There will be a raucous homecoming for Canada's men's rugby sevens team this weekend at BC Place – and the team looks to the boisterous support for a much-needed boost to its on-field performance.
This is the second year BC Place holds one of the 10 stops on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, which began in Dubai last December and ends in London in May. The inaugural Vancouver stop was a success, with lively crowds of about 30,000 on both Saturday and Sunday of the two-day tournament. This weekend, about 38,000 people are expected each day.
Canada's team, however, has long struggled on the field. The peak came three years ago in 2013-14, when Canada finished sixth in the series. Last season, Canada was 13th and also failed to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics. This season, which is at the halfway mark, has also been difficult. The team is in 12th place. However, Canada has shown some promise, with a fourth-place finish in Wellington in late January and a tie for seventh in Las Vegas last weekend.
The team has a strong group of core players but lacks depth, so issues such as injuries immediately undercut the squad.
The biggest off-field blow, stemming from the on-field problems, came recently: Own the Podium pulled its annual rugby sevens funding of $825,000 for the 2017-18 fiscal year, starting in April. That money accounted for about half of the annual budget of $1.6-million for the men's sevens program. Rugby Canada juggled its internal resources to move $400,000 into men's sevens – but the new budget of $1.2-million is still down by a quarter. Five full-time staffers were cut. They focused on development of young players and worked areas such as physiotherapy, and strength and conditioning. The decision was tough, since men's sevens needs more up-and-coming players.
"I don't want people to think we're feeling sorry for ourselves," said sevens head coach Damian McGrath, who took the job last October. "It's a chance for us to refocus and reorganize and I think Canadian [men's] rugby maybe needs that at the moment. The results in the 15s and the sevens haven't been great over the past few years."
The decisions of Own the Podium are based on Olympic medal potential. The organization handles about one-third of the $200-million or so spent on sports by the federal government – so all sports receive some money, but the most promising sports receive more. Own the Podium's core funding program, the one most people know, distributes $64-million annually to summer and winter sports that are medal contenders. A second, small program is called the team sport strategy, established for 2010-11, ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics. It distributes $5.6-million, with the aim for summer teams to qualify for the next Olympics and eventually challenge for a medal.
Men's sevens had received team sport funding, an annual boost that had been $750,000 and rose to $825,000 in 2015-16 ahead of Rio 2016.
Falling short of the Rio Games hurt. Another challenge for men's sevens is additional competition. Men's and women's wheelchair basketball, which previously received core Own the Podium funding, have been dropped to the team funding level.
The team sport strategy has "had a terrific impact on summer team sports," said Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own the Podium. "They're all getting better, but it's becoming more competitive within the group. And team sports are more expensive to support."
New funding of $10-million from the federal government and the private sector, under the umbrella of "next-generation" support, is in the works. This could benefit rugby sevens and its push to bolster the development of the sport in Canada.
Looking at the longer term, HSBC this week invested an undisclosed amount in Rugby Canada's "rookie rugby" program for children, with the aim to reach 375,000 kids over the next three years, up from 85,000 to date.
At the top level, men's sevens isn't alone in losing backing from Own the Podium. Archery, sailing, synchronized swimming and triathlon were dropped by the organization for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
The most immediate way to win back the lost cash is to win on the field. Own the Podium conducts annual reviews.
"A lot can change in a year," Merklinger said.
For men's sevens, even with a lack of depth, McGrath insists his team can vie against the best squads. Proving this on the field, in Vancouver and through the spring, will be essential for Own the Podium money.
"We're a top-eight team, there's no doubt about that," McGrath said.
Noisy BC Place could be a big help this weekend.
"It was a surreal experience, the first time we went on the field," former long-time captain John Moonlight said of last year in Vancouver. "We've never had that before."
Moonlight, turning 30 in July, set a record last weekend in Las Vegas when he played his 53rd sevens tournament for Canada. He feels this team is coalescing and is acutely aware that future Own the Podium money is at stake.
"Now, we're rolling. The crowd is going to see a top-line Canada," Moonlight said. "We know we have to step up. It's up to us."