Men's team lost Olympic funding last month
Aiming to impress in front of home fans
Results have dropped since 2014 height
The past couple of years haven’t quite gone to plan for Canadian men’s rugby.
While the women’s sevens team won a bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics, the male Maple Leafs had to watch on TV after missing out on a place at the sport’s biggest showcase in over 100 years.
The men’s 15-a-side team, meanwhile, has dropped to 23rd in the world rankings after losing four of its five games at the recent Americas Rugby Championship.
This weekend’s Vancouver Sevens tournament, then, provides a big opportunity for Canada to impress in front of home fans – and show that the team shouldn’t have had its $630,000 Olympic funding cut last month.
The women’s program, by contrast, has funding of almost $1.5 million for 2017-18.
“We’re just trying to come out here and try to prove a lot of people wrong,” says Nathan Hirayama, a key player for Canada in both formats of the game since making his Sevens World Series debut in 2006, aged 18.
“There’s a lot of belief in the team and there’s a lot of keen young guys. Obviously the last couple of years have been frustrating, disappointing, just with the results and not going to the Olympics,” he added.
“I don’t think last year we had a top-eight (placing) which was so disappointing for us – a couple of years ago we were sixth in the world, so it’s not up to our usual standards.”
‘Something to prove’
Canada finished 12th in the 2015-16 world series, and lost to Russia in the quarterfinals of the final Olympic qualification event.
It was a slight improvement on 13th place the previous season, but nowhere near the heights of 2013-14 when the team reached the final in Scotland and the semis in Las Vegas.
“I do feel like we have something to prove because clearly some people don’t believe in us when it comes to funding and stuff like that,” adds Hirayama, whose father was also a Canada rugby international.
This is the second year that Vancouver has staged a world series event, and Hirayama is hoping to build on the inaugural tournament, which attracted a reported 60,000 fans over two days.
Canada won the third-tier Bowl final, failing to make the Cup quarterfinals despite winning two of its three group games.
“Growing up there was never anything like that, not on the West Coast,” says Hirayama, a Richmond, British Columbia native. “There would be the odd game, a Test match, but no sevens, so it’s really great.”
‘It’s exciting right now’
The 28-year-old playmaker is only the second Canadian player to pass 900 points in the world series, and is just 20 behind compatriot Phil Mack, who is 19th in the all-time standings.
Hirayama is already an international veteran, and was selected for the last two 15-a-side World Cups.
“This team has grown a lot since I’ve been on the team, which is over 10 years now,” Canada’s 2016 sevens player of the year says. “The game’s changed a lot and the team’s changed, we have a lot more depth than in the past … a lot of good young guys are coming up.
“It’s just exciting to be a part of it right now. I think I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had. We have a great group and I love going in every day and training with these guys.”
This weekend’s tournament is expected to attract 76,000 fans, and Canada captain Harry Jones is hoping the home support will fire up his team, which faces 2016 Vancouver champion New Zealand, Scotland and Russia on the opening day.
“It’s a pretty special opportunity for all of us,” he told reporters this week. “There are quite a few hometown boys here on our team, but for rugby in Canada it means so much that we’ve got 70,000-odd people coming out for a two-day tournament in Canada, which isn’t known as a rugby country.
“It’s amazing for us to be able to go out and play in front of that kind of crowd.”
South Africa holds a 24-point lead in the series, having won its fourth title this season in Vegas last weekend.
The Blitzboks face third-placed England, Kenya and Chile on Saturday, while reigning champion Fiji – a three-time losing finalist in the 2016-17 series – is grouped with Argentina, Samoa and Wales.