VANCOUVER â€” Nathan Hirayama says he could feel the raw passion as fans roared their collective approval every time the hosts stepped on the pitch at last year’s inaugural Canada Sevens rugby tournament.
And when they scored? Ear-splitting.
“The energy out there, the home-field thing â€” it’s a real thing,” said Hirayama. “If you can use it to your advantage it can really help you.”
The Canadians credit the throng at B.C. Place Stadium with spurring them onto victory in the Bowl final against France â€” Hirayama booted the clinching points after a late John Moonlight try â€” to salvage a ninth-place finish in 2016.
But with even greater aspirations heading into the event’s second instalment this weekend in front of what’s expected to be a combined crowd of 76,000 over two days, Canada knows that walking a fine emotional line will be crucial.
“The energy does make a huge difference,” said Hirayama, a 28-year-old playmaker from Richmond, B.C. “It is a bit of a balancing act. You don’t want to get too over-stimulated and lose your head, but you also want play for the crowd as well. It’s hard.”
Canadian head coach Damian McGrath said it’s his job to keep the team on an even keel â€” something he readily admits is easier said than done.
“The players have had this in their calendar since last year,” said McGrath, who took the job in October. “I didn’t have to be here too long to hear the excitement in everyone’s voices.
“The challenge for us is to just make sure we don’t play the game too soon and just keep that motivation until it counts.”
Over exuberance can be the difference in rugby’s wide-open seven-on-seven incarnation that sees blazing speed and lots of scoring in games that come one after the other.
The Canadians finished with a 5-1 record in Vancouver last year, including a memorable victory over powerhouse Australia, but a last-second loss to Wales in the opener cost them a spot in the top-8 bracket of the 16-team event heading into Sunday.
Despite that disappointment, the victory over France to cap the weekend was one of the few recent highlights for the men’s program.
“Any mention of last year and how we finished, you do get tingles and some goose bumps,” said Canadian captain Harry Jones. “You couldn’t have scripted a better finish for us. Day 1 didn’t go as we wanted, but going 5-1 and winning the Bowl in that fashion against France was unbelievable for us and unbelievable for rugby in Canada.”
But the team wasn’t able to build on that momentum and failed to make the Summer Olympics in Rio, instead staying home and watching Canada’s women’s team grab bronze.
Then the men’s sevens program had its funding from the government-backed Own the Podium slashed to zero last month.
“The boys haven’t dwelt on it too much,” said Jones, a native of West Vancouver. “We’ve got a job to do here.”
As much action as there will be on the pitch this weekend, there’s almost as much off it.
Sevens tournaments are known for fans combining outlandish costumes with a festive atmosphere. Last year’s get-ups among the two-day crowd of more than 60,000 under the roof at B.C. Place included beavers, chefs, lumberjacks, Mounties, pirates, pigs and traffic cones.
Headgear varied from stars-and-stripes top hats to sombreros to Viking helmets and lobster heads.
Beer lines are, not surprisingly, longer than those at most sporting events. With games coming in quick succession â€” Saturday’s first match kicks off at 9:30 a.m. local time and things run pretty well non-stop until the day’s finale at 7:20 p.m. â€” supporters duck in and out to socialize and cheer for other countries when theirs is off the field.
“The craziness is awesome,” said Hirayama. “The whole sevens thing is a party and kind of a crazy environment for the spectators.
“But it will be pretty easy to stay focused this weekend because we all know what we want to get out of it.”
Canada currently sits 12th in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series through five of 10 stops. The team got off to a bit of a rough start with back-to-back 13th-place finishes after missing most of pre-season because of a contract dispute before winding up fourth, 13th and then eighth last weekend in Las Vegas.
Canada’s pool in Vancouver includes No. 4 New Zealand, No. 7 Scotland and No. 14 Russia.
The hosts play the Scots followed by the Russians before finishing up with a primetime showdown against the All Blacks Sevens to conclude Saturday’s schedule in what should be a raucous domed cauldron.
“For a home tournament, I definitely feel the energy,” said Jones. “Last year I just felt like I could go forever. I’m hoping it’s the same this year.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press