When tens of thousands of fans descend on BC Place Stadium for the 2017 Canada Sevens rugby tournament on March 11, they will come in “fancy dress” with flags in their hair for a Vancouver love-in. And among the spirited spectators will be some very special guests: high school athletes from across the province, proud parents and grandparents of the players, and a stuffed moose named Captain Greene (more on him later).
“It’s circled in red on the calendar,” Team Canada player Nathan Hirayama says at Victoria’s Pour Coffee, joined by teammate Philip Berna. “This is the big event for us this year.” The players are enjoying a day off from their rigorous training schedule at the new Al Charron Rugby Canada National Training Centre in Langford, just outside of Victoria.
This is Vancouver’s second year hosting the tournament, and the city is the sixth stop of 10 in the HSBC World Rugby Series, which also takes players to the likes of London, Paris, and Singapore. Team Canada is in 12th place going into the March 3 to 5 tournament in Las Vegas—the last stop before the homecoming. Hirayama admits that the team has gone through a few tough years—punctuated by not qualifying for the Rio Olympics—but says they are going into the competition with a lot of momentum following a fourth-place finish in New Zealand. “It’s not just the results, but also how we’re playing,” he says. “The vibes on the team were great, and it was a big step in the right direction for us as a program.”
Sevens-style rugby is having a moment. After making its Olympic debut last year, there’s been an uptick in interest in the sport, which is like the scrappy little brother of the traditional game. Instead of 15 players per team on the field, there are seven, but they’re playing on the same size turf and by many of the same rules. Tournament organizers describe sevens like so: “Picture a freight train, with the speed of an Indy car, and the agility of a Mini Cooper with very few obstacles in its way and all that space … you can see where this is going.”
It’s this fast pace that attracts so many fans to the game. Even if you don’t know the rules going into the stadium, you can quickly figure them out and enjoy the festivities. In addition to the action on the field, there’s a party underway in the stands: sevens has a curious tradition of fancy dress, in which fans at every stop on the tour don their best costumes, from patriotic ensembles to furry animal suits. “It’s a party,” says 20-year-old Berna. “There’s never a dull moment. The games are seven minutes, and then once a game is done, there’s a minute break and then another team is out there playing. And the whole time, the crowd is getting into it.”
With more than half of the Team Canada players from British Columbia, there will also be a lot of friends and family in that crowd, including Hirayama’s grandmother. “It’s really cool to be representing Canada, and it makes it even more special doing it at home,” says Hirayama, a veteran on the team at 28 years old. “I feel that this is big for growing the game, especially among high school players. I can’t imagine being in high school and going to this tournament—I think it would have got me even more hooked on the game. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d have something like this in B.C. And I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
After exploring the markets of Hong Kong and admiring the glitz of Dubai, Team Canada is eager to welcome international players to picturesque Vancouver. “It’s exciting. I’m proud of where I’m from,” says Berna. “It’s really cool to see the other teams and fans enjoying it. I think it’s going to be a good chance to showcase what we do. We go to all these places around the world, so a lot of our friends and family may not feel as connected, but now we get to bring it home and show off a bit.”
As the players relish those moments on the field—the energy of the fans reverberating through the stadium, and the support of the country behind them—it’s an apt time to reflect on what the aforementioned Captain Greene represents. The stuffed moose that tours with Team Canada and sits on the bench is named after Canadian veteran captain Trevor Greene, who suffered a massive brain injury when he was hit in the head with an axe in Afghanistan in 2006. Incredibly, he survived, and in advance of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, he spoke with Team Canada about perseverance and hope. “His message was that there are a lot of odds against a Canadian rugby team,” Hirayama recalls. “People may not believe in you. But you can do it.”
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