World Cup showcases Canadian rugby's potential — and its challenges

SAN FRANCISCO — Gareth Rees never would have imagined playing rugby at a place like AT&T Park in San Francisco, which is why the Canadian Hall of Famer  is cherishing every moment of the Rugby World Cup Sevens.

"We would never had dreamt of walking into a baseball stadium and saying 'we're going to play rugby on that field for three days and have a great time,'" Rees said. "These are the realities of where we've come from in a very short period of time."

"Our current athletes, they can walk into a major-league stadium, just down the coast from where they train on Vancouver Island; I think [that's] incredible, and we have to keep appreciating that."

Rees has seemingly been involved in every aspect of rugby both in Canada and internationally as a player, coach, agent and even former CEO of Rugby Canada. The 51-year-old from Duncan, B.C., is currently the national union's director of commercial and program relations and is working at the World Cup as a producer and commentator of World Rugby's international broadcast.

He says Canada pulls more than its weight in both men's and women's sevens, but the consequences are evident with the current men's 15s team.

"On the field, we've got some challenges, and that's what November's all about," Rees said, referring to the last-chance qualifying tournament Canada needs to win to reach the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. "We've made some strategic decisions around sevens, [and] we're paying the price in 15s, there's no question."

Gareth Rees hopes Canadian rugby can persevere through its current challenges with humility and hard work. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The importance of November's repechage is echoed by Tim Powers, Rugby Canada's board of directors chairman.

"We can't emphasize enough how important it is for rugby in Canada, not just Rugby Canada," Powers said. "The funding hit and the repetitional hit would be significant — not that we can't overcome it —but we want to get through it and be there."

'Positive, exciting things' for Canada 

​Powers and current Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen are both in San Francisco for the tournament and saw the Canadian men's and women's teams fall out of title contention on Friday.

"This weekend, Canadians maybe aren't as happy with the results that have come forward, and our players certainly aren't," Powers said. "[But] there's lots of positive, exciting things happening in Canadian rugby. Soon the results will catch up."

Vansen points to developmental academies in Toronto and Langford, B.C., as important parts of the national teams' future, along with the fact that the men's team has received some funding as of April. That's a major boost for a program that lost funding from Own The Podium after failing to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

"Performance, in certain terms, it's not where we want to be," Vansen said. "This tournament is a great example, but certainly we'll continue to look for that funding as we go forward."

Beyond the results on the pitch, Vansen and Powers emphasize the impact of the World Cup on Canadian rugby as a whole.

"This is a really, really critical tournament," Vansen said. "It's huge for our sport, great for bringing more profile and really good on their pathway to the Olympic Games in 2020 [in Tokyo.]"

Honesty, hard work needed

The last 12 months have been a lot to digest for Canadian rugby fans. In addition to the men's 15s ongoing attempt to reach the 2019 World Cup, the women's sevens team missed out on a World Rugby Sevens Series' overall podium finish for the first time while the men showed flashes of brilliance amidst an inconsistent campaign.

Powers sees the women's internal transition as necessary for the team's evolution. "I think 'in transition' means that you're sometimes going to have bumps on the road, that you're not going to dominate as you once did as new players get their feet," he said.

"You don't stay on top forever without transitioning."

Adding to the Canadian rugby narrative is the advent of professional rugby union, with the United States-based Major League Rugby reviewing the possibility of admitting the Ontario Arrows to its ranks. Rees knows Bill Webb, one of the Arrows' co-founders.

"I think there's some realities to pro rugby in North America, they're exactly the same as when I started playing pro rugby in '96 in England," Rees said. "It's going to be tough at the start, but I think the Arrows have the exact right idea to provide our players an opportunity to play against the best in North America."

"For me, it makes a lot of sense."

Rees, left, possesses a lengthy rugby resume, including four World Cup appearances with Canada's 15s team. (Gabriel Bouys, File/AFP/Getty Images)

Once the Rugby World Cup Sevens concludes, the national union's focus will return to the men's 15s team. Vansen said that there may be cross-pollination with members of the sevens program moving over to bolster Canada's ranks and Powers says the national union is considering every possible option.

"No stone is to be left unturned in the journey to qualify," Powers said.

For Rees, the way forward in terms of competitive success and continuing to grow the sport require humility and persistence.

"We just have to keep being honest with ourselves and keep working hard," Rees said.

"That's what Canadian rugby is all about."

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