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Victoria's Jake Thiel leading new-breed Canada in rugby sevens at B.C. Place

With the cornerstone players from the past decade retiring post-Tokyo Olympics, the leadership mantle of the Langford-based Canadian men’s rugby sevens team has passed to players such as new assistant captain Jake Thiel of Victoria.
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Canada's Jake Thiel leaps for the ball against Australia's Nick Malouf during the 2019 Challenge Trophy final in Vancouver.

With the cornerstone players from the past decade retiring post-Tokyo Olympics, the leadership mantle of the Langford-based Canadian men’s rugby sevens team has passed to players such as new assistant captain Jake Thiel of Victoria.

“That great group of guys was together a long time and I got to play with them for a few years,” said 24-year-old Thiel, who made his Canada debut in 2018.

It was strange not to see Connor Braid of Victoria, University of Victoria Vikes great Nathan Hirayama, Harry Jones of North Vancouver, Justin Douglas of Abbotsford and Conor Trainor run on to the B.C. Place pitch Saturday for the HSBC World Series Canada Sevens. The national team mainstays retired following the Olympics in Tokyo over the summer.

“I came up under such great leaders like Hirayama, Braid, Jones and John Moonlight,” said Thiel.

“The biggest thing I learned from them was how such incredible leaders they were off the pitch, as well.”

Thiel took note of it all.

“I look forward now to being a team leader. It’s a role I’ve not had since U-20. It’s an exciting new challenge.”

In group play on Saturday, Canada beat Germany 24-5 and Chile 19-14, and lost 29-19 to the U.S, to advance to today’s quarter-finals.

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 Canada Sevens at B.C. Place because the Tokyo experience, an Olympics amid a pandemic, proved so draining.

That leaves only three of the players from the Canadian team that made the Tokyo quarter-finals — Thiel, Andrew Coe and Phil Berna — in the lineup at B.C. Place and for next weekend for the World Series Edmonton Sevens at Commonwealth Stadium. Berna is captain and Thiel assistant captain.

“We played the young players in Olympic warm-ups at Langford and that’s been a huge advantage for these upcoming players in their step up to the national team because they saw the speed and stamina it takes at the world level,” said Thiel.

“They are more prepared than I was when I stepped up.”

The Canadian youth movement playing at B.C. Place includes Island players Jack Carson, Ciaran Breen, Brennig Prevost, Anton Ngongo and Matt Percillier.

“The new guys are so hungry and their talent level is so high,” said Thiel.

“The Pacific Pride [Langford-based national Under-23 development team] has done a great job of feeding these guys into the senior program. We are going to have the kind of depth we’ve never had before.”

But there is still a learning curve.

“The look on their faces when they walked onto the B.C. Place pitch for the first time was like: ‘Oh, my God,’ ” said Thiel, who grew up in a rugby family, with dad Jon Thiel a veteran of three World Cups in XVs, brother Josh having played for Canada in XVs and sevens, and mom Jen (nee Ross) on the Canadian women’s team.

Familiar veteran Canadian names are also sitting out the B.C. Place and Edmonton women’s World Series Sevens tournaments, including two-time Olympians Ghislaine Landry, Charity Williams and Bianca Farella. It has been a jolting 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 medallists then called a controversial non-rugby press conference in Tokyo to address social issues before shockingly crashing out of the Games in the group stage.

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

In the women’s tournament Saturday, Canada beat Mexico 39-0, and lost 22-12 to the U.S. and 19-5 to Great Britain. Canada plays the U.S. today in the semifinals.

There’s a 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 is being capped at half the lower bowl to a capacity of 13,500. That’s compared with the nearly 40,000 fans that attended the Saturday of the 2020 Canada Sevens.

Both the 12-team men’s and four-team women’s tournaments are truncated this weekend with several of the marquee nations missing due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The medal and consolation rounds will be played today at B.C. Place.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com