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Rugby Canada's Big Weekend, Period of Change, Hope for the Future

Written By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt

Vancouver knows how to put on a party. Regardless of the outcome for the host nation.

The city has embraced the idea and the atmosphere necessary to host an event the magnitude of the World Sevens. It is remarkable that this was only Vancouver’s third time hosting the big show on the 7s HSBC World Series circuit and Rugby Canada’s third as hosting rugby union. They’ve done their homework - they’ve already made the Canada stop invaluable during its short time on the tour.

Ædelhard was proud to be part of the weekend festivities, which for supporters and members of Rugby Canada was about more than the 7s. It began on Thursday March 8 with their annual awards ceremony and dinner. Our team was on hand for the proceedings, sharing in the obvious pride of the players alongside their coaches, teammates and families. Despite challenges of late with the Men’s 15s program, the atmosphere was light and the mood celebratory.

The Masters of Ceremonies for the event were Gareth Rees, Rugby Canada’s Director of Commercial and Program Relations and undeniable rugby legend/Canadian sporting hero; and Andrea Burk, legend in her own right, having represented Canada for a decade on the pitch as an invaluable member of the team, and remarkably off it as a broadcaster and popular public speaker. Andrea’s enthusiasm was infectious at the awards; she ported her enthusiasm mere days later as she performed the duties of host with the most pitch-side all weekend at the 7s. We may be accused of bias as Andrea’s also one of our writers here at The Scrum, and we couldn’t be prouder of her contribution.

As was mentioned several times over the course of the weekend, Rugby Canada is in a mode of re-invention, and the timing couldn’t be better. They’ve just opened the Al Charron Centre of Excellence in Langford, have re-branded their entire look, have a new kit sponsor in Canterbury, and totally revamped their online presence. All of it speaks of improving their accessibility, being easily navigable and attainable, approachable, yet very much looking toward the future. Critics had felt it was hard to know before what Rugby Canada was. The task they’ve undertaken has been to be more obvious and transparent.

It’s a world of contradiction Rugby Canada finds themselves in; celebrating turning over a new leaf, having just hosted a wildly popular and successful stop on the World 7s tour where unfortunately their own team couldn’t capitalize on the energy of the home crowd, coming away with one tie, two wins, and three losses at their home event.

There are a lot of hopes resting on this 7s team.

Yet, it was an overall heartbreaking weekend for them. Their first outing on day one saw a last-minute loss to rivals USA, falling 26-21, but they came back jubilant with a big-points victory over Uruguay ­-- only to have the roller coaster to heartbreak continue as Australia took a last-minute defeat over the USA, thus knocking our boys out of any contention. Day two was a mixed bag of emotion with a loss to Scotland, followed by a promising win over France, then another close-call and last-minute loss to Samoa to finish 13th in the tournament.

Still, there were celebrations to be had. The hometown crowd cheered as Justin Douglas scored his 100th try, the 5th Canadian to do so on the rugby 7s series. John Moonlight, Rugby Canada stalwart for the last near-decade continued to show great form everywhere on the pitch, crossing the line himself for a brace of tries. Nathan Hirayama also became the 5th highest try-scorer in world 7s history. The crowd cheered their hometown boy’s accomplishment. He’s also a remarkable conversion kicker – a crowd-pleaser to be sure.

There's no question our team is held in high regard. The crowd was on hand to enjoy themselves, and supported our boys to the very last. And the fact is, our team did not play horribly, they just didn’t do quite enough, and they made a couple of mistakes that inevitably cost them games, and points.

The crowd though, while hoping for more victory, remained positive.

Rugby 7s is as much about the party as it is the matches. The Fancy Dress manages to outdo itself each year. Whole groups of teams, co-workers, friends, and families coordinate on costumes. Air Force pilots, Mounties, doctors and nurses, camp police officers, a bevy of Elvis’, and probably over two-thousand onesies ruled the day. The revelers come, and represent each country playing in the tournament. All fans mix together throughout the stadium. There was a massive Fiji contingent - by the time they won the tournament, they had the entire crowd cheering along with their supporters.

Among the best-dressed each year are Peter and Jerome, ardent Rugby supporters and massive Rugby Canada fans. These local supporters attend as many matches and training sessions as they can - 7s, 15s, men's, women's. They are such positive forces that they’ve become well known on social media as Those Rugby Guys, and are friendly with many of the players and families within Rugby Canada. Further, anyone who attended Canada 7s in 2017 may recognize Jerome and Peter, as they appeared in all the print media with the team -- Jerome as the silvery tough-guy ballerina, and Peter as the 7s kit-wearing long-eared puppy. Player John Moonlight enjoyed catching up with Jerome at the Canada House after-event. The two had not spoken since the photo shoot of them standing back to back. A classic shot for any rugby 7s fan.

Both Peter and Jerome wore the photoshoot “kit” again to Sunday’s match, but that wasn’t all they had on show. Over the course of both days, and the Friday before, there were at least six costume changes for each of them. They epitomize the fan who supports their team regardless of results. And the fact that 2017 Player of the Year Justin Douglas’ mom Jeanette recognized them and declared she followed them on social media doesn’t hurt their unwavering love of their team, either.

Photo Credit: HSBC Rugby/Rugby Canada

We do love our team.

They're as aware as we are that they’ve got work to do to get their act together on field.

Rugby Canada does not lack brilliant players. Yet, there are the errors that creep in, and they know it. Each of them said post-7s that it wasn’t the result they had hoped for. Each player took responsibility. Captain Harry Jones said he was very grateful for the support and positivity of everyone who turned out, but he wished he could be celebrating a good showing, especially playing at home. The stung was felt and echoed throughout the squad and coach Damian McGrath as well, who said he has hopes the lads can turn the season around for the second half of their season.

There are pundits who are critical of the showing. These are the media who are quick to point out it was a home tournament and an opportunity lost. On the heels of the 15s program needing an overhaul – so critics say – the 7s team ought to be taking up the slack. That’s pressure that, when added to the other issues and pressures, including fatigue, is counter-productive.

These unfortunate situations, a poor showing by a team full of heart and high hopes for themselves, are what make our players among the most #Battletested players on the circuit. They are genuinely a great bunch of people, and they have genuine affection for each other. They don’t only play for themselves, they play for each other, and it’s evident.

The rugby weekend enjoyed by our team at Ædelhard is evidence that rugby in Canada is still growing, and is stronger than some may think. There are venues throughout this small rugby nation who host events, knowing that opening early for 6 Nations will be profitable. There are individuals who work tirelessly to advance rugby here in Canada, whether by volunteering their time or coaching the future of the game, and only for the love of the game. They see the inherent value to it. They see the sport is growing.

We were fortunate to spend time with these people, to talk to them and see what they are accomplishing. We’ve written about both Robin MacDowell and Khalil Ajram, who work tirelessly to grow the game in Canada. Both were present all weekend, but not just as spectators. Both were busy with their young teams. Both also boasted success on the pitch, and were jubilant while they enjoyed the festivities. More examples of how it is the #Battletested who make the sport tick in Canada.

Rugby Canada will turn things around – that is bound to happen. In the meantime, they were getting fans to fill out a survey supporting Vancouver hosting four more years of rugby on the world series circuit. BC Place does an immense job. Rugby Canada is well organized. Vancouver plays along willingly, cab drivers to signage at the airport and on buses (and throughout the downtown area), to hotels hosting both teams and viewing parties. Everyone is aware the world has come to play, and the world is welcomed.

All we need is to harness the positivity and translate it to the pitch. To more wins, and more support for the team.