Client News: Will Home Comforts Give Canada’s Rugby Sevens a Timely Boost?

Photo Credit- Martin Seras Lima
As Seen in the Telegraph March 9, 2016
Author: Oliver Pickup

The pressure is on for the improving men and already brilliant women to inspire the next generation as HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series arrives on home turf.

History will be made, and records may be broken, when Vancouver hosts the sixth stop of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015-16 on 12-13 March, but the big question is whether the home team can perform well in their inaugural tournament and break new ground by inspiring their country’s youngsters to take up the oval ball in a huge year for Rugby Canada.

The two-day competition is on course to more than double Canada’s record rugby crowd, with the last of the 56,000 tickets sold before the end of February. The previous best had been 22,556, for a 15-a-side match between the national team and the Maori All Blacks in Toronto three years ago.

According to Bill Cooper, chief executive of HSBC Canada Sevens (and a “ridiculously proud Vancouverite”), the region, which regularly ranks highly in those lists of the world’s most liveable places, has everything to make the tournament a triumph in its first staging there.

“The city has tremendous ingredients from the get-go,” he says. “We’re incredibly blessed, geographically, being set among the mountains, and close to the [Pacific Ocean] water, and Vancouver offers all the downtown experiences a visitor could wish for.

“We’ve been very careful to build the tournament in a way that is focused on the spectator and the player, and we want to give them an authentic flavour of Vancouver.

“For instance, each of the competitors will receive a welcome token which has been carved by indigenous First Nation artists. And we have a number of local businesses who are pulling in the right direction with us.

“There is even a beer, produced especially, which will be on sale: the Canada Sevens IPA, created by Postmark, a very popular local craft brewery. It tastes awesome: crisp, but not overwhelming. Those in the stands will be able to quaff a few.”

But what the audience would really love to drink in is home-team success. “That is something we talk about in every board meeting,” says Cooper, when discussing the importance of making an impression on the field for Canada, who ended last season’s Sevens Series in ninth place.

That disappointment was compounded last July when they lost 21-5 to the USA in the summer’s regional final in Cary, North Carolina, meaning their great rivals gained the coveted spot at the Rio Olympics, where sevens makes its debut in less than five months.

“Adversity causes some men to break and others to break records” –John Moonlight

Canada’s men can still qualify for the Games, though they face a nervy last-chance tournament in June against Samoa, Russia, Spain and Ireland for the privilege, with a shootout against the improving Pacific Islanders most likely.

Still, a good showing in Vancouver at the BC Place Stadium – where the Fifa Women’s World Cup final was played last year – could kick-start their season. After four rounds, before Las Vegas, they were 12th. It would also help shirt sales and rugby’s popularity in a country that promotes ice hockey and lacrosse as its respective winter and summer national sports.

According to Cooper, more than 20 per cent of ticket sales for Vancouver have come from outside British Columbia. Pleasingly, “there have been buyers in every province across Canada, more than 2,000 from the USA and 700 more from 12 other countries around the world,” he says.

So the stage is set for the men’s side, captained by John Moonlight, to star. “We have to fill a stadium – which we have done – and sell merchandise. To have a commercially successful tournament the consumer needs to believe in the product on the field,” Cooper says.

“The quickest way to do that is to have a jersey they have an affinity with to root for. Rugby Canada has worked its tail off over the last couple of decades to put a product on the field that is highly competitive. That’s a beautiful thing about sevens rugby: any time Canada step on the pitch they have a chance to win – and the consumers believe that.”

Moonlight undoubtedly believes, as his motto “Adversity causes some men to break and others to break records” surely testifies. Last year he was named Rugby Canada’s male sevens player of the year for the third time.

The 28-year-old from Ontario – who has won 23 caps in the back row for the full national team and started three games in last autumn’s Rugby World Cup – has been a mainstay of the sevens side and has featured in in close to 100 games since making his debut in 2008.

Moonlight led his country to its best finish yet in the Sevens Series in 2013-14, when the team finished joint sixth, a year after helping secure their core status.

His experience on the circuit has been vital for Cooper and the organisers, and his recommendations will ensure they hit the right note in Vancouver. He and his team-mates must do their bit at BC Place Stadium now.

Moonlight says: “The problem with rugby in Canada is not a lot of people know about it [because] they have not seen any games. When they have watched a match they are instantly grabbed by it.

“The tournament in Vancouver is a great opportunity to showcase ourselves and help spread rugby, and sevens, across Canada. That it will be a record-breaking attendance shows that the sport is saleable here.”

