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Men's and women's rugby sevens teams have mercurial day at B.C. Place

The Canadian men lost 19-14 to Spain on Saturday and will play South Africa for 13th place Sunday, while the Canadian women lost 10-5 to New Zealand.
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Canada's Matthew Percillier scores a try against Chile during HSBC Canada Sevens rugby action, in Vancouver, on Saturday, March 4, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A full lower bowl on Saturday nearing 30,000 spectators at B.C. Place — dressed as everything from Mounties and lumberjacks to Where’s Waldos and bright-yellow bananas — greeted the Langford-based Canadian men’s and women’s teams in the rugby HSBC World Series Canada Sevens.

The Canadian men went 2-1 in group play to tie for first place with Ireland and Australia only to be relegated to the consolation side on tie-breakers as the Aussies and Irish got the championship quarter-final berths. Spain beat Canada 19-14 on the consolation side Saturday night to send the hosts to a meeting this morning against the South Africa Blitzboks for 13th place.

Group play can be a capricious thing. The plucky Canadian women went 1-2 but advanced to the championship quarter-finals, where they gave Tokyo Olympic champion New Zealand a real scare before losing 10-5 to the Black Ferns.

Through the whirlwind of on-field action, the other story in sevens rugby is always in the stands, where the fans are more expressive than almost any other sport.

“The atmosphere out there is amazing. I’m really excited to see it as the weekend continues. There’s still lots to look forward to,” said veteran and Tokyo Olympian Olivia Apps of the Canadian women’s team.

The women’s event has moved to B.C. Place alongside the men’s tournament after the previous six female Canada Sevens tournaments took place in Langford, which is the training base for Rugby Canada.

Veteran Canadian player Bianca Farella said she will miss the “intimacy” of Starlight Stadium “and being so close to the fans and being able to interact with them” but welcomed the greater exposure and equity that B.C. Place provides to the women’s Canada Sevens.

“It’s exciting to play in a huge stadium and align with the men’s tournament,” said the veteran Farella, a member of Canada’s 2016 Rio Olympics bronze-medallist team, and world fourth all-time in career HSBC World Series game appearances with 239. “We are always fighting for equality. This has been a long time coming,”

The joy of the Canada Sevens in the stands, however, can’t mask the host nation’s troubling season in the World Series. The Canadian men came into B.C. Place 14th in the World Series table and in the fight of their lives to stay on the main circuit next year when the current 16-team World Series constricts to 12 teams to align with the number of teams allowed for the Olympics.

The top four teams in both men’s and women’s at the end of this HSBC World Series season will qualify automatically for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The Canadian women’s team, a formerly reliable top-four placer, is in 10th place in the table with it looking increasingly likely it will have to go through the regional North America and Caribbean Olympic qualifier for the first time in team history.

It will all come down to how quickly the young players, who are key to the re-tooling, develop.

Matt Percillier of Mill Bay, then a member of the national youth development program, remembers scrimmaging against the Canadian senior national sevens team players at Starlight Stadium to help get them ready for their eventual run to the quarter-finals of the Tokyo Olympics.

Krissy Scurfield, now a sophomore standout with the University of Victoria Vikes, was only 13 when she watched on TV the Canadian women win bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics. With both the men’s and women’s Canadian teams in rebuild mode and facing daunting challenges following a wave of veteran retirements, it will be rising young players such Scurfield and Brentwood College graduate Percillier that will be relied upon if Canada is even to get to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The host squads, in the midst of rough seasons, showed some encouraging flashes at the Canada Sevens this weekend.

Percillier scored the first two tries to pace Canada to its stirring 29-12 men’s victory over Australia after having lost its previous eight games against the Aussies. That was followed Saturday afternoon by a 35-7 victory over Chile as Canada finished positively in group play after opening with a 35-5 loss to Ireland.

The Canadian women beat Brazil 31-7 on Saturday to close group play before giving the Tokyo Olympic champion Kiwis all they could handle in the quarter-finals. The Canadian women meet Ireland today on the consolation side for fifth place.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com