Canada's rugby sevens on a Vegas high

The Langford-based Canadian sevens rugby team arrived back at Victoria International Airport on Monday with more than the usual fanfare.

Then again, it isn’t often the Canadian players find themselves on the podium with South Africa and New Zealand at a major tournament. They did Sunday at the USA Sevens in Las Vegas by capturing the bronze for Canada’s first medal at an IRB men’s sevens tournament.

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“This is huge … we turned some heads and got the rugby world to take notice of us,” said star player Phil Mack of Victoria.

And more than just the rugby world.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper even tweeted his congratulations to Rugby Canada, saying “you’ve made us proud” and made special mention of John Moonlight and Mack for making the tournament Dream Team.

Canada finished 2-1 in group play, advancing to beat France 17-14 in the quarter-finals Saturday. New Zealand beat Canada 26-7 in the semifinals Sunday before the Canadians rallied from a 19-0 deficit to defeat Samoa 22-19 in the third-place game thanks to some last-gasp heroics from Mack. South Africa defeated New Zealand 14-7 in the championship game before 24,917 fans at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Mack got another tweet from someone who had counted down the exact number of days until the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics with a message of encouragement about replicating such a performance then.

“It was surreal to get that Tweet . . . it’s beginning to sink in that it [Rio Olympics] is not far off now,” said Mack.

A repeat in Rio is a tall order and likely unrealistic. But nobody gave Canada much of a shot at the podium over the weekend in Las Vegas, either.

“The Vegas result has given our group a lot of confidence,” said Mack.

Now comes the hard part of proving this wasn’t just an accidental flash.

“Now we have to back it up. We want to prove it’s not a fluke or a one-off,” said Connor Braid, who like Mack, is another standout Canadian team player out of Oak Bay High.

“We’ve now shown these kinds of results are do-able. Once you get a taste of winning a medal at this level, and the praise that comes with it, the boys can get hooked on it.”

And that is a good kind of addiction.

“Sure, it’s a bit of a surprise. But we had respect before, too, and nobody took Canada lightly,” said Braid.

Centralization of players at the Rugby Canada Centre of Excellence in Langford is beginning to pay dividends.

“Being in Langford, training together day-in-and-day-out, has built the kind of trust in each other that you just can’t get when you get a national side together for just a few days before a tournament,” said Canadian player Nanyak Dala, a Saskatoon native and member of the Castaway Wanderers club.

Mack, Braid and Moonlight are members of the James Bay Athletic Association.

“It was surreal but it was real,” said Canadian captain Moonlight.

“We showed we’re good enough to compete with anyone in the world.”

Not that there’s much time to savour the moment. The Canadian team leaves Thursday for the IRB New Zealand Sevens on Feb. 7-8 in Wellington, where it will have to prove itself all over again.

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