Rugby Canada tackles 2-headed problem as Olympics approach

The inclusion of rugby sevens into Olympic competition gives Rugby Canada a tremendous amount to consider.

Showcasing the sport on an international stage and introducing rugby's compressed format to a new audience of Canadian sports fans could boost the rugby's profile. However, it also has the potential to overextend the national organization's modest budget and talent in the process.

Adding to this is the fact that the men's team has yet to qualify for Rio 2016 and that several key players on the side have essentially been going back and forth between two different sports in order to give Canada the best possible rugby teams in sevens and 15s.

This isn't an issue on the women's side. Both the sevens and 15s teams have been consistently producing on the pitch, earning a silver medal in 15s at the most recent Women's Rugby World Cup in 2014 and qualifying early for the upcoming Rio Olympics in the seven-a-side version.

The men's teams, however, have had more mixed results.

Sevens gold at the 2015 Pan Ams was followed up a few weeks later by a winless pool performance from the 15-a-side national team at the Rugby World Cup. The sevens team is struggling in the current HSBC Sevens World Series as well; the team sits 13th in the global rankings after consecutive top 10 finishes in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Opportunity for growth

The upcoming Olympics has put sevens in the spotlight. Sevens was introduced instead of 15s largely because the modified version is a quick-paced game with short bursts of intense action and is easier to digest for casual fans. 

However, 15s continues to be the major draw for the national program. Up until a few months ago, the only major games hosted in Canada were 15s tests and the Rugby World Cup is also 15s. As well, Canadian players looking for lucrative professional opportunities can find work playing 15s in European competitions.

According to Jim Dixon, Rugby Canada's general manager of rugby operations and performance, the national union is committed to growing both versions of the game in Canada.

Hirayama-Vancouver-Sevens

The large turnout at the inaugural men's sevens tournament in Vancouver in March could be a lucrative growth opportunity for Rugby Canada. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Vancouver hosted Canada's inaugural men's sevens event on March 12-13, while Langford, B.C., hosted the women's series for the second year in a row. According to Bill Cooper, the CEO of Canada Sevens, these tournaments are another way Rugby Canada can grow the sport nationally. 

"It's an opportunity for rugby Canada to diversity its revenue streams and to bring in new attention and commercial and corporate engagement to rugby that may not otherwise have come were it not for these tournaments," said Cooper, who is in charge of organizing the sevens events.

"So the two sevens tournaments can become and are becoming an engine towards growth and then it's up to Rugby Canada to make the decisions of where they direct that growth."

Hard to 'switch mode'

While the national union appears to be planning for the future, with a new CEO in Allen Vansen and new 15s head coach Mark Anscombe, the present realities are somewhat more complex.

Olympic participation is far from a guarantee. With 11 of the 12 berths filled, Canada will need to compete in a repechage tournament on June 18-19 in Monaco. Their biggest obstacles for the final Olympic spot will be Samoa and Russia, against whom Canada has gone 4-6 this season.

The repechage tournament coincides with the three 15s tests in June. "None of the 7s boys will be available for those stops because of Olympic qualification and hopefully preparation for Rio," says Nathan Hirayama, a member of Canada's two national rugby teams.

Hirayama has first-hand experience dealing with the challenges of shifting between the two versions of rugby. For Hirayama and other dual-team members like John Moonlight and Conor Trainor, navigating the schedules of two national teams can be difficult.

"It's playing two different sports basically, so it is difficult," says Hirayama. "It was a handful of us right out of Pan Am Games in Toronto who knew we'd be going into the 15s full for the summer, and we were all hoping to make that World Cup team."

"And it was a big change for us because we'd been in this environment, sevens environment, for the last year only playing sevens and then at the drop of a pin you have to switch completely to 15s mode."

Adding to the mental shift is the physical toll taken by players who represent both the sevens and 15s teams. It comes up frequently among players and officials at Rugby Canada, Hirayama said.

"That's just kind of how it works in Canada right now," said Hirayama. "The player pool, a lot of people would agree that it should be separated."

"The fact is the player pool is not deep enough."​

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