It’s as big an announcement as Canadian rugby has ever had.
The HSBC Sevens World Series, one of world rugby’s crown jewels, is coming to Vancouver. It brings with it a new goal for young Canadian players and a chance for the game to pull in new fans.
The Canada Sevens, scheduled for March 2016, is likely to be a game-changer for Canadian rugby.
For most of rugby’s professional era, which began in 1995, young Canadians have had few opportunities overseas. There has always been a trickle of players playing in France, the U.K. or Down Under, but for the most part, young Canadians were in the dark on the question, “How do I make money playing this game?”
The BC Place event now offers a home venue for what is essentially a professional game, giving young Canadians something to shoot for.
And although this season has been mostly one of frustration for the Canadian men’s squad — 13th on the Sevens World Series, a far cry from last season’s sixth-place finish — the team remains a fully-funded outfit based in Langford. Playing on a home stage will be added to the appeal of playing in the Olympics in 2016.
“Getting to put it right in front of their eyes really opens their eyes,” UBC rugby sevens coach Pat Fleck explained to The Province. Fleck, a former Canadian national team player for both the sevens and the full 15-a-side version of the game, has taken a squad of UBC players down to Las Vegas for a club tournament that runs alongside Vegas’s Sevens World Series event for the past two years. His team won its competition both times.
“It lights a fire for these guys. They can see what’s possible.”
It’s a big chance for the game to grow its identity.
University of Victoria rugby head coach Doug Tate has seen it firsthand. A decade ago, he was Canada’s head sevens coach as well, taking players to in-the-blood rugby places like London and Wellington, but also to non-traditional spots like Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Dubai.
“The first thing I really noticed, when you got a place like Hong Kong, you’ve got 40,000 people in the stadium but they’re not all rugby people. They’re financial guys. People who necessarily don’t know rugby all that well,” Tate said.
“They’re socializing, but with a game every 20 minutes, they keep getting a new underdog to cheer for.”
The two-day tournament format sees 16 teams running out for a series of 14-minute games. The action is fast and furious.
It’s that easy entry into a new sport that holds the key to success for the Canada Sevens. They’ll attract plenty of West Coast rugby people. They’ll attract fans from other parts of Canada. But they must also pull in the casual B.C. sports fan. That’s never an easy task in a town that has so many options.
But the speed and accessibility of the action on the field will make for an easy sell, once you get the bodies in the doors, Tate figured.
“For the North American fan, it’s very appealing. It’s not as technical as fifteens (the traditional form of the game), the game moves pretty quickly,” he said. The average sevens game sees six tries per game. Six scores in 14 minutes. Just the numbers tell you how fast the game is.
Las Vegas has built a successful tournament by adding a side event, with dozens of men’s, women’s and youth teams. It gave them an automatic dedicated fan base. They also pulled on the many national allegiances present in the U.S.
Thousands of Kenyans attend, crowding together in the northeastern section of the stands at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium. Almost as many Fijians group themselves at the southern end of the stadium. It’s an eclectic atmosphere.
Over the next year, Rugby Canada has a clear task. Connect with the fan base. Organize an event that will draw in casual viewers.
And then deliver.