Heavy Island theme on Canadian rugby team in Olympic opener

The late Dylan Jones never got to the Olympics. But in a sense he will be there today in Tokyo when Canada opens in men’s rugby sevens against Great Britain at 5:30 p.m.

Connor Braid of Victoria will be wearing two jerseys in the Olympics, his own and one underneath with the No. 9 honouring his friend Jones, 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 also in club rugby with Castaway Wanderers.

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“Dylan was a big part of my motivation in getting to the Olympic Games,” said Braid.

“I haven’t played a game, since he died, without a shirt bearing the No. 9 underneath my jersey.”

That could provide a poignant lift for a Canadian men’s team making its Olympic debut after failing to qualify for Rio 2016, when the sport was introduced into the Games. Canada, however, has multi-sport event experience from three Commonwealth Games, which features the toughest Games tournament outside the Olympics, and two gold medals and a silver in the Pan Am Games.

The Canadian Olympic team would have a heavy Island theme even if it wasn’t based in Langford. It includes Braid and St. Michaels University School graduate Mike Fuailefau of Victoria, Cowichan Secondary graduate Pat Kay of Duncan and University of Victoria Vikes graduates Lucas Hammond and captain Nate Hirayama, the latter who was Canadian co-flagbearer in the opening ceremony on Friday. “I have been on the podium with these guys [in World Series tournaments and the Pan Am Games] and we have belief,” said Braid, who is both punishing and fast.

“I truly believe we can do something special.”

Following today’s opener against 2016 Rio Olympic silver-medallist Great Britain, the Canadians continue pool play Monday against defending Olympic-champion Fiji at 1 a.m. PT and Rio 2016 fourth-place and host Japan at 5 p.m. PT. It has been labelled the Pool of Death.

“We don’t believe it matters who is in our pool,” said Kay.

“We beat Fiji a few years ago in Vancouver and they have all the pressure on them here as defending Olympic champion while we are making our debut. We are focusing on doing the little things right.”

The unsung Duncan product is the national team’s multi-tasker.

“Every team needs a player like that,” said Kay.

“I can play multiple positions and distribute the ball to those X-factor players who can break games open. I’m quite happy to let the other guys take the glory.”

Especially if it leads to the Olympic podium.

“Insert the cliché, but it’s been a long time in the making,” said Braid, of Canada’s Olympic debut.

“Step one was to get qualified and selected for Tokyo. Now, step two will be to perform in Tokyo. We are going in with a call-to-duty mindset.”

The rugby players are among the more than 75 Island or Island-associated athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, including former UVic Vikes player Keegan Pereira, who scored Canada’s lone goal Saturday in its 7-1 field hockey opening-game loss to 2008 Beijing and 2012 London gold-medallist Germany.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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