No medal and a lot of questions. The post-mortem on Rugby Canada’s Olympic performance and the turmoil that proceeded it is set to start.
The Canadian women’s sevens team, bronze medallists five years ago in Rio, headed to Tokyo after a turbulent run-up to the Olympics marked by complaints of an abusive training environment. They failed to live up to expectations and finished ninth. The men, first-time Olympians, placed eighth — matching their position in the World Rugby Sevens Series standings before play ground to a halt last year due to the pandemic.
The performance on the field and division off it demonstrate the size of the challenge facing Rugby Canada.
“There absolutely is more work to be done,” Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen said in an interview. “And we have a long way to go. Our review, which is coming up, will initiate that now that our Olympics tournaments are over.”
That includes ensuring Inclusivity and respect, which he calls key parts of rugby’s value system.
“Clearly we have some work to do as a culture and as an organization to live those day-in day-out,” he added. “And I don’t that that work is ever going to stop.”
The governing body is no stranger to reviews after setbacks on the field.
In 2016, Rugby Canada opted not to renew the contract of men’s sevens coach Liam Middleton for missing out on the “very attainable” goal of Olympic qualification.
Earlier that year, Kieran Crowley quit as coach of the men’s 15s team, just weeks after agreeing to an 18-month contract extension — a contract length that came from the recommendation of Rugby Canada’s World Cup review committee. Crowley, frustrated at the financial limitations of the Canadian program, left for Italy to coach Benetton Treviso.
But this review promises to be more wide-ranging, sparked by a formal complaint from the women’s sevens team in January under Rugby Canada’s bullying and harassment policy.
In the wake of the complaint filed by 37 current and former team members, an independent review concluded that while the conduct described in the complaint reflected the experiences of the athletes, it did not fall within Rugby Canada’s policy’s definition of harassment or bullying.
Unhappy at that conclusion, the players said their complaint “explained the psychological abuse, harassment and/or bullying these athletes feel they were subjected to in the centralized training environment.”
Head coach John Tait, while maintaining he had done nothing wrong, subsequently stepped down.
Rugby Canada has since approved an “updated safe sport policy manual.”
The controversy has caused division in Rugby Canada ranks with most of Tait’s staff leaving, believing he had been unfairly treated.
Former sevens captain Jen Kish spoke out this week saying in a social media post, saying there are players in the program “who have contributed to the very same environment that they have gone public with regards to John Tait.”
Some players, she added, had “used their position to push their agenda by intimidating and bullying other players to a very frightening extreme point.”
Jamie Cudmore, a former star player who ran Rugby Canada’s national development academy and was an assistant coach with the men’s 15s team, lost his job this week after belittling the women’ sevens team in a series of tweets that were subsequently deleted.
Cudmore, who goes back a long way with Tait, apologized for his words.
“Jamie thankfully was quick to take them down. But you can’t take those words and comments back once they’re out there,” said Vansen.
Cudmore’s social media tirade effectively ripped the scab off the open wound exposed by the women’s complaint.
Charity Williams, a member of the sevens team, said the tweets were an example of “the consistent hatred we have received from people in our own organization.”
“The bullying and harassment that we have received for coming forward is outrageous and scary at times. This is the reason we called for an internal investigation because we haven’t been safe,” she added in a social media post.
The Rugby Canada review will examine the challenge of balancing the demands on elite athletes.
“Absolutely,” said Vansen. “Part of this is looking at the extreme commitment that our national team athletes, men’s and women’s, have to make to be competitive on the international stage.”
“As our athletes have rightly said, they’re more than just athletes,” he added. “These are people, they’re community leaders. We’re very proud of that.”
When it was announced in April, the review was billed by Rugby Canada as “an independent assessment of the national senior women’s 7s program, and our other performance rugby programs, to help us understand the journey and experiences of our athletes and staff involved with our national teams.”
The process is slated to start this month and end “mid-fall,” according to Vansen. Its recommendations will be released late October or in November.
How independent the probe is remains to be seen. Vansen says while “an independent individual” will lead the process, “it is a Rugby Canada review.”
“We are in the process of establishing exactly who will be involved in that review,” Vansen said.
Those involved will include representatives from “our core stakeholders and our funding partners,” as well as Rugby Canada officials and players.
How the Olympic performance affects funding remains to be seen.
The women’s seven team, thanks to its medal in Rio and performance on the World Series, received $10.5 million in Own The Program funding in the Tokyo quadrennial, which actually covered five years because of the pandemic. The Canadian men, whose funding took a nosedive after failing to qualify for Rio, received just $130,000.
Vansen says while interim women’s sevens coach Mick Byrne will be a “huge part of our debrief process,” there has been no determination yet on the Australian’s future with the program.
Former Canadian international Phil Mack will run the developmental academy “in the immediate future.” Rugby Canada will look for a new forwards coach to fill the 15s job vacated by Cudmore.
The World Series is set to resume this fall with stops for the men in both Vancouver (Sept. 18-19) and Edmonton (Sept. 25-26). The women return to action Oct. 2-3 in Paris.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press