Rugby Canada men’s sevens dispute comes to an end, players return to training

Rugby Canada management and its men’s sevens players have reached a new agreement, ending a holdout by the players. 

The men’s sevens players began to hold themselves out of practice over a dispute centred on the state of their playing contracts, a resolution has been reached.

The first week of September, 13 players, who had formed the core of the men’s sevens squad during the 2017-18 World Rugby Sevens Series season, pulled themselves from Rugby Canada’s plans to integrate the sevens squad under the umbrella of the men’s XVs program.

Negotiations were contentious at times. Even now, there’s uncertainty about the future and how the team will operate, let alone compete at the highest level. But still, the central point is that the players are back in the mix.

Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen said, ” that as far as he understood, all 13 players were expected to sign on and that they’d returned to training on Thursday as well.

“Obviously, we’re very pleased to have the full men’s sevens group back in the training environment,” he said. And while he was happy the issue had been resolved, he acknowledged that the process could have been approached differently.

“Hindsight’s a great thing, of course, there are elements that we would, with the benefit of time, that we would have done differently,” he said. Having the players on board right from the start was a big lesson.

“Those are pieces that we certainly take forward as an organization.”

Mel Reeves, the Vancouver lawyer and businessman who has served as the players’ advisor for more than two years, said the players signed the contracts “reluctantly and under protest” in order to get back on the field

They believed doing so was in the best interests of rugby sevens in Canada in the medium and long-term, he said.

A group of supporters are organizing a private “support group” which will look to support the sport “both publicly and financially” in Canada, he added.

Harry Jones said it was frustrating for the players to have to sit out for two months, but was glad they were back on the field. (Of course, Jones himself is working to return from shoulder surgery and likely won’t be ready to play until the new year.)

And he was pleased to discover that there were fans backing them, as well as people with financial interests looking to potentially throw their weight behind them.

“It’s not ideal but in the big picture, the support from the outside has been massive,” he said.  “Seeing how the public has reacted, seeing the messages, people who want to support us financially.”

He feels what has been agreed to is in the direction they were hoping for.

“We just wanted to get this program into a position where it can compete at the top level not just the next couple years but five, ten, twenty years down the road. I’m only playing for two years more, max, so what comes next? We want to see kids aiming for this in the future. That was scary for us to think that might not be on the table.”

The agreement between the holdout players and management is not “fundamentally” different from the restructuring Vansen