Canada ready to unveil next generation of rugby sevens talent

With the Fab Five gone, the Langford-based Canadian men’s team embarks on its new era today and Sunday in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament taking place at B.C. Place.

“It’s the circle of life in sports,” said Connor Braid of Victoria.

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The cornerstones of the team the past decade — Braid, UVic Vikes great Nathan ­Hirayama, Harry Jones of North ­Vancouver, Justin Douglas of Abbotsford and Conor Trainor — have retired following the ­Olympics in Tokyo.

“The Olympics are the ­pinnacle of sport, the pinnacle of a career, and we put everything into being there,” said the 31-year-old Braid.

“I didn’t want to play a little bit after that and then retire. And I didn’t want to be one of those athletes who is past it but still wants to do it. I am very content with the decision. I made it in Tokyo, and I think all the emotions came out at that time. This is definitely the time for the passing of the torch because we have a lot of talented young players coming up in Canadian rugby.”

The youth brigade — including Island players Jack Carson, Ciaran Breen, Brennig Prevost, Anton Ngongo and Matt Percillier — are getting their chance this weekend on home turf.

Canadian Olympic team ­players Mike Fuailefau of ­Victoria, Pat Kay of Duncan, UVic Vikes alumnus Lucas Hammond, Matt Mullins and Theo Sauder have not retired but are sitting out the B.C. Place tournament because the Tokyo experience, an ­Olympics amid a ­pandemic, proved so draining.

“I just needed a break after the Olympics, more mental than physical,” said Kay.

“This Canadian team [in Vancouver] will look unfamiliar but this new up-and-coming group will show what it’s got. I’ve been definitely impressed with this young talent.”

Only three of the ­players from the Canadian ­quarter-finalist team in the Tokyo Olympics — Andrew Coe, Phil Berna, Jake Thiel — will be in the lineup in Vancouver and next weekend for the World Series Edmonton Sevens at ­Commonwealth Stadium.

It’s no different with the Canadian women’s team. Familiar names sitting out the Vancouver and Edmonton tournaments include two-time Olympians Ghislaine Landry, Charity ­Williams and Bianca Farella. It’s been a turbulent period for the women’s team in Langford with a player revolt that led to head coach John Tait of Mill Bay stepping down before the Tokyo Olympics. The 2016 Rio Olympic bronze-medallist team then called a controversial non-rugby news conference in Tokyo to address social issues before crashing out of the Games in the group stage.

Reserve players such as Olivia Apps, Breanne Nicholas and Emma Chown, vying with the established names for playing time the past few years, will get their opportunity this weekend along with UVic Vikes players Renee Gonzalez and Ella O’Regan.

There’s full-circle feel to this weekend since the 2020 Canada Sevens in March of that year was the last live sporting event held in B.C. before things shut down through that spring and summer due to the pandemic.

Because B.C. Place is considered an indoor venue, despite its stadium size, attendance will be capped at half the lower bowl to a capacity of 13,500. That’s compared to the nearly 40,000 fans that attended the Saturday of the 2020 Canada Sevens.

Both men’s and women’s tournaments are truncated this weekend with several of the powerhouse countries missing due to COVID travel ­restrictions. Canada will meet, in order, the U.S., Great Britain and Mexico, today in the four-team women’s event. The men’s tournament features 12 teams with Canada opening in Pool C today against Germany, Chile and the U.S. The medal rounds and ­consolations are Sunday.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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