Canada men's rugby sevens coach Shaun White called it a moment of realization for his players.
With the HSBC SVNS Series returning to Vancouver in February of this year, he said the hiatus is important to grow the sport and show his players where they come from.
Walking along the BC Place arena, meeting fans and being cheered on by family during the Vancouver Sevens stop brings home the impact they can have in growing the sport in Canada, White added.
“I really think a big part of what we do in Vancouver is motivating and inspiring young athletes, whether they're from Canada or around the world,” he said. “A lot of (these players) talk about how important it is to watch sevens in Vancouver.”
White said some of the team's players watched the first Vancouver Sevens tournament as young adults or teenagers and have watched the tournament grow with their careers.
“You go from being a fan watching that tournament to interacting with the players to becoming one of those players,” White said.
“We talked about it last year when they walked down the hall, shook hands and took pictures with the kids, and those are the memories that fans have. I think that's the legacy we can leave behind for the Vancouver Sevens.”
The men's team trained in North Vancouver, British Columbia, on Friday and will play next week in Perth, Australia, in the third leg of the series.
Vancouver was confirmed as one of eight stops on the sevens circuit in July, having first been introduced as one of the men's fixtures in 2016.
This year's edition will include competitions for men and women spread over three days.
There were fears that the popular break would not be cut short as world rugby looked to streamline the championship series.
“I think he's irreplaceable in terms of exciting a fan base that may not have gotten to rugby yet,” White said.
Phil Perna, who grew up in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood, said he wants it to become a marquee event for the city and rugby fans.
“It's huge for exposure. “Introducing kids to the game and hopefully growing our numbers across the country is huge,” he said. “I know it's one of the key exposures that Rugby Canada has to offer to fans. It's a huge thing to have.
Perna is in his ninth season with the team and aims to play in his 50th stop in Vancouver.
Teammate Thomas Isherwood said the importance of playing in front of hometown fans could not be understated.
“Rugby is clearly not the biggest sport in Canada,” he said. “When you come to the Vancouver Sevens, you see 30,000 people in the stands cheering for Canada. To be a part of that is great, and you want all the kids to be a part of that, and that's one way to build rugby in Canada.”
The Canadian team is ranked ninth in the HSBC standings after finishing 12th in Dubai and seventh in Cape Town, where it achieved victories over New Zealand and Samoa and a final victory over France.
“We've had a better start to the year than we're used to,” Perna said.
White agreed with his veteran player, adding that his team looked to grow throughout the season, culminating in the Olympic qualifiers in June.
“We are still very focused on what we want to do and how we want to control the game,” he said. “A lot of it is about ball control and possession, we want to make sure we build a rugby product that players are proud to play and fans are proud to watch.”
Canada's men have been drawn in Group A with Argentina, South Africa and Spain for the Perth Sevens tournament later this month.
The Canadian women were drawn along with Australia, Britain and South Africa in Group A. They go into Perth fifth overall after finishing fourth in Cape Town and sixth in the series' opening stop in Dubai. Britain ranks ninth and South Africa ranks eleventh.
Australia, which won the first two events, tops the women's table ahead of France and New Zealand, who finished on the podium in the opening tournaments.
France, Fiji, Brazil and Spain make up the second group on the women's side, while the third group consists of Olympic champions New Zealand, the United States, Ireland and Japan.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published January 12, 2024.