VANCOUVER – When Rugby Canada shipped its bid book for a HSBC Seven Series tournament to the world governing body of rugby, it was accompanied by a custom-produced native Canadian art piece.
It was the proverbial bow on a 194-page document that covered everything from the Canadian psyche (“inside this country beats the heart of a lion”) to laundry facilities (“team needs will be attended to within 24 hours or earlier”).
A slick accompanying video, talking up the bid and Vancouver, had everyone from Premier Christy Clark and Mayor Gregor Robertson to Paralympian/philanthropist Rick Hansen and renowned chef Vikram Vij passing a rugby ball.
John Furlong, co-chair of the Canada Sevens bid committee and former CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics, recalls visiting World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper in his Dublin office. All 23 bids were on his desk.
“He made a point of saying ‘For us, this (Canadian bid) is the new standard,'” recalled Furlong. “He was referring to the fact that when we presented our bid, we went far further than two days of rugby.”
Canada sold its bid, in part, on what the tournament could do for Canadian rugby.
“It was a chance for Canada to do something that would move the needle quite a bit. Not a simple thing to do,” said Furlong. “As I’ve often said, these events, they can break your heart or they can change the future.”
Irish eyes are smiling these days.
This weekend’s HSBC Canada Sevens, the sixth of 10 stops on the world circuit, has sold out the 28,000-seat lower bowl at B.C. Place Stadium with an additional 5,000 seats in the upper bowl each day selling fast, representing the biggest crowd to see rugby in Canada. The event has already hit or exceeded its target for tickets, hotel rooms, sponsorships and suites.
“This may have even exceeded my imagination,” added former Rugby Canada CEO Graham Brown, who played a major role in getting the tournament to Vancouver.
“We’ve seen some great success in Toronto with 15s at BMO (Field),” added Gareth Rees, a Canadian rugby icon who is co-chair of the Canada Sevens bid committee. “To get 23,000 (fans in Toronto) for someone of my generation was a really huge achievement. And this is probably the next level.”
WATCH: Rugby Sevens Kicks Off
Building on the sevens success, Rugby Canada has already announced plans to host Japan in June in a first ever test match at B.C. Place.
Vancouver is awash in rugby this week.
Canada has three Maple Leafs teams, two women and one men’s, entered in the accompanying Vancouver Rugby Festival. There are also provincial under-18 and university sevens championships going on, bringing in teams, friends and families.
Rugby logos and jerseys are ever-present in the city.
Budgeted at just under $7.5 million, the Canada Sevens will make a profit according to a source, with some of that extra money already having been injected back into the tournament to add gloss to the event.
And yet, in typical rugby fashion, the heart has won over the pocketbook. Two dollars from the sale of every program will go to Fiji cyclone relief efforts.
For Canadian sevens coach Liam Middleton, this weekend is a unique opportunity to sell his sport ahead of its debut in the Olympics.
“I think rugby sevens in Canada, from this event onwards, is going to go through the roof,” said Middleton.
The Canadian women, who host a sevens event in Langford, B.C., next month, have already qualified for Rio. The men have one last bid via a repechage tournament in June.
Fans who come out to B.C. Place or watch on TV will see a rich smorgasbord of rugby talent. Games last seven minutes a half (10 in the final) with a one-minute intermission.
“It’s not-stop action all day,” Middleton said. “Some exciting tries. Phenomenal athletes, phenomenal performers. Not just in terms of their athletic ability, but their skills ability. It’s what makes this game beautiful.”
The game is built on possession, movement and probing the opposition defence for openings.
American speedster Carlin Isles recorded a 40-yard time of 4.22 seconds for the Detroit Lions in 2013. And the U.S. have another gasman in six-foot-one Perry Baker, whose Twitter handle is @SpeedStick11.
At six foot five and 265 pounds, Canadian Adam Zaruba offers a different threat. A wide body who can move.
Off the field, Rugby Canada pulled out all the stops in its bid. It engaged Terry Burwell, a former Leicester centre and veteran rugby administrator who ran the England Sevens among other events, as a consultant.
Burwell did a complete analysis of all the stops on tour. Brown and Rees added their own intel.
“We knew what they did good, what they did bad … Then when we overlaid our own personal experiences at most of them, then you had an extremely effective review of World Rugby sevens at the level that we were competing against,” said Brown.
Furlong took that analysis up another level.
“The sophistication of the overall bid and the strategy about presentation and content was 100 per cent John,” said Brown.
“We got on the John Furlong train, because he’s very demanding,” he added. “Very demanding.”
Added Rees: “We were quite confident, but what John drove us to do was to take it that extra mile. And I have to say it’s been reflective right through the delivery to this week. We vowed to make it the best on the circuit, we vowed to make it the best athlete experience on the circuit. That’s the philosophy, we’re not just here to make up the number, we’re not just here to have a little event every year.”
Now the challenge is to maintain that momentum.
“If we don’t nail this and don’t work as equally hard next year, there’s only one way to go … You can’t take your foot off the gas pedal,” said Brown.
“I can name you loads of events on the Series that have started with a bang and then fizzled out over the three or four years after. Big time,” he added.
© 2016 The Canadian Press