Moonlight believes that the centralisation of Rugby Canada’s programme, which began in 2012, has helped matters, and most importantly allows young talent, from the age of 14, to be nurtured and guided in the correct way, in terms of nutrition and training. “We are on the verge of breaking through, and if you look at our stats even in this Sevens Series we are right up there,” he says.

Seeking out talent at a younger age will help the future of rugby in Canada. “Access to the sport has improved significantly since I started out,” Moonlight says.

“Most of us in the Canada sevens squad didn’t start until we were in late high school, having played other sports on the way through. Rugby just wasn’t a dominant sport for any of us and in some cases didn’t take off until university. It is crazy how much it has developed; now we have minis programmes which encourage kids aged four to play, and that’s brilliant.”

“It was not an option to not play for the national team. I refused to quit, worked hard and had a mentality that failing was not an option.” –Jen Kish

While the pressure mounts on Moonlight and his team to impress in Vancouver, the women’s sevens captain Jen Kish will also be showcasing her talents at a linked invitational tournament, albeit in a more relaxed fashion – although that is not her style.

The semi-finals and final will be played inside BC Place and, with Canada entering two teams, alongside the likes of France and South Africa, there is a good chance that Kish, whose team are currently ranked joint second in their Women’s World Series, will have the opportunity to run out in the main stadium.

Cooper is looking forward to the prospect of Canada’s women performing well in Vancouver. “There’s so many things I’m excited about for the weekend, but top of the list for me has to be seeing how a stadium of 28,000 responds to the women,” he says.

“When they get to know our rugby squad and how those women perform on the field it’s going to be electric. Like any nation would be, we’re following our Canadian women with a huge amount of hope – they have a great chance of bringing home Olympic gold in August.”

In Kish they have an inspirational skipper. The distinctive forward, covered in ink and with short, bleached-blonde hair, has captained the side since 2012 – and showed her commitment to her country’s cause by getting her first tattoo, aged 16, of the Rugby Canada logo.

“Most of the senior players at the time said I was crazy to get it done,” the 27-year-old recalls. “I was just so proud to wear the national jersey [having just been selected for an age-grade game], so I thought, ‘I’m going to get this tattoo on my calf where everyone can see it.’

“It was not an option to not play for the national team. I refused to quit, worked hard and had a mentality that failing was not an option.”

Her determination and passion have proved contagious. In the three years of the women’s Sevens Series, New Zealand may have won every campaign, but Canada have been close behind, and gaining. A third-place finish in 2012-13 was matched in 2013-14, and last term the Kish’s side were runners-up.

According to Kish, even in June 2013, when she led her sevens team to the World Cup final – the first in the country’s history, and a feat matched by the XVs team a year later – they “used to joke that women’s rugby was Canada’s best-kept secret”.

She continues: “We made history, and it was a huge thing for us, but for Canadians in general it didn’t seem to matter because no one really knew about it. That was frustrating.”

In the most recent tournament, held in São Paulo in February, Canada women reached the final – where they lost 29-0 to this season’s runaway leaders Australia, in torrential rain – via a 19-10 win over New Zealand.

It was significant, as it was a maiden victory for the Canadians against the perennial champions. Kish managed to score directly from a kick-off, swatting aside three would-be tacklers en route to powering to the try-line. It is one of the best five-pointers you are likely to see, in any form of the game.

“It was a phenomenal feeling blazing through the New Zealand defence like that,” she says. “Over all the years I have been playing sevens it was my favourite try. Because we had never before beaten New Zealand it was a huge step for us, and provided a historic, proud moment.”

The Ottawa-born captain is looking forward to her own team’s Sevens Women’s Series event in Langford, also in British Columbia, in April. It will be the second time the tour stops there, with the inaugural event last year being hailed a great success, attracting 6,600 spectators over the weekend – including Kish, who was injured.

Kish says of Canadians’ interest in rugby: “It’s definitely growing. I can’t wait to see how much it will grow in the next year or two, especially if we manage to win a medal at the Olympics.

“We are totally capable of winning the Sevens Series and the Olympics, because we have finally defeated New Zealand and we know we can beat Australia. It’s very exciting for us and the fans.”

Cooper, Moonlight, his team-mates and a host of other organisers of the Vancouver event, as well as Rugby Canada staff, will hope that the women’s success will inspire the men this weekend.

If the hosts reach the semi-finals, or achieve better, in the inaugural tournament, that would give them the belief to qualify for the Olympics in June. Manage that, and it really would be very exciting.