The Canadian men’s rugby sevens team is off to a flying start at their home tournament.
The hosts picked up a 26-5 victory over Russia on Saturday after earlier downing Scotland 28-15 at the Canada Sevens.
Adam Zaruba scored three tries against the Russians as Canada clinched a spot in Sunday’s Cup competition as one of the top eight sides at the 16-team event. Isaac Kaay had the other try for the Canadians, while Nathan Hirayama was good on 3 of 4 conversions in front of a raucous crowd at B.C. Place Stadium.
“We haven’t done anything too special, we’ve just been pretty solid defensively,” said Hirayama. “A couple little lapses, but we’re pretty happy starting 2-0.”
Canada, currently ranked 12th in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, and No. 4 New Zealand played later Saturday for top spot Pool D.
The All Blacks Sevens thumped No. 14 Russia 40-0 before getting past No. 7 Scotland 35-12.
“It’s going to be a really good game,” said Hirayama, whose team has two victories and a draw against New Zealand since 2015. “The big one for us is defence. We know when we have the ball we’re going to score. We’re a pretty dangerous team in attack.
“We’ve just got get our defence together and get some of our boys who are walking wounded in the mix for this next one.”
The Canadians were 5-1 in Vancouver last year, including a memorable victory over Australia, but a last-second loss to Wales in their first match pushed the hosts into the consolation bracket.
After two complete performances, there’s no worry of that in 2017.
The Russians got a leg up on Canada when Eduard Filatov made a nice move through the line to put his team up 5-0 after the missed conversion.
But the hosts got that one back about three minutes later when the hulking Zaruba ran through Filatov to make it 7-5 after Hirayama’s boot.
“That’s my job,” said Zaruba. “That’s what I do — big boy on the outside.”
Russian captain German Davydov went to the sin bin to put his side down a man late in the first half and Canada capitalized off the restart when Kaay, who started after John Moonlight was a late scratch, busted through to make it 14-5.
Canada’s Mike Fualilefau grabbed the ball off the restart and it eventually found its way to Zaruba, who fought off a tackle to score.
“Let’s just say I’m happy Zaruba’s on my team,” Hirayama said with a smile. “He’s a unit. He’s killing it.”
After another Russian went to the sin bin, Zaruba capped an impressive performance with his third try to make it 26-5 after Hirayama missed the conversion, his only blemish through two matches.
“It’s just a really tight group,” said Kaay. “The boys die for each other.”
Zaruba, Kaay, Justin Douglas and captain Harry Jones scored tries in Canada’s victory over Scotland, with Hirayama nailing all four conversions.
“That first one with so many nerves and emotion going out there with the crowd going crazy, it’s always tough,” said Jones. “People think it puts us at an advantage, but sometimes you can crumble under that as well.”
After attracting some 60,000 spectators to last year’s inaugural two-day event, organizers expect a crowd of 76,000 through the turnstiles this weekend for the fast-paced, seven-on-seven version of rugby that sees games come one after the other.
These tournaments are known for their festive atmospheres, and Vancouver is no different. Fans were milling about the neighbourhood around B.C. Place long before the first match kicked off at 9:30 a.m., with many showing up in co-ordinated costumes.
Apart from the usual jerseys, flags and wigs, Saturday’s get-ups included cowboys riding inflated dinosaurs, a deck of cards, cows, carrots, Mounties, beavers, chickens, lumberjacks, professional wrestlers, Don Cherry lookalikes, bananas — with the accompanying gorilla — and characters from the Super Mario Bros. video games.
During an injury timeout in one of the matches, the crowd belted out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” as if it was pre-planned, one of numerous impromptu singalongs.
Beer lines snaked around the boisterous concourse as fans came and went as they pleased, with supporters from all countries in good spirits as the day wore on.
“The crowd’s been awesome all day,” said Kaay. “I’ve never played in front of something like this before. Me personally, it’s definitely helping me out.”
With a new coach in Damian McGrath, Canada started the 10-city tour with back-to-back 13th-place finishes before grabbing a surprising fourth, another 13th and then an eighth last weekend in Las Vegas. The next stop is Hong Kong in early April followed by Singapore, Paris and London.
The Canadians were ninth last year in Vancouver despite that 5-1 record, winning the Bowl over France to wrap up a successful weekend on and off the field.
But they were unable to build on that momentum, failing to make the Summer Olympics in Rio and instead staying home and watching Canada’s women’s team grab bronze.
The men’s sevens program then saw its funding from the government-backed Own the Podium slashed to zero last month.
“This is the highlight of the year,” said Hirayama. “This is our Olympics. This is pretty special.”