By Mark Janzen
On July 7, 2019, Canada’s men’s sevens team officially booked its ticket to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.
With a 40-5 win over Jamaica in the final of the 2019 RAN (Rugby Americas North) Sevens in George Town, Cayman Islands, Canada’s men’s sevens team did it. After failing to qualify for Rio in 2016, when Rugby Sevens made its Olympic debut, the Canadians secured their spot on sport’s grandest stage.
Harry Jones, 29, was on the field that day. For the product of West Vancouver, it’s been a long road to finally qualify. It’s been a journey that has seen him compete twice each in the Commonwealth Games (2014 and 2018), the Pan American Games (2015 and 2019), and the Rugby World Cup Sevens (2013 and 2018). He has played in 300 matches on the World Rugby Sevens Series, scored 732 points, and tallied 116 tries.
Now, Jones has a chance to be part of the Olympic Games.
With a wild 2018-19 season in the rearview mirror – one that started with a contract dispute, had a coaching change in the middle, and ended with a silver medal at the Pan American Games – Ædelhard caught up with the Canadian Sevens star as he prepares for the biggest year in Canadian men’s Sevens history.
Now that it’s done, what was it like to qualify in George Town?
“From an outsider looking in, it looked like we beat every team quite handily. But being a player and having been there, it definitely wasn’t like that. There was so much on the line. You have that added pressure (because) we were expected to win. It was a lot more nerve-wracking than people think because there was so much on the line.”
What is it like in the moments after the final?
“I did an interview at the end of it and I don’t even remember what I said because I still couldn’t comprehend the mountain of effort and support that has gone into it. It’s too much to think about in one moment. The only thing I was thinking about was all the people who have helped us get there. I really do hope that this has a positive effect on rugby across Canada, for both Sevens and 15s, that will help grow the game and create long-term future success.”
What about with a fellow veteran like Nate Hirayama – did you have any memorable moments with him?
“There were a few minutes left in the Jamaica game and were up by like four scores and we had a scrum on the left side of the field. I was walking to the scrum and he was going to his position and I kind of looked over with a bit of smirk and maybe a wink because we both knew it was in the bag. That was a special moment obviously because we’re two of the guys, amongst a few others, who have been around for quite a while.”
Now that you’ve qualified for the Olympics, how would you describe the vibe around the program?
“There is obviously the excitement of the Olympics and that alone gets guys fully bought in, if they weren’t already. It gives us just that extra push to be in good shape and have our skills at the highest level possible. You’re also going to see (a few) other players put their hands up as well to be included. So, on the qualification side it’s really exciting.
“Now, there’s still some unpredictability around what things will look like next year – we’re still waiting to see who the full-time coach will be and what the full squad will look like for next year. So, I think the boys are sitting and waiting for some answers to see what the preseason will look like and what the plan is moving forward.”
Overall, a lot happened in 2018-19. How would you describe this past season?
“Sevens is a bit of a roller coaster sport, with the ups and downs of Day 1, Day 2 and sometimes Day 3. I think that was characteristic of our year. There were a lot of ups and downs with our performance, and a lot of ups and downs off the field as well. There were a lot of things you have to adapt to and figure out as a group. But, whenever you face adversity as a group, you either divide or come together. Over the past three or four years, we’ve been through quite a bit and that only makes the team stronger and more tight-knit. At the same time, that stuff can affect training and our overall performance. On one hand, it does bring the team together, but of course we’d rather not go through these issues and have a bit more consistency.”
Not long after qualifying, you went to the Pan Am Games and joining the team was Sean Duke. What was it like have Duke – Canada’s third leading try-scorer all-time on the World Series, with 124 – back?
“Dukey is such a great guy. He’s a team favourite obviously. It’s quite impressive what he did – being off for two years and then coming back and playing down at Pan Ams. Not a lot of people can do that, especially in the condition that he left, which was with a pretty serious back injury and then full-on into medical school. It’s a testament to what kind of character that guy has and the work he has been doing on his own to keep his body in good enough condition to jump back in. Personally, he’s one of my best buddies, so it was fun to have him back in the mix. He was part of that 2016 push and unfortunately things didn’t go the right way, but that guy deserves it more than a lot of people, so I hope he can get back involved and get to the way he was playing before he retired.”
Now, with the 2019-20 season coming soon enough, how would you assess the team’s outlook?
“We’re at a pivotal point for our program. I really do hope that we’re able to find some financial support for the program. We need a proper preseason and proper staffing, and some tournaments before the series gets going.”
What is the biggest key to Canada’s men’s sevens team having consistent success?
“I think a lot of it would just be not having to deal with the off-field issues and then of course having a consistent coach and assistant coach. You can get distracted and then the on-field performance can be affected. We just need a proper staff who is 100 per cent committed to it, and then there’s also the financial support that we need to keep this program at the highest level possible.
“The best case scenario would be to have a group of supporters who want to get involved for this Olympic push. But, in my eyes, it’s not just ‘here’s a cheque and good luck.’ Those people are involved and part of the team and part of the process leading into the Olympics. I know the USA has a program called the Golden Eagles, which helps support their program and you see what kind of effect that has on their program. Obviously they have some great athletes, but they have the support behind it to really push the program and the players.”
Now that the ticket to Tokyo has been booked, what do your Olympic aspirations look like?
“It’s amazing that we qualified, and it’s going to do amazing things for Sevens in Canada, but at the same time, nobody remembers teams that just turn up at the Olympics and place sixth or eighth or whatever. We have the mindset that we have a team that we believe can medal at the Olympics. We think that’s a realistic thing. It’s the game of Sevens and we’ve shown we can do it in the past. Obviously the consistency hasn’t been there, but we’re really hoping we can pull it together at the start of this season and have one goal in mind without any distractions.
“We have a pretty special group that could do some serious damage at the Olympics if everything gets put together properly.”