The Canada Sevens has become Vancouver’s unofficial spring awakening: a thrilling, light-hearted and occasionally debauched festival of silliness doubling as a global sporting event.
South Africa were crowned tournament champions at BC Place yesterday, putting a licking on the tournament’s Cinderella story, the French Seven. But two days of non-stop rugby action delivered much more than winners and losers. It also served as a backdrop for the first citywide social event of the year.
In truth, the Canada Sevens means different things to different people. For rugby fans starved of the game they love, it’s an opportunity to experience world-class players up close and personal. For Western Canada’s many expat communities, it’s the chance to strap on the national colours and cheer for the old country with friends and family. For plenty, it’s the subconscious and symbolic end of winter, a boozy accompaniment to the arrival of daylight savings. What better way to celebrate spring than dressing up in costume and casting common sense to the wind?
The Canada Sevens is all these things and more.
“This is a massive weekend for Canadian Rugby,” insisted HSBC Rugby Ambassador Ghislaine Landry. “We’ve seen over the years how quickly this event has grown and how quickly rugby is growing in Canada. With the women in the Olympics and this event, people are picking up on it. Everyone who sees Rugby Sevens loves it, so the more eyes we get on it the more the sport can grow.”
Landry understands the power of inspiration. Labelled “too small to play” as a child, she went on to captain Canada’s women’s Sevens team, picking up an Olympic Bronze medal and becoming World Rugby’s Sevens Series’ all-time leading story on her journey.
“When I was a kid I never saw rugby,” she continued. “There were no female rugby players. It was never on TV. No one I knew played. Visibility, especially on the women’s side, is so important. We’ve seen female athletes at this tournament. Kids can be inspired by that. For a long time we were told women’s rugby wasn’t marketable, and we fought like hell to prove otherwise. It’s important that World Rugby is pushing the women’s game forward but their job’s not done.”
For Landry, evidence that Canadian rugby has untapped potential was easy to find. All it took was looking out her hotel window.
“At 8:30 am there was a line up to get in. There are big rugby nations in the world that host Sevens that don’t get that enthusiasm. The sponsors are staying on board. The tournament is sold out and growing better every year.”
Sponsors and organizers have been more than pleasantly surprised by the Vancouver event’s success through its first four years of existence. Earlier in the week the tournament confirmed its spot on the World Sevens Series for the next four years. It’s already become a major date on the global rugby calendar. South Africa’s Bryan Habana, the one-time World Player of the Year and veteran of 124 Test Matches, knows a special rugby venue when he sees one.
“I was fortunate enough to be here in 2016 in a playing capacity, when I was trying to make the Olympic Sevens squad,” he recalled. “No one knew what we would get from Vancouver, with it being potentially a non-rugby environment. The fans were fantastic that year and this morning I saw people waiting to get in at 8:30. People have to make the effort to get there at that time. There’s not a tournament out there that has what Vancouver is developing.
“You can feel the crowd lending its energy to certain teams. It’s often a lot louder than the XV-a-side game because it’s so constant. The fan contribution within Sevens is so great.”
Vancouver’s fans are impressing rugby’s elite. Commentators Dallen Stanford and Aussie TV icon Sean Maloney are part of a team broadcasting the Sevens Series into 142 countries. They’re in full agreement that Vancouver already has something magical.
“Trying to choose your favourite stop on the circuit is like trying to choose your favourite kid if you’re a parent,” smiled Maloney. “But Vancouver’s right up there. It’s one of my top three stops, and maybe even top two. You get good footy because of the conditions under the roof and the fans cut loose, which is what it’s all about. At the end of the tour the players get to vote on their favourite stop. They ranked Vancouver number one.”
“This is a closed dome stadium,” added Stanford. “That means the weather has no effect on what’s going on inside. The players and the fans get that. The fans here are all dressed up. The Hong Kong Sevens has a couple of sections of its stadium that are always wild but here everybody has got the memo. They’re watching and loving the rugby.”
With 16 nations competing, the Canada Sevens has always been notable for its utter lack of an us-versus-them atmosphere. Patriotism was mostly confined to 14-minute bursts of speed and collision; the exact length of Sevens matches. Despite Canada’s early defeat to Samoa preventing their progression to the knock out stages of the Cup Competition, rousing wins over Scotland and Fiji were enough to entertain the red and white-clad faithful.
The Fijian community of Western Canada played a major part to enliven proceedings throughout, their non-stop barrage of optimism inspiring their team to a stunning last minute quarterfinal victory over New Zealand (who had unexpectedly lost to Spain on Day One), although you had to feel for Sevens legend Waisale Serevi, swamped by handshakes and photo requests after mistakenly attempting to navigate the stadium concourse unaccompanied.
Equally entertained by a hyper-enthusiastic Jason Momoa and a Sunday evening streaker (but reserving their biggest cheer for the stadium worker given the unenviable task of retrieving the invader’s discarded underpants from the centre spot), the entire crowd seemingly understood that no matter how seriously the players were competing, Sevens is a sporting occasion that puts fun first.
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Perhaps that’s why it’s found such a welcome home here in Vancouver. As a city and country of immigrants, the Canada Sevens remains a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our diverse heritages and welcome spring with a drink or five, while soaking in game after game of big hits and dramatic finishes with new friends from around the world.
What a great weekend.