March is lining up to be one of the most eventful months in recent memory for Canada, with a full slate of action lined up for u20, senior, and 7s sides. The big announcement from Ottawa that Canada had officially been awarded a stop on the HSBC Sevens World Series garnered a nice bit of media attention, the trick will be to parlay that into continual coverage for what’s actually happening on the field in the coming weeks. It’s not something that’s come easily thus far for a fringe sport that still isn’t quite sure where it’s headed.
Those who have been paying attention would have known about the Vancouver deal for some time now, or at least heard a few rumours. It’s a terrific boost for Canadian rugby, and well deserved given the popularity of the side on the international circuit. British Columbia has not been the greatest supporter in terms of attendance numbers to recent tests, which belies its relatively populous rugby community, but realistically it was Canada’s only viable location for the event, and hopefully it reignites the Vancouver area’s passion for international rugby.
The event has broader implications on the series as a whole, not least its placement in March almost certainly requiring Las Vegas to be placed similarly to accommodate. What this means for Hong Kong, traditionally played at the end of the month, or New Zealand, who will surely move their spot away from the woefully attended Wellington site, has yet to be seen. It’s important to note that Vancouver is not taking the place of another city – the series itself is being extended to a dozen stops, up two from this year. The ‘Olympic effect’ has not taken long to make its mark.
Both senior 7s sides, men and women, will be in action this month, but it’s the XVs who comprise the bulk of the excitement and get things started on the 10th, though in this nation that actually means the evening of the 9th, as our men’s senior ‘A’ side travels to the island paradise of Fiji on the edge of the international date line to take part in the newly re-branded Pacific Challenge. Four matches against similar high level domestic representative sides should, in theory, represent an additional opportunity – alongside the previously established Americas Rugby Championship – for fringe players to test themselves at a higher level of competition. For those just on the cusp of World Cup selection, these games could prove critical to their chances.
Kicking off just a few hours later will be the men’s u20 side, who host their Romanian counterparts in two friendlies ahead of the all-important qualifiers against the Americans. Canada has been part of the two-tiered Junior World competitions since their inception in 2008, and on several occasions before when they were contested at u19 and u21 level. This year the wise masters of the IRB (aka World Rugby) have decided that only one of the North American sides will take part – for reasons beyond the comprehension of any rational outside observer – so Canada will have to qualify to take part, with the Americans arriving in British Columbia in late March to play a two-leg qualifier series to determine who goes to Portugal in May. If Canada loses on aggregate, they will be out of the tournament. It is a ridiculous situation, one that the higher ups in both Victoria and Boulder should be vehemently opposing going forward.
There has been little mention of the women’s senior XVs side as of yet, but the 7s have their next stop on the circuit in Atlanta, to be played over two days at Kennesaw State University Stadium. The team has somewhat quietly become Canada’s most accomplished representative side at any level, holding a 3rd place world ranking behind only the traditional powerhouse sides of New Zealand and Australia. Led by former test second rower John Tait and captain Jen Kish, they have clearly benefited the most from their new Olympic status, and look odds-on to take home a medal in 17 months time.
Closing out the month on a rather precipitous level is the famed Hong Kong 7s, where the men’s 7s start the final run-in to the back end of their circuit. Their season has thus far proved difficult, and their road to the Olympics far less certain than the women. Given that half their regular team is in Fiji and will be switching to 7s mode with virtually zero preparation, expectations might be suitably reserved. It is far from an ideal situation, one that surely everyone recognizes but also one not easily resolved and best discussed in another article.
It’s a massive month logistically and surely one of the most challenging in recent times, if not ever. From a fan’s perspective, it gives us plenty to watch and scrutinize and for those of us not residing west of ‘the wall’, a reprieve from the relentless winter. In a year’s time we might well look back and see this as a pivotal time for Rugby Canada, for athletes and administrators both. Ultimately success should be judged by the lessons learned by all rather than the results, whether positive, negative, or more than likely a mixture of both.
March 10 – Men’s Senior ‘A’ – Pacific Challenge vs Junior Japan
March 10 – Men’s u20 – vs Romania u20
March 14 – Men’s Senior ‘A’ – Pacific Challenge vs Samoa ‘A’
March 14 – Men’s u20 – vs Romania u20
March 14 – Women’s 7s – Atlanta 7s Day 1 (6 tourneys, 3rd after 2)
March 15 – Women’s 7s – Atlanta 7s Day 2
March 18 – Men’s Senior ‘A’ – Pacific Challenge vs Argentina Pampas
March 23 – Men’s Senior ‘A’ – Pacific Challenge vs T.B.D.
March 23 – Men’s u20 – JWT Qualifier vs USA u20
March 27 – Men’s u20 – JWT Qualifier vs USA u20
March 27 – Men’s 7s – Hong Kong 7s Day 1
March 28 – Men’s 7s – Hong Kong 7s Day 2
March 29 – Men’s 7s – Hong Kong 7s Day 3