens game had Jones hooked.
“Around that time, I really started to feel that my sevens game was coming along,” Jones says. “I felt like was able to make a difference and a positive contribution. I felt that I was able to compete at a little bit of a higher level, and I was really enjoying it.”
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Two years removed from that monumental moment in Toronto, Jones, who hails from the Capilano Rugby Club, is set to captain Canada into the season-opening World Rugby Sevens Series in Dubai, December 1-2. Part of a core leadership trio, which also includes long-time stars John Moonlight and Nathan Hirayama, Jones, 28, enters his fifth year as a full-time player with Canada’s seven program. Nearly a decade beyond his wide-eyed debut in Wellington, Jones has become one of the faces of a Canadian side that is on the rise.
“Harry is a great leader on and off the field,” McGrath says. “He has that calm presence and the team listens when he speaks. We have a shared goal between us and it’s easy for me to use them (Jones, Moonlight and Hirayama) as a leadership group. The longer I am here, the more I’m stepping away and letting those three drive what we do.”
After a 13th-place finish in 2015-16, the team took a dramatic step forward last season. In his first year at the helm, McGrath led Canada to an eighth-place finish overall, while also helping the program win its first ever tournament title in Singapore.
While McGrath is keen to temper expectations entering his second season as head coach, there’s a certain level of excitement that exists coming off a 2016-17 season in which Canada made it to the Cup quarter-finals in six of the final eight tournaments. Add to that a five-month training camp that was nearly four months longer than last year’s preparations – a process that was stalled with both a work stoppage among the players and McGrath only being hired in early October – and Canada is already several steps ahead of their 2015-16 campaign.
The group is having fun doing it – something that wasn’t always the case before McGrath’s arrival.
“Training is serious but at the same time guys are enjoying it,” Jones says. “I think enjoyment plays a big part. That kind of got lost the last couple of years before Damian came in. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, you’re probably not going to have as much success.”
In the year before McGrath arrived, Canada didn’t make it to the Cup quarter-finals once.
“Self-belief is a wonderful thing,” McGrath says. “It’s the same players that finished 13th a year before and eighth last year. What is it that’s different about them? I think it’s just that we’ve found a way that suits them to play and they believe in that and they believe in themselves and each other. If training is anything to go by, that has certainly carried on from last year.”
For Canada, depth has long been an issue. In a sport that is still niche amongst Canadians, competing with the upper crust of the rugby world often comes down to the next level of players beyond the stars.
With the likes of Connor Braid and Admir Cejvanovic returning to the sevens program, and future stars Jake Thiel and Andrew Coe now amongst the 21 players centralized in Langford, B.C., the team appears set on an upwards trajectory. Liam Underwood and Phil Berna, who both missed much of last season due to injury, are healthy and will be in the fold as Canada embarks on what will be busy season on tour. Along with the 10 series stops, Canada will also be involved in the Commonwealth Games in Australia and the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco. Having a capable group to spell the starters, which could also potentially include Adam Zaruba, who is still pursuing his opportunities in the NFL, and Tevaughn Campbell, who recently joined the program following his CFL season with the Montreal Alouettes, will prove critical to success.
“We have a lot more balance this year,” McGrath says. “The thing that makes those top teams that bit better is that when they make changes, it doesn’t affect the way they play.”
With stops in Dubai and Cape Town set to launch this year’s season, the boys in Red and White – who, of course, also have the pacey Justin Douglas coming off a huge 2016-17 series in which he finished third on the circuit with 40 tries, along with key pieces in Mke Fuailefau and Lucas Hammond – have a keen eye to start the season stronger than ever before.
While McGrath maintains that expectations need to be realistic, that doesn’t mean come Day 2, his team is just going to be happy to be there.
“We’re not even looking just for top eight,” Jones says. “We want to be able to compete and get to the top four and consistently play well.”
For the veteran Jones, it’ll be on his shoulders to help Canada do just that.
HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Calendar & Upcoming Tournaments: