UVic home to Olympic showcase for rugby 7s

Victoria International Rugby 7s tourney a jump start for Canadians to play at 2016 Olympics, rugby sevens' debut

Phil Mack dives in celebration as he scores an insurance try to help the Canadian Maple Leaf’s defeat Fiji at the inaugural Victoria International 7s in 2011. Mack is recovering from injury and will help coach Team B.C. next week.

As the world casts its eyes on London, the road to the 2016 Olympic rugby pitch is underway.

Former national player Shane Thompson was among a handful of the most prominent figures from Canada’s international rugby sevens community at the June 26 announcement of the Victoria International 7s Rugby tournament for July 13 and 14.

This year’s tournament moves from UVic’s Wallace Field into the grand theatre of Centennial Stadium. It’s part of the Victoria 7s steady growth towards its goal of becoming a freestanding rugby festival, the type of which Canada has never seen, said co-organizer Doug Tate, coach of the UVic Vikes rugby team.

The tourney’s elite men’s division has eight teams, including Canadian and U.S.A. national development teams, the Cayman Islands national team, a B.C. provincial team, the Island’s Crimson Tide representative team and the North American sevens champions Old Puget Sound Beach.

There’s also an elite women’s tier and an international under-18 boys division.

“We’ve got national players in the women’s tier, and several youth divisions, girls and boys, so we’re happy with the way it’s going,” Tate said.

Perhaps the tournament’s biggest asset, next to being an international-level tournament at home in B.C., is the awareness it brings to the youth game, namely, drawing out future Olympians.

Thompson once coached the national sevens team along with Tate, and is at the helm of the B.C. Elite Youth Sevens program. When it started early last year, it targeted the 1994-born age group, specifically because they’ll be in their prime when rugby debuts at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“Twenty-two, 23 years old is a prime age for sevens players,” Thompson said. “Some of these under-18 players already have more sevens experience than I did after a few years playing international.”

Despite not joining until 23, Thompson was one of Canada’s most dominant stars on the International Rugby Board sevens series. Because of rugby, the Ontario native is sprouting deep roots in Victoria.

Other sevens stars, such as captain Phil Mack, Nathan Hirayama and Sean Duke, make up the core of the current national team and play their club rugby for the UVic Vikes. The Victoria 7s is a rare opportunity to see them play at the international level on home soil.

“The thing about all our sevens players is they’ve come into the program with little previous experience, mostly from high school,” Thompson said. “Already we’re seeing a real understanding of the game from our youth.”

This year Canada won a qualifying tournament in Hong Kong for the right to gain core status on the IRB series for 2012-13.

“It means we’ll be playing 12 tournaments, and we’ll need 30 to 35 high calibre players to draw on if we’re going to be successful,” Tate said.