Canada’s men’s 7s team secured their best finish in nearly three years and their best ever on home soil as they defeated the mighty Blitzboks in the bronze medal match at the 2020 HSBC Canada Sevens this past weekend in Vancouver.
The match was a thrilling conclusion to an unbelievable run of games from the Canadians, led by the inspiring performances of co-captains Harry Jones of Vancouver and Nathan Hirayama of Richmond, as well as the returning Justin Douglas and unlikely hero Theo Sauder.
Across an incredible weekend of rugby that saw huge crowds, wild costumes and exciting rugby, the Vancouver crowd saw their home country beat three of the top four sides in the World Rugby Sevens Series, and players from across BC shone bright in their home province.
Spurred on by the nation’s largest-ever single-day rugby crowd, Canada’s Day 1 performance at the 2020 HSBC Canada 7s was nothing short of phenomenal. Richmond-born Nathan Hirayama set the tone for the day of play with a try just 2 minutes into the opening match against France, who were ranked fourth in the world heading into the tournament. The crowd roared in approval, and Canada responded in kind with three more tries before the half-time buzzer, with the scoreboard reading 26-0 in favour of the hosts after seven minutes. To France’s credit, they did not appear deterred by the halftime scoreline, picking up 21 points in second half to make a game of it, but Victoria’s Connor Braid scored an insurance try in the 12th minute to secure the upset victory for the Canadians.
If beating the fourth-ranked team in the series wasn’t enough, Canada were next matched up with the 3rd-ranked team and reigning champions, Fiji. Once again, a BC-born player provided an instant inspiration for the Vancouver crowd, with Theo Sauder striking in the opening minute of the match. Not to be outdone, the Sevens Series’ leading point-scorer Napolioni Bolaca added to his total just a minute later with a try of his own and a conversion to put Fiji up 7 points to 5. Sauder scored his second try of the match in the final minute of the half, converted successfully by Duncan native Pat Kay, but a try after the siren restored the 2-point lead for Fiji. Canada left things very late, but a try in the 13th minute from Kay and a quick follow-up try by Justin Douglas in the 14th gave Canada a monumental upset win over the 2019 World Rugby Sevens Series winners.
With one match left in pool play, Canada found themselves atop the group, with Wales the last remaining obstacle on the path to the cup quarterfinal. Early scores were a trend for Canada on the opening day of play, as Hirayama dotted down in the first minute yet again. Just as in Canada’s tilt with France, the co-captain’s early marker opened the floodgates for the BC-born try-scorers – Jones scored, followed by Isaac Kaay and Pat Kay, putting the hosts up 22-0 at the halftime buzzer. Wales added a late answer, but Theo Sauder added his third try of the day in the final minute to secure Canada’s place atop Pool B.
Canada’s undefeated day 1 performance set up a quarterfinal matchup with Spain, where again the Canadians were able to get on the board early, as former UVic Vike Lucas Hammond scored just a minute into the match. Hirayama converted successfully, but the Spanish defense was able to ensure Hammond’s try was the only one in the opening half. The second half saw a return to Day 1 form for the Canadians, as Justin Douglas and Theo Sauder scored back to back to set up Canada’s first ever sevens semifinal on home soil.
Canada’s toughest test of the weekend came against Australia. In semifinal action, the Aussies and Canadians proved to be nearly inseparable on the day. It was Canada who got on the board first in the fifth minute, with Hirayama getting past the try line but opting to pass to Harry Jones rather than dotting down, and the Canadian fans roared with approval as dreams of the Canada Sevens cup final entered their heads. Just before the end of the half, Australia answered back to tie the game after the buzzer.
In the second half, the Australians got out to a quick start, scoring tries in the 8th and 9th minutes to quiet the Vancouver crowd. But as Australia prepared to restart, a crescendo swelled around BC Place, a show of support as much it was a show of belief. The Canadians responded in kind, breaking tackles left and right as they marched down the pitch. Victoria’s Mike Fuailefau scored in the 13th minute, and Hirayama made no mistake on the conversion to bring the Canadians within five. Canada got the ball back from the restart and won a scrum near the try-line. As the buzzer sounded, the Canadians got within inches of the line, but Theo Sauder’s last-ditch effort fell an inch short, and the Australians held on to win.
Undeterred, the Canadians soldiered on to face South Africa, their highest-ranked opponent of the weekend, in the bronze medal match. Once again, the Canadians landed the first blow, as Justin Douglas continued his phenomenal tournament with a first-minute try, but the Blitzboks roared back with two quick scores to put the hosts down 7 at the buzzer. But the Canadians came storming out of the gate in the second half, with Jones and Douglas scoring back-to-back tries in the opening minutes of the half, followed by an insurance marker from Hirayama to secure the bronze for Canada.
Canada’s best-ever finish at the Vancouver tournament boosted their series ranking to 8th, and the side will look to continue their fantastic play at the London and Paris tournaments in late May. Meanwhile, BC-based rugby fans can look forward to the HSBC Canada Women’s Sevens which takes place in Langford, BC from May 2-3.