Rugby sevens teams face blank calendar prior to Olympics due to COVID-19

The Canadian Press

Four months before the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics, Canada coach John Tait can only watch his women's rugby sevens team via his laptop or phone.

The women are in self-isolation after returning from a makeup tournament in France, arranged because of the COVID-19 disruption to the world rugby calendar. When they emerge, there are no current plans for team training sessions because of health guidelines for the need for social distancing and avoid groups.

On Friday, World Rugby announced the postponement of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series women's tournament slated for May 2-3 in Langford, B.C., as well as World Series events in London (men, scheduled for May 23-24) and Paris (men and women, slated for May 30-31). The sport's governing body had already moved World Series stops in Hong Kong (men and women) and Singapore (men) from April to October.

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That has scrubbed the competition calendar clean in the leadup to the Olympics, whose rugby competition is slated to start July 27. Team training is likely off the table for Rugby Canada, at least through April — and perhaps longer depending on health guidelines.

Tait, who doubles as director of women's performance rugby, notes everyone is feeling the same pinch.

"We want to do the socially responsible thing," he said in an interview. "We've got probably some of the healthiest people on the planet in our training group. But we're just worried about spreading it to other people and endangering them."

Tait has more pressing concerns. He is waiting on his 14-year-old daughter to get back from a rugby tour in New Zealand.

In the meantime, his national team players have gone out on solo runs and have individual training regimens. They took weights home so can also do those indoors.

"There's not a lot they can do rugby-wise on their own," he said.

The players can also access games and other video with Tait planning more video homework for them.

The plan is to keep training, as best they can, for the Olympics. The Canadian women, currently third in the World Series standings, won bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The men, eighth in the overall standings, are headed to their first Olympics.

But full training sessions are off the table, for now.

"My oldest daughter has a low-immune system and has some physical challenges already," said Tait, a former Canadian international himself. "So I wouldn't put myself in that environment and I wouldn't ask the athletes to do that either."

The women will continue to train on their own. Some players, who live together, will be able to do some passing work as long as they follow health guidelines.

"Everybody's just trying to stay positive and we're staying connected as a group," he said.

It's the same for the men's sevens team under coach Henry Paul, whose players have also been given individual training programs.

Kingsley Jones, head coach of the men's 15s team and director of men's performance rugby, says they are treating things as if the Canada Sevens — which saw the Canadian men win bronze in Vancouver on March 9 — marked the end of the season and they are gearing up for a new campaign.

But it's hard to plan when the landscape is changed almost daily.

"Our staff is preparing for every eventuality basically," he said.

Jones has other problems. With July internationals still on the cards, he now has some 50 players idle in the wake of Thursday's news that Major League Rugby was cancelling the season.

Travel has also become problematic of late.

Jones said Canadian international Kyle Baillie came home to Victoria from New Orleans, where he plays for NOLA Gold, while the MLR was on virus-related hiatus before the season was called. Now Baillie doesn't think he can get back to New Orleans where all his belongings are.

Tait said his nephew, who returned home a few nights ago from France, had to get an official letter from the Canadian consulate just to get to the airport because roadblocks had been set up.

Rugby's governing body has also cancelled the World Rugby under-20 Championship, scheduled for late June and July in northern Italy — one of the areas hardest hit by the virus.

The Olympic Games repechage qualification tournament scheduled for June is "under review."

"We are in close dialogue with the IOC relating to the conclusion of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games rugby sevens qualification, specifically options to replace the final repechage tournament, should that be required," World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said in a statement. "We have two women's and one men's teams left to qualify and are currently considering all options to ensure a fair and credible conclusion to the qualification process."

Some Rugby World Cup 2021 and 2023 regional qualifying events have also been postponed. And the World Rugby Hall of Fame, located in Rugby, England, will be closed until the end of May in line with public health authority directives.

World Rugby had already postponed a women's Sevens Challenger Series event in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Postponing the Langford event is particularly painful for the Canadian women.

It's a rare chance to play before families and friends. Westhills Stadium has also been expanded and improved. Rugby Canada has also started bringing top academy players in to compete in their own tournament to add to the event.

"It's a huge tournament for us," said Tait.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2020.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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