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Canadian men's rugby sevens missing out on medal, but there's no shame in playing the game

National Post logo National Post 2021-07-27 Patrick Johnston
Conor Trainor of Team Canada makes his way to the field before the Rugby Sevens Men's Quarter-final match between New Zealand and Canada on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 27, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. © Provided by National Post Conor Trainor of Team Canada makes his way to the field before the Rugby Sevens Men's Quarter-final match between New Zealand and Canada on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 27, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan.

As a 10 year old, Canadian men’s rugby player Conor Trainor watched Simon Whitfield win gold in Sydney.

Maybe one day he could be an Olympian, he thought to himself.

Two decades later, he’s made it.

“(Being an Olympian) is something I’ve though about since watching the Summer Olympics growing up. At the time I thought it would be for triathlon, but I’m so happy to have found rugby. Being able to accomplish this goal with a team is a special bond that we will share for life,” he said Wednesday morning, as he got ready for his team’s consolation round game against the United States.

“Whitfield. He’s my guy. The comeback in 2008 is my favourite Olympic moment,” he said.

Trainor and his Canadian teammates came to Tokyo hoping to match what their female counterparts did four years ago in Rio: win a medal.

It was not to be. They lost in the quarterfinals on Tuesday and now will play out the string, hoping to finish as high as fifth but the final number isn’t all that important.

a group of people posing for the camera:  Hours after squeezing into the medal round, the Canadians were hoping to channel the same energy that had carried them to a first-ever sevens win over New Zealand in 2015 in Tokyo but it wasn’t to be, as the All Blacks came out hard and dominated the men in red throughout the first half to take a 21-0 lead into halftime. © Dan Mullan Hours after squeezing into the medal round, the Canadians were hoping to channel the same energy that had carried them to a first-ever sevens win over New Zealand in 2015 in Tokyo but it wasn’t to be, as the All Blacks came out hard and dominated the men in red throughout the first half to take a 21-0 lead into halftime.

In managing a top-8 finish, Canada’s men have done themselves a big favour.

And Rugby Canada’s recruiters will hope to find the next Trainor — and Hirayama and Jones and Braid, the first golden generation of Canadian rugby sevens stars — out of Canada’s performance.

Trainor had drawn notice to international rugby recruiters by a series of thrilling performances for the sevens squad a half-decade ago and was playing professionally in France. But the chance to chase a medal in Tokyo brought him home.

There was a pay cut, but that didn’t matter to the Vancouver born-and-raised back.

“I would have been very regretful not to come back and I am loving ending my career with this group of guys,” he said. “It’s always nice getting paid well to play, but being able to play with this group that I love, for a country that I truly care about is an amazing feeling.”

Connor Braid, Semi Radradra, Nathan Hirayama are posing for a picture:  Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Rugby Sevens – Men – Pool B – Fiji v Canada – Tokyo Stadium – Tokyo, Japan – July 26, 2021. Connor Braid of Canada and Nathan Hirayama of Canada in action with Semi Radradra of Fiji. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko © SIPHIWE SIBEKO Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Rugby Sevens – Men – Pool B – Fiji v Canada – Tokyo Stadium – Tokyo, Japan – July 26, 2021. Connor Braid of Canada and Nathan Hirayama of Canada in action with Semi Radradra of Fiji. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

After a rough year living through COVID-19, training a lot of the time on their own, the Canadians, the most experienced team in the Tokyo2020 tournament, wanted to show that their third-place result from 16 months ago, the last time there was a World Rugby Sevens Series event, was no fluke.


Video: Winning women keep up Canada’s medal streak in Tokyo Games (Global News)

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That bronze, won at home in Vancouver in front of 30,000-plus fans, was a suggestion this team was surging at just the right moment.

Had the pandemic not happened, the Canadians would have had four more tournaments to sharpen their details, to put themselves rightly on course to cause a big upset and break into the top three on the biggest stage there is.

Instead, well we know how things went. Everyone had to stay home for a long while.

In the world of rugby sevens, as life loosened up over the past six months, it became a scramble to find events to aid in a build up towards Tokyo.

The best teams, the Americans, British, Kiwis, Fijians and the like, got to play some pretty hard tournaments in the last month or two. It helped that there was money underlying those programs.

In Canada’s case, the men had to be circumspect. Alongside the women, they flew to Dubai for a pair of tournaments to help get their bodies and minds closer to the normal mindset.

But that was three months ago. Getting back into action was always going to be a challenge.

As case numbers continued to mount in Japan, Rugby Canada made the decision to keep their athletes at home until the last possible moment. Other countries flew their players in a week in advance of the opening of the men’s tournament; Canada’s players arrived just three days before.

They’d spent the previous ten days trying to live on Japan Time while continuing their final preparations at their training base just outside Victoria, B.C.

a person playing a game of football:  Canada’s Justin Douglas (L) and Fiji’s Semi Radradra jump for the ball in the men’s pool B rugby sevens match between Fiji and Canada during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Stadium in Tokyo on July 26, 2021. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP) © BEN STANSALL Canada’s Justin Douglas (L) and Fiji’s Semi Radradra jump for the ball in the men’s pool B rugby sevens match between Fiji and Canada during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Stadium in Tokyo on July 26, 2021. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)

They looked tired in their opener vs. Great Britain but found their legs against Fiji, if they lost that match in the end.

The Canadians thumped Japan, winning well enough to still qualify for the quarter finals. While they ended up losing to New Zealand, they gave plenty to account for themselves, showing that they could counter punch with the sport’s heavyweights.

More than half the squad could still be in consideration for Paris in 2024. That’s a good thing.

a man holding a football ball:  CHOFU, JAPAN – JULY 27: Phil Berna of Team Canada makes his way to the field before the Rugby Sevens Men’s Quarter-final match between New Zealand and Canada on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 27, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. © Dan Mullan CHOFU, JAPAN – JULY 27: Phil Berna of Team Canada makes his way to the field before the Rugby Sevens Men’s Quarter-final match between New Zealand and Canada on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Stadium on July 27, 2021 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan.

Forward Phil Berna is 25. Trainor’s cohort inspired him.

“I always watched and looked up to the guys on the series so it was a dream of mine to be part of this squad,” said Berna. “It’s an honour to still be playing with a lot of those same guys and now doing it on the Olympic stage. Hopefully we can have another generation of young Canadians with that same dream.”

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