With British Columbia continuing to experience a surge in serious COVID-19 cases, Rugby Canada and World Rugby are set to jointly announce the postponement of the HSBC Canada Sevens in Vancouver.
The two-day men’s rugby sevens event, which was scheduled to run on the weekend of Feb. 26 and 27, will now take place about six weeks later, on the weekend of April 16 and 17 at B.C. Place.
The number of serious coronavirus cases in the province spiked earlier this week, with B.C. having the highest number of coronavirus-related cases in hospitals since the pandemic began, with 854 people admitted as of Tuesday.
It was the continued rise in serious cases that ultimately brought Rugby Canada around to this course of action.
“We always defer to the provincial health and with World Rugby we flagged it a few weeks ago saying, ‘We don’t know if we’re going to be good for the end of February,’ which is the original date,” said Gareth Rees, the director of commercial and program relations for Rugby Canada.
“So we put those concerns [to World Rugby] and as a result, we’ve postponed.”
The tournament was supposed to take place the week before the U.S. event in Los Angeles, but will now be held the week after the Singapore leg of the series, with the athletes flying from there to B.C. It’s an important year for the seven-a-side version of the sport, with both men’s and women’s World Cups scheduled to take place in South Africa this September.
“Together with the tournament hosts we are disappointed not to be able to deliver these events on the originally planned dates,” said World Rugby head of sevens competitions Douglas Langley in a statement. “However, the global nature of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and logistical restrictions associated with the ongoing and dynamic nature of the pandemic continue to present a challenge to all stakeholders.
“Our collective focus is on ensuring the events are as safe, impactful and enjoyable as possible for all involved and therefore postponing is the best course of action.”
The Canadian men and women’s sevens teams are currently both in Malaga, Spain, preparing to play the second leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series this weekend.
The HSBC Canada Sevens is part of that series, having taken place in Vancouver every year since 2016, when it was added as the 10th stop on the annual tour around the globe. The 2021 tour was cut to just two stops – both taking place on Canadian soil – with Edmonton combining with Vancouver to play host to both events last September.
A number of teams chose not to take part, with the likes of Australia, New Zealand, France and Argentina opting out because of pandemic-related travel restrictions.
Given the habitual success of the event – the Canada Sevens stop drew a total attendance north of 70,000 fans each year before the pandemic – Rugby Canada is hoping a delay will give it every chance to be a fan-filled spectacle, with players and supporters being able to observe the action safely.
“Safety has got to be the first [priority],” Rees said. “We can’t afford to have, I suppose, a black eye in terms of an event that didn’t serve our public or athletes for that matter. And then yeah, once that’s secured, then we want to have as vibrant [an] event as we can.”
The event has proved to be a financial driver for Rugby Canada, as well as the province of B.C. Prepandemic, the Canada Sevens generated roughly $24-million annually in economic activity in the province, with the tournament booking more than 2,300 room nights in hotels for players and staff.
“It’s not only a great event, and a chance to profile the athletes and our partners, but it drives a lot of what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Rees said. “Whether it’s growing the game, finding opportunities for kids, funding, you know, activities in and around rugby, so it’s hugely important now.”
As other sports have shown, from the NHL pulling out of the Beijing Olympics to make up postponed games, to the cancelled world junior hockey championship in Edmonton and Red Deer, the key to putting on an event in the current climate is to remain flexible.
The rescheduling of last year’s event from its usual March slot to its eventual September one taught Rees and Rugby Canada a lot about being open to all possibilities.
“We’ve learned a ton over the last two years,” he said. “So we have a good feel for what is tolerable and what isn’t. And, you know, obviously, we’re not going to risk [it] just as the world juniors couldn’t by just continuing.
“Ideally, before that decision to launch the tournament we’d have all [pandemic-related concerns] under control, and we wouldn’t launch if there was a risk.”