Hot enough for you on the Island? Incredibly, not hot enough for the Canadian rugby players named Friday for the 2020 Plus One Olympic Games. They have it cranked to over 50 degrees Celsius in their acclimatization tent in Langford to get used to the conditions they will face next month in Tokyo.
It’s a fitting way to cap a tumultuous lead-up training period, which included coaching changes and a year’s delay due to the pandemic as Rugby Canada named its 26 athletes, 13 men and 13 women, for the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s a dream come true and an exciting time. But it’s also bittersweet and I really feel for the teammates not selected,” said men’s co-captain Nate Hirayama.
“It’s up to us to do them proud, and the rest of Canada,” added the former University of Victoria Vikes great.
Hirayama reflected on an the unusual circumstances brought about because of the pandemic: “It’s been an unprecedented year.”
That included training that was severely restricted for much of the time at Starlight Stadium and Goudy Field, and in the Al Charron national indoor facility, due to COVID protocols.
“But we’ve been training hard and have so much belief in our group,” said Hirayama.
This will be Hirayama’s first Olympics. The Canadian men failed to qualify in 2016 for Rio, where the sevens version of rugby made its Olympic debut. It will be even more meaningful for Hirayama to play in an Olympics in the ancestral homeland on his paternal side. Dad Garry Hirayama was also a capped national team player for Canada in sevens and XVs.
“That makes it extremely special,” said Nate Hirayama, the all-time leading scorer for Canada in sevens.
Joining Hirayama on the Olympic men’s team are Connor Braid and Mike Fuailefau, both of Victoria, Pat Kay of Duncan, former UVic Vikes player Lucas Hammond, Justin Douglas and Jake Thiel, both of Abbotsford, Phil Berna, Theo Sauder, Harry Jones, Conor Trainor, all of Vancouver, and Andrew Coe and Matt Mullins of Ontario. The head coach is Kiwi Henry Paul from Auckland.
The Canadian women’s sevens team will be looking to defend its podium position from Rio when the squad captured the bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics. But following a players’ revolt this year in Langford, the team will be without the coach, John Tait of Mill Bay, who guided it to the medal in Rio.
“We’ve put it behind us but it’s still a part of our story and a part of our reality,” said Canadian women’s team veteran Bianca Farella.
But the world No. 3-ranked Canadian squad is still a definite medal threat under interim head coach Mick Byrne of Noosa Beach, Australia.
“We are dialed in, bigger picture,” said Farella, among the six returnees from the Rio-medallist squad.
“We simply have so many strengths when we play collectively. We don’t feel outside pressure. We have our own expectations of ourselves and that is to top the podium. It will be a big disapointment to ourselves internally if we don’t because we know how well our team can play.”
The team members named are Farella, captain Ghislaine Landry, Britt Benn, Kayla Moleschi, Karen Paquin, Charity Williams, Elissa Alarie, Olivia Apps, former UVic Vikes star Pam Buisa, Julia Greenshields, Kali Lukan, Breanne Nicholas and Keyara Wardley.
“I feel bad for the players not selected. It was a 21-player effort to get to this point,” said Farella, of the long list, which had to be cut down to the travelling group for Tokyo.
The men’s Olympic rugby competition takes place July 26-28 in Tokyo Stadium and the women’s from July 29-31. The Games open July 23.