Canada's Olympic rugby 7s teams on a mission after trying paths to Tokyo
Women's squad eyes medal after challenging months; men aim to impress in debut
In a sport defined by its unpredictability and instantaneous shifts in momentum, Canada's women's and men's rugby sevens teams are focused on the elements in their control during the Tokyo Olympics.
For the women's squad, who earned a bronze medal in rugby sevens' 2016 Olympic debut in Rio, it's about playing well-rounded, intelligent rugby and relying on the chemistry that was further honed over an intensely challenging stretch of time within the organization.
On the men's side, it's about having a strong impact in a challenging pool in the team's Olympic debut after falling short of qualification five years ago.
"I'm not going to lie, it's been a really tough couple of months off the field," women's captain Ghislaine Landry said, referring to a complaint submitted by current and former members of the team to the sport's national governing body in January.
That complaint led to an independent investigation and, ultimately, the resignation of head coach John Tait in April.
"The investigator noted the conduct described in the complaint reflected the experiences of the 37 [national senior women's sevens team] athletes. However, the investigator determined that the conduct referenced was not behaviour which fell within the policy's definition of harassment or bullying," Rugby Canada said in a news release.
WATCH | Canadian women's squad more than just a team:
Bianca Farella, a fellow veteran of the 2016 Olympic team, said the team's focus now is on earning another medal in Tokyo. "Everything that we've been through, you know, it's done. We've put out our statements, we've made our voices heard, and that is out in the open and that is there," she said.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ThisIsWhyNow?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ThisIsWhyNow</a> <a href="https://t.co/h3A0rOAFX5">pic.twitter.com/h3A0rOAFX5</a>—@BFarella
Both players said their experiences over the last several months brought the team closer together and gave them a unique bond heading into a pandemic-delayed Olympics.
"It wasn't easy. Something like that is never going to be easy," said Landry, who also expressed gratitude for the introduction of new coach Mick Byrne. "And the way we've come through it and the conversations that we've had, the things that we've stood up for, just the overwhelming feeling is that I'm very proud of us and each individual."
Despite the strong contingent of returning Olympians from 2016, Farella said the feel of this team is different.
"I think we're more vocal, we stand up for what's right — and if there's change that needs to occur, we're going to stand up for ourselves and vocalize that [that] change needs to happen," Farella said. "There's no passivity in this group."
The team will face Brazil, Fiji and France in pool play beginning Wednesday.
Not just rounding out the numbers
As for the men's squad, their reward for reaching the Olympics for the first time is a pool featuring 2016 gold medallist Fiji, silver medallist Great Britain and host Japan, who placed fourth five years ago. The tournament begins Sunday.
But the Canadians aren't daunted by the task at hand.
"We definitely aren't there to go make up the numbers," forward Mike Fuailefau said. "We are competitive and we can be a competitive team."
The team earned additional publicity in the lead-up to the Games when co-captain Nathan Hirayama was named one of Canada's two flag bearers for the opening ceremony alongside Miranda Ayim of the women's basketball team.
"After failing to qualify [in 2016] and taking a few weeks away from the game, I think there was a few of us who just decided, 'Let's do another lap around the sun together,'" said Hirayama, who has scored the third-most points in World Rugby Sevens Series history.
"We know that this is going to be probably the last time all 12, 13 of these guys are on the same team together. So we really just want to savour this moment together and leave it all out there for one another."
Japan's rapid growth as a rugby nation and Great Britain's amalgamated, multinational roster would be enough of a challenge before even mentioning the high-flying Fijians, but co-captain Harry Jones pointed to some recent history against Fiji that could inspire hope for Canadian fans.
"Last time we played against them in Vancouver [in 2020], we beat them," said Jones, whose lengthy rugby resumé includes a Pan Am Games gold in 2015 and a spot on Canada's 15-a-side team at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
"We have the confidence knowing that we can go in and beat that team on our day."
Finding control in an unpredictable sport
While the compressed nature of the sport — seven-on-seven teams playing seven-minute halves — makes this version of rugby ideal for binge-watching, it also magnifies every opportunity and mistake.
"As we know, the ball can bounce one way or the other, which is not how I like to play — but that's the exciting part of sevens. It could be like a bad pass and then an 80-metre try — like, that's why the sport is so exciting," Farella said.
"But I guess as an athlete, we try to control so much. We try to control what we can control, which is our skills and tactics."
Landry, whose try-scoring prowess and deft kicking have made her the all-time leader in points scored on the World Rugby Sevens Series, and Farella — a cerebral winger who's scored the second-most tries in World Series history — are part of the team's veteran core that will have to contend with Brazil's uptempo pace, Fiji's elite ball-handling and the overall strength of France.
The squad is rounded out by players making their Olympic debuts who have helped make Canada a formidable force in international rugby sevens, including dynamic forward Pamphinette Buisa.
"I think that the team culture we've created, it's allowed for us to create a better connection, a better chemistry and a better cohesiveness. And I think that has articulated itself in how we play," Buisa said.
Buisa, who has been outspoken in her activism against anti-Black racism, said she hopes her participation in the Olympics is also an opportunity to continue important conversations in Canada following several recent announcements concerning the discovery of remains at the sites of former residential schools.
"It's an opportunity, for sure, to continue efforts of truth and reconciliation, and the celebration of sport, the celebration of various identities," she said.
"We're just so thrilled to have the opportunity to play, especially in the conditions right now in the world, and to be granted the opportunity to also continue conversations."