When Canada hits the ground running against Wales on Saturday during a fast-paced two-day World Sevens rugby tournament, it will be an historic moment, and perhaps a pivotal one in the development of the game.
Never before will a Canadian rugby team have played at home in front of such a huge crowd. With nearly 60,000 tickets sold, the HSBC Canada Sevens rugby tournament has surpassed the highest expectations of planners.
The ticket rush forced organizers last week to open an additional 5,000 seats in BC Place stadium and is raising hopes Vancouver can grow to rival the famed Hong Kong Sevens tournament, which is one of the world's great sporting events.
"In our history, this will be the largest crowd to ever show up to support a Canadian team in a rugby match, by far," said John Furlong, who headed the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. "I think the fans are wading in."
Mr. Furlong co-chaired the Rugby Canada committee that competed with 23 countries in bidding for the tournament when new venues were sought. Vancouver is the sixth stop in a 10-country tour, which, like World Cup tennis or skiing, awards the championship title on the basis of total accumulated points over the season.
Mr. Furlong said the tournament will put Canada on stage for the first time as a host of a major international rugby event.
"This is a big moment for Rugby Canada. This is a seminal moment for the sport, I think," said Mr. Furlong.
When World Rugby decided to add a new venue to the global tour, Vancouver was not expected to get selected. It did so in large part by framing the event as something that would not only draw a substantial crowd, but which could also push Canadian rugby to a new level.
Always good, and sometimes good enough to challenge the world's best teams, Canadian rugby – both at the full 15-a-side format and in the sevens competitions – has always struggled for attention against traditional North American sports such as hockey, football and baseball.
Getting World Rugby, the international governing body, to accept that Canada was ready to host the World Sevens required a two-year effort, and some creative thinking, Mr. Furlong said.
"What Rugby Canada was able to do was to lay out in the bid a grander vision for the sport," he said. "Written into these documents was a belief … that this would lead to international games in [BC Place] stadium, that the stadium itself would effectively become the national stadium for rugby in Canada; that we could expect to see games against the likes of the All Blacks, and the Wallabies and the Springboks in the future. It was to be the beginning of a whole new phase for the game."
Rugby Canada hopes that, by hosting the men's tournament in Vancouver, a new wave of fans can be won both for the faster-paced sevens game – which features freewheeling attacks – and the full 15-a-side version, where there is less space to run and more complex game strategies. Many regard sevens as a fan-friendly game because it is easier to follow.
"You don't have to be a knowledgeable or dedicated rugby fan to really enjoy yourself at this tournament," said Bill Cooper, chief executive officer of Canada Sevens. "The games are brief and the plot line is quite simple to understand in terms of who's winning and who's not. And that's important to a consumer who's dedicated their weekend to an event. They don't want to be baffled and confused."
Played over two days, featuring the world's top teams, the tournament sets a frantic pace, with 45 games of 14 minutes each until the final, which lasts an exhausting 20 minutes.
Because there is so much action, non-stop for hours, the tournament allows ticket holders to come and go.
"As a spectator you've got in-and-out privileges at the stadium and most of the seating is general admission. So it's a free-flowing spectator experience where people are getting up, moving around and socializing," Mr. Cooper said.
He first attended a World Sevens tournament in Hong Kong in the late nineties, and was struck by how festive the atmosphere was in the stadium and how its spirit spread through the city. It has developed into a major tourism draw for the city, attracting 120,000 visitors and $40-million (U.S.) in spending, and he is hoping the same thing happens in Vancouver.
"I think it's a beautiful thing they've done in Hong Kong. At its heart it's a rugby tournament, but it's really a community celebration," he said. "The closet parallel for me is the [Calgary] Stampede. It's a ubiquitous citywide kind of experience."
Seven things to know about the World Rugby Sevens Series:
1) The top 16 men's teams in the world are competing in Vancouver over two days.
2) The World Sevens tour started in Dubai on Dec. 4 and ends in London on May 22. Vancouver is the sixth stop and the teams go next to Hong Kong.
3) Sevens rugby will debut at the Summer Olympics in Rio. The Canadian women's team has already qualified; the men have one remaining chance to make the cut later this year.
4) In the 16 years of the men's series, New Zealand has won 12 times, Fiji twice, South Africa and Samoa once each.
5) The Vancouver tournament opens Saturday at 9:30 a.m. with South Africa versus Scotland. Canada's first game is at 12:04 p.m. against Wales.
6) Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand are currently leading the standings. Canada is in 12th place.
7) The World Rugby Women's Sevens Series will be held in Langford, just outside Victoria, April 16-17. It is one of five stops on the tour, with the others in Dubai, Sao Paulo, Atlanta and Clermont-Ferrand.