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Olympian Phil Berna leads new-look Canadian men's rugby sevens team

Phil Berna took close to a month off after the Tokyo Olympics and then the competitive juices started flowing again. "I called myself back into training," said the 25-year-old from Vancouver.

Phil Berna took close to a month off after the Tokyo Olympics and then the competitive juices started flowing again.

"I called myself back into training," said the 25-year-old from Vancouver. "The time off was great but I think I felt myself getting a little too pudgy, having a few too many sweeties."

Pudgy likely means something different to an elite rugby sevens player than it does Joe Public.

"I'm hard on myself," Berna said with a laugh. "But when you go from peak fitness going into the Olympics, anything other than that just feels wrong."

The six-foot-two 215-pounder is back in action, leading a new-look Canada side.

The Canadian men finished sixth last weekend at the HSBC Canada Sevens In Vancouver, defeating Germany 24-5 and Chile 19-14 before losing 29-19 to the U.S. On Day 2, the Canadians lost 31-5 to Britain in the quarterfinal, beat Spain 33-19 and then were defeated 26-7 by the U.S. in the fifth-place playoff.

South Africa won the tournament, defeating Kenya 38-5 in the final. Britain was third.

Berna liked what he saw from a Canadian team in transition.

"I was very proud by the performance overall," said Berna. "Especially the young boys coming through. I think they really made the most of their moment.

"The home crowd definitely helped. All the boys played up to a very high standard that we're holding ourselves to again this weekend."

The World Series shifts Saturday to Edmonton, the second half of a truncated 2021 campaign due to the pandemic. The 2022 season will kick off in late November in Dubai.

Canada co-captains Nate Hirayama and Harry Jones along with Connor Braid, Justin Douglas and Conor Trainor have retired in the wake of Tokyo, where the men finished eighth in their Olympic debut.

Other players are taking time off in advance of the 2022 season.

Berna, Jake Thiel and Andrew Coe are the only Olympians on the current Canadian squad although Josiah Morra has also played in the World Series. Thiel is serving as the team's vice-captain.

Berna expected some turnover in the team after the Olympics, with veterans transitioning to life after rugby.

"But a few kind of caught me by surprise," he acknowledged. "It would be lovely to have Justin Douglas still in the mix. It would be great to just have his pace out wide."

With 145 tries on the World Series, the 27-year-old Douglas is second only to Hirayama's 147 among Canadians.

"He's had a really good career and I think he could have more. But everyone has a time to move on," Berna said of Douglas. "I think it opens the door to a lot of these young, exciting guys to take their opportunity."

Berna and the veterans are enjoying the leadership role.

"It's really exciting times on the inside right now. I think everyone's really buying into what we put out so far," he said. "We'll just keep that going all the way to 2024 (and the Paris Olympics). We'll have new guys coming in and out, I'm sure, but we have a solid group. And more guys coming back from Olympics and guys at home still training hard."

Having seen the Olympic side hold the upper hand against the young guns in training before Tokyo, Berna figured there might be "a lot of kinks to work out on the team."

"But then when it came to game time in Vancouver, I was blown away by everyone's performance," he said. "And the weeks leading up (to Vancouver), I started really gaining confidence in the boys and they started getting confidence in themselves, And really just knowing their roles, doing what they're good at and bringing it out to the field."

There is more to come, he says.

"I still think we have some gems that we haven't seen too much of yet. I think we'll see Matt Oworu run some very hard, devastating lines this weekend."

Thomas Isherwood makes his Canada debut this weekend, replacing the injured Elias Ergas (hamstring).

Egas, Matt Percillier and Moriah are speedsters to watch, says Berna. Brennig Provost has also impressed in the playmaker role.

Due to the pandemic, the World Series ground to a halt after the Canadian men finished third in Vancouver in March 2020. The men got in six of 10 planned tournaments and the women five of eight before the schedule stalled. A women's event in Langford, B.C., scheduled for early May last year was one of the tournaments cancelled.

Only seven of the men's core teams are taking part in the Canadian events with New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, Argentina, Japan, France and Samoa among those missing.

The Canadian men have been drawn in Pool A with South Africa, Hong Kong and Mexico in Edmonton. Hong Kong finished seventh in Vancouver while Mexico lost all its games.

The hope is the Canadians beat Hong Kong and then Mexico to secure a place in the quarterfinals before wrapping up group play against South Africa.

Rugby Canada is making half of the 32,000-capacity lower bowl available outdoors at Commonwealth Stadium.

Like Vancouver, Edmonton features a four-team women's competition that features Canada, Britain, Mexico and the U.S.


Canada Rosters


Phil Berna (capt.), Vancouver, Vancouver Rowing Club; Jake Thiel (vice-capt.), Abbotsford, B.C., Abbotsford RFC; Matt Oworu, Calgary, Pacific Pride; Nicholas Allen, Vancouver, UBC Thunderbirds; Alex Russell, Chichester, England, McGill University; Ciaran Breen, Victoria, Cowichan RFC; Jack Carson, Victoria, UBC Thunderbirds; Matthew Percillier, Victoria, UBC Thunderbirds; Brennig Prevost, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers; Josiah Morra, Toronto, Toronto Saracens; Andrew Coe, Markham, Ont., Markham Irish RFC; Thomas Isherwood, Okotoks, Alta., Foothills Lions RFC; Anton Ngongo, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers.


Olivia Apps, Lindsay, Ont., Lindsay RFC; Fancy Bermudez, Edmonton, Nor’Wester Athletic Association; Emma Chown, Barrie, Ont., Aurora Barbarians; Alysha Corrigan, Charlottetown, CRFC/Saracens; Chloe Daniels, Sutton, Ont.; RC Academy/Queen’s University; Olivia De Couvreur, Ottawa, Ottawa Irish; Renee Gonzalez, Toronto, UVIC; Asia Hogan-Rochester, Toronto, unattached; Nakisa Levale, Abbotsford, B.C., Abbotsford RFC; Kiri Ngawati, Victoria, Westshore RFC; Temitope Ogunjimi, Calgary, Calgary Hornets RFC; Sabrina Poulin, Saint-George de Beauce, Que., Town of Mount Royal Rugby; Florence Symonds, Discovery Bay, Hong Kong, UBC Thunderbirds.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press