As rugby sevens’ Olympic debut nears, two former Gaels are making an impact internationally.
Former men’s rugby standout Liam Underwood and ex-women’s rugby player Nadia Popov both made their first starts for Canada’s senior rugby sevens teams earlier this month. Underwood’s debut took place during the fourth leg of the Sevens World Series, while Popov’s took place during the women’s competition’s second leg.
The top four teams in the World Series are guaranteed a spot in the sport’s debut at the Summer Olympics — the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Sevens is a speedy variation of rugby in which both teams field seven players. Non-championship matches feature seven-minute halves, while championship game halves run for 10 minutes.
Underwood’s spot on the national team is an interesting case. He’s no stranger to international competition — having earned seven caps for Canada’s 15-man team — but he has only been focusing on sevens for the last few months.
He said teammates on the sevens roster have a different relationship than those on the larger national team.
“The sevens team is maybe closer-knit because we all train together — we’re all based out of Victoria and we train out here together,” he said.
While Gaels men’s varsity rugby plays at the OUA level, Queen’s sevens team competes at the National University Sevens Rugby Championships. The sevens lineup is partially funded by both Queen’s Athletics and the varsity rugby program.
Underwood never played sevens at Queen’s, but he was a force with the varsity team, being named an OUA All-Star in 2011 and winning the league’s Rookie of the Year award in 2009.
In September, Underwood moved to Rugby Canada’s base of operations in Langford, B.C. to train with the sevens team. When several players suffered injuries, he received the call-up to the senior men’s lineup.
The men’s team struggled at a tournament in Wellington, New Zealand from Feb. 6-7, finishing 13th among the 16 countries competing.
The Canadians found success two weeks later in Las Vegas, though, tying for seventh at that competition. They currently sit 13th in the World Series standings after five of nine events.
Underwood scored 34 points over 11 games, including six tries. He was sidelined leading up to the New Zealand event with a concussion, so taking part in a second tournament gave him additional sevens experience.
Underwood said his performance was stronger in Las Vegas than in New Zealand
“For me, it’s a lot about getting experience,” he said. “In that second tournament, I felt more comfortable having played before.”
Like Underwood, Popov claimed OUA Rookie of the Year honours during her time at Queen’s, winning in 2012 — the only season she spent with the Gaels. She left Queen’s before her second year to train full time with the national program out west.
Popov had previously represented Canada in the junior ranks, but focused on her goal of making it to a world rugby tour. She said competing at the senior level was a major step up.
“The competition is a lot faster, a lot stronger, a lot smarter,” she said. “Many of the other countries are centralized like we are. Going from the development tournaments that I had been playing in the last couple of years, I’m used to playing against teams who aren’t necessarily training everyday together — but on the circuit, everyone is full-time.”
Popov competed in Sao Paulo, Brazil with the women’s senior team from Feb. 7-8, earning her first start with the squad in Canada’s victory over France in the bronze medal game.
“First tournament, you’re not going to get the same playing time as some of the more experienced girls,” she said, “but getting that first start was something special to me.”
It was Canada’s second straight third-place finish in a World Series event, slotting them behind only Australia and New Zealand in the overall rankings. Popov said the team’s performance allowed them to close the gap with the top two countries.
“There’s a lot of positives that came out of it for the team,” she said. “It’s exciting to come back to training with a little bit more of a fire under our butts to push for that first place.”
Neither squad has named its roster for future World Series competitions. The next men’s event goes from March 27-29 in Hong Kong, while the women’s takes place two weeks earlier in Atlanta.
The World Series events are particularly crucial, since they help determine which countries will progress to next year’s Olympics.
Still, Popov said the possibility of playing in Brazil isn’t her focus right now.
“Obviously, that’s the end goal. It has to be that bigger purpose that you’re training for every day,” she said.
“You have that in the back of your mind, but when it comes down to it and it’s game day and you’re at the tournament, that’s all you can really focus on.”
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