The Langford-based Canadian team took more than 40,000 spectators on a whirlwind ride on Saturday in the Canada Sevens that had more twists and dips than the PNE roller-coaster.
The only thing wilder was the dress regime of the fans amid the cacophonous atmosphere inside B.C. Place Stadium. There were Riddlers, Jokers, Waldos, Santas, popes, nuns, Princess Leias, Leprechauns, men in Wonder Woman outfits, Mounties, lumberjacks, Vikings with Helga braids, Blues Brothers and Bhangra drummers galore. But the Donald Trump entourage, dressed in orange jump suits, took the cake. Even Don Cherry would appear hopelessly muted in a rugby sevens crowd.
Canada followed up a flat 38-7 opening blowout loss to Samoa with a pulsating 26-19 upset victory over 2016 Rio Olympic-champion Fiji that had the crowd —including thousands of Fijian fans — in an uproar.
“We frustrated the Fijians and didn’t allow them to get their flair going,” said Canadian player Connor Braid of Victoria.
“The crowd helped us, too.”
In a poignant moment after scoring a try against Fiji, Braid lifted his Canadian jersey to reveal the logo DJ-9. It was in honour of Braid’s late friend, Dylan Jones, of Victoria, who died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 27. Jones, who wore No. 9, and Braid were teammates at Oak Bay High and in club play.
“It meant a lot because Dylan’s family was in the crowd,” said Braid.
“It’s a reminder to myself why we’re playing the game.”
Braid then scored three tries in a 36-21 victory over Kenya. That left Fiji, Samoa and Canada at 2-1 and Kenya 0-3 after pool play. Fiji and Samoa advanced to the championship round today on tiebreakers, while Canada was relegated to the consolation round in a bitter blow to the host nation.
Canadian head coach Damian McGrath reflected on the emotional day and Canada’s “inconsistency.”
“The Samoa game was the worst I have been a part of in my three years of coaching Canada, followed by us beating the Olympic champions [Fiji],” he said.
“And now we’re suffering [relegation to the consolation side and a game against Spain this morning] because of that poor display against Samoa. But that’s rugby.”
Canada features Island players Braid, SMUS-grads Mike Fuailefau and Luke McCloskey, all of Victoria, Pat Kay of Duncan and Isaac Kaay of the University of Victoria Vikes. The host team is captained by UVic Vikes legend Nathan Hirayama.
Fuailefau reflected on playing in his home province.
“The noise was deafening, and you look up to see family and friends from the Island in the stands, and you want to go out and play well for them.”
The top four teams in the 10-event 2018-19 World Series will advance directly to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The top four heading into B.C. Place were the U.S., New Zealand, Fiji and England. The Canadians are currently 11th in the season standings and will likely bank their hopes on Tokyo 2020 qualification through the North American and Caribbean Olympic qualifier in July — a path that will get easier if the U.S. nabs one of the four automatic Olympic qualifying berths out of the World Series this year. There is also the last-chance, all-world repechage next year.
The top four women’s teams in their 2019 World Series season will also advance directly to Tokyo 2020. The 2016 Rio Olympics bronze-medallist Canadians are third in the standings after the first three of six World Series events. The fifth women’s World Series tournament will be the Canada Sevens from May 11-12 at a revamped 6,000-seat Westhills Stadium in Langford.