When Geraint John became head coach of the Canada’s rugby men’s sevens team four years ago, the country was non-entity in the international game, nowhere near the best teams in the world.
John led a renaissance, building a successful team at the same time many countries poured money into rugby as sevens is set to join the Summer Olympics roster in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Canada’s men’s sevens team reached No. 6 in the world this past season, positioning itself as an outside medal contender, up from No. 12 the season before.
But the searing glow of the Olympics, the lure of medals, has set international rugby aflame with competitive fire – and it has, for now, cost Canada. No. 5-ranked Australia has snatched John from Canada to coach its sevens team as the traditional rugby country aims to win gold Rio, leveraging its money and prestige to attract John, a Welshman whose achievements in Canada have been widely noticed.
“It’s a far wealthier union than us,” said Rugby Canada’s Mike Chu, comparing Australia’s rugby association with Canada’s. “We would have loved to have kept Geraint. It wasn’t to be.”
While Canada is losing John, a Welshman who first joined Rugby Canada in 2006, the country remains a destination for international managerial talent. Chu himself came from New Zealand in 2012 and oversees rugby operations. The coach of Canada’s 15s team, Kieran Crowley, is a former fullback for New Zealand’s All Blacks.
Crowley will coach the sevens squad until a new coach is found. The goal for a new boss is the end of August ahead of the start of the season in the autumn.
Rugby has long existed outside the sphere of the Olympics. The traditional game, 15-a-side rugby union, was a Summer Olympics early in the last century before its final appearance in 1924. Since 1987, the World Cup staged every four years – the next one is in 2015 – became the focus of the sport.
But the gravity of the sport began to shift somewhat rugby sevens in 2009, when the Olympics added the version of the sport for the 2016 and 2020 games, with tournaments for both men and women.
Canada, like other countries, started to invest in the sport. A new national training centre was established in 2012 in the Victoria suburb of Langford. Own The Podium has also provided key funding. As the men’s team improved, OTP first invested $750,000 for the 2013-14 season, adding support staff and helping lift the team up the international rankings, and another $750,000 was committed for 2014-15.
The women’s side is even more promising, with an international ranking of No. 3 in a relatively young sport where numerous countries compete for an early advantage and a medal in Rio. OTP spent $750,000 on women’s sevens in 2012-13, a figure raised to $1.7-million last season and maintained for 2014-15.
But amid the international competition, Canada lost a key coach. John was specifically hired by Australia to chase gold, looking for a boost after some struggles. The country was ranked No. 3 in 2009-10 but hasn’t fared as well since, with its current No. 5 standing its best since then. New Zealand, South Africa, and Fiji have been the top three teams the past two seasons.
“I am delighted,” John said in a press release from the Australia Rugby Union, “to be given the opportunity to give us the best possible chance of bringing back gold in 2016.”
Twelve countries qualify for the Rio Olympics, a process that begins this fall. If Canada’s men make the Olympics, Chu believes the country has a shot at medal. New Zealand is the only sevens team Canada has not defeated in competition. In early May in Glasgow, at the second last tournament of the recently completed sevens season, Canada finished second, its best showing.
“If we’re at the Olympics,” said Chu, “we’ll be competitive.”