Longing for Langford: Canada’s annual rugby 7s pilgrimage shelved by pandemic

Longing for Langford: Canada’s annual rugby 7s pilgrimage shelved by pandemic

It is more than a rugby event. It has become the unofficial gateway to spring. To a growing community on Vancouver Island, the Canada Women’s Sevens is a celebration of sporting excellence that attracts a global audience of millions.

In Langford, B.C., some 14 kilometres west of Victoria, the May weekend has become synonymous with world class rugby played in an intimate setting. Thousands of fans make the pilgrimage every year to cheer on their sporting icons.

Not this year.

The global pandemic has halted almost all sporting activities and the Canada Sevens is no exception. It was officially postponed in late March as the size and scale of COVID-19 spread across continents and oceans.

“We were having our best season on record and that makes this all a little bit tougher,” says Canadian captain Ghislaine Landry, who had led her team to four straight podium finishes before the lockdown.

There is no substitute date penciled in but organizers are hoping it might be rescheduled. Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen describes losing Langford as a “heart-wrenching decision” both in terms of operations and finances.

“The amount of preparation that goes into the event is significant with the majority of the operational planning having been completed before the postponement, so there is definitely a feeling of lost effort by many of our events staff,” he says.

Canada’s Karen Paquin, (back), celebrates the try by teammate Charity Williams during a quarter-final match against the U.S. in Langford, B.C., in May of 2019. The 2020 edition of the event will not happen during its traditional May weekend due to the global pandemic. (File/The Canadian Press)

Then there’s the revenue that Langford generates both for Rugby Canada and the local economy.

“From a financial perspective, we were budgeting for the event to make a small profit.” Vansen continues. “Our great partners in Sport Canada and World Rugby have committed parts of their funding to cover costs already committed for the event.” 

‘Massive knock-on effect’

As for Team Canada, it’s not much of a team right now. Daily training at the Langford base is impossible and head coach John Tait has seen his role change significantly without a team to coach.

“I have been making a lot of contingency planning with both staff and individual athletes now that the Olympics and most of our remaining World Series events have been cancelled or rescheduled,” he says. “There is a massive knock-on effect for everyone – it becomes surreal at times.”

Canada’s Coach John Tait, middle, is shown advising his team in October of 2019 in Glendale, Colo. Tait has been busy making contingency plans now that the Olympics and most of the remaining World Series events for the season have been cancelled or rescheduled. (Travis Prior/World Rugby)

The players have been forced to adopt an alien routine. No planned regimen and no team environment for athletes who usually spend so much time together. Landry explains the realities of her new normal: “The first couple of weeks were really tough. Not only were we dealing with the realities and emotions of the Olympic postponement, but like so many people, our day-to-day had completely changed,” she says.

“We are used to having our days planned out down to the minute and being together every day. Personally, I’m doing better now and finding all the silver linings I can.”

WATCH | Ghislaine Landry on Olympic postponement:

All-time leading scorer and captain of the women’s rugby sevens squad Ghislaine Landry shares her thoughts on what Olympic postponement means for mature athletes. 1:55

Tait describes the postponement of Langford as “disappointing” but says in the grand scheme of things his team is eyeing a bigger prize.

“We have seen the series events and dates change, but that Olympic date is what our world and lives revolve around for more than just a year, so having that shifted and still in jeopardy is particularly disconcerting.

“All we can do is for now, like everyone else, is to look after one another by isolating and do what we can to prepare to be at our best when that opportunity to compete comes again.”

Landry, the all-time points scoring leader in the women’s World Sevens Series, reckons there are pros and cons to the year long Olympic hiatus.

“I think our team was going to peak just in time for July and it would have been an exciting Olympic tournament. But, given another 15 months to fine tune the details is also a positive.”

Canadian captain Ghislaine Landry prepares to attempt a conversion at the Women’s Sevens Series 2019 at Westhills Stadium in Langford, B.C. in May of 2019. Landry says her team is “really sad not to be playing, but when the time is right and it is safe, we will celebrate together.” (Chris Wilson for Rugby Canada)

Vansen is hoping a new date can be confirmed for Langford but recognizes a potential time squeeze to find a solution.

“We continue an open dialogue with World Rugby regarding rescheduling possibilities. The extended effect of the COVID-19 situation does make it challenging to find the time to play all events prior to the scheduled start of the 2020-21 World Series season.”

‘We will celebrate together’

Back in Langford, Westhills Stadium stands empty and silent – the fans forced to stay home and forego a much-loved annual event. Landry is missing their support.

“Our team loves playing at home and our fans are a big part of that. We are really sad not to be playing, but when the time is right and it is safe, we will celebrate together. I also know that many of our fans are frontline workers, and we would like to thank each of them for their service to our communities to keep us safe.”

To that end, two of Landry’s Canadian teammates, Pam Buisa and Caroline Crossley, have created a fund called “Vancouver Island Steps Up”, a community-based initiative, raising money for members of the local population struggling financially.

There is no way of telling whether the 2020 Canada Women’s Sevens can be saved. We are longing for Langford and Landry but we may have to wait another year. That is the new norm for all, but when the gates are open again and the crowds return it will have been worth the wait.

Published at Fri, 01 May 2020 08:00:00 +0000