By Mark Janzen
Sitting across from an inquiring mind inside a popular coffee shop one block south of West Hastings Street in Vancouver, the questions finally ended. It had been more than an hour since Phil Berna had sat down amidst the happening music and caffeine-infused buzz, yet the Canadian rugby sevens star had still not finished his Americano. He was too busy talking, engaging, and having a laugh.
To those who know Berna – finish the piece and you can count yourself among the legion – this probably sounds about right.
A DSLR camera sat on the table across from Berna. He may deny it, but reasonable probability suggests he’d taken notice well before the interview came to a conclusion.
You know that look on a little boy’s face when he walks into an ice cream parlour? In this case, let’s substitute Berna for the little boy and the camera for the parlour. In front of a lens, he’s a natural. Or at least, he hams it up like that one kindergarten kid you’ll never forget. You know.
Outside, a vibrant graffiti-clad wall provides a perfect backdrop.
The camera just starts clicking. It’s only a matter of time. There it is. Berna goes all “Singin’ in the Rain” and strikes a pose. He laughs. He’s not taking any of this seriously. It’s fun. When Berna’s around, you can’t not have fun. By trade, Berna has become a mainstay on the World Rugby Sevens Series, playing in 39 matches and scoring eight tries in 2018-19, but this – well, this is the Phil everyone knows and loves.
This weekend, Canada will play in one of the biggest sevens tournaments in the country’s history. With a title at the RAN (Rugby Americas North) Sevens in the Cayman Islands (July 6-7), Canada’s men’s team will book a ticket to Tokyo 2020 – earning Olympic qualification for the first time. Indeed, they are that close, and Canada is the heavy favourite; they are the only entrant to have played in this year’s World Rugby Sevens Series.
Berna, 23, will be there and will, of course, bring all of his Berna-ness with him – the fun (for sure), but more importantly, a physicality few can match, and a work rate few supersede.
Six months ago, Berna made his return to the sevens circuit. It had been a full year of recovery since Berna suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his foot at the Sydney 7s event in January 2018.That injury had come on the heels of a few other injuries, including a broken elbow and a torn PCL (Posterior Cruciate Ligament), both of which limited his playing time over the previous two seasons. All in all, it had been a whole lot more recovery than playing since his debut tournament in Wellington, 2016.
So, when he returned to the mix this past January in time for the series stop in New Zealand, he brought a unique energy to the team – instantly injecting that Berna quality.
“He’s kind of like the class clown,” says teammate Andrew Coe. “But the best thing about Phil is he knows when it’s time to goof around and he knows when it’s time to get serious and get to work. He’s the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. He knows how to work hard, but he knows how to have fun as well.”
And, of course, a healthy Berna also meant a traveling Berna.
“I’m back on the drug of the sevens tour life,” Berna says, looking back on what was a draining recovery process. “You appreciate how good it is when it’s taken away. It’s just so much fun.”
Berna went on to start in 15 of his 39 appearances this year and, with that renewed perspective, he found himself playing with a more relaxed notion.
And for sure more relaxed than that one-time elevator ride with Sonny Bill Williams.
In hindsight, it was a missed opportunity.
As it turned out, both Berna and the New Zealand rugby sensation made their sevens debuts in the Wellington tournament in 2016. As it happened, Berna was already on the elevator heading down to the food hall when it stopped. Williams stepped on.
“I didn’t say anything,” Berna recalls.
By the time he thought of the line, it was too late. It could have been perfect. Three years and a world removed, he nails the line over coffee in Vancouver.
“Don’t be nervous. It’s my first tournament too.”
Instead, the reality was silence.
“That was it. That was my elevator ride with Sonny Bill.”
Berna laughs. Perhaps it was a bit of a ‘welcome to the big leagues’ moment.
Later that week, Berna made his World Series debut against Portugal, subbing off Canadian sevens legend John Moonlight. The interaction was more memorable. “Don’t worry,” Moonlight said, shaking Berna’s hand. “You’re here for a reason.”
A budding sevens career – one that was just two years beyond his graduation from St. George’s School in 2014 as a provincial champion in both sevens and 15s, and less than eight months removed from his lone year playing with the UBC Thunderbirds – was on the precipice.
Now, more than three years later, Berna is riding yet another rugby-playing high – one that has him as part of both this weekend’s Toyko-seeking contingent and the next generation of Canadian rugby sevens.
“Phil is going to be huge for us this week and obviously into next year and years after,” says interim men’s sevens head coach Henry Paul. “Phil is a big part of our team’s identity. He’s a big bloke and he works really hard on both sides of the ball.”
Berna is the teammate everyone loves in their corner.
“I want to be the hustler and the guy with the big motor who does his role right,” Berna says. “Whenever I’m on the field, I’m going to give whatever I have to give. Just get me out there and I’ll burn out for you.”
Along the way, he’ll probably make you smile too.
Sure, in a jovial moment he admits that perhaps playing for a half-decent Italian squad – he has heritage that is rooted in Italy through his dad – while working in a pizzeria sounds like a bit of a dream, the sevens game and the Olympic carrot (even beyond 2020) will likely have Berna in the Canadian fold for years to come.
The tours. They’re just too much fun. The nonsense conversations might be just as much the carrot.
“When there’s nothing else to talk about, the nonsense the guys come up with is the best,” he says. “Those are some of my favourite moments. I’ll chime in. I don’t start it, but I appreciate the hell out of a good b.s. conversation.”
Ah, yes. There’s the Phil everyone knows.
Yet, in truest of realities, that’s just the sidebar.
Berna readily admits that “there’s no fun without the work.”
In fact, it might be his switch that’s most impressive.
“On the field, he has a bit of an edge to him, which I like,” Paul says. “He’s got a bit of a streak in him where he’ll just work harder than the next bloke. With his size and speed, we can keep the ball a lot longer. He has a lot of ability and I think there is a lot more from him to come.”
Three years ago, Berna was in Monaco with Canada at the final Olympic qualifying repechage tournament. Canada lost to Russia in the quarter-finals and, in doing so, saw their Rio dreams dashed. Much of the core of that team remains.
“I don’t know if it’s that I need redemption from Monaco, but I’m fighting for everyone else on the team just as hard as I’m fighting for myself,” Berna says, looking toward this weekend’s tournament. “Especially when you know how terrible it is, it’ll be nice to get one back.
“There’s honestly nothing I’d like more than to go to the Olympics.”
Now, just imagine the physically imposing Berna in Tokyo with all those cameras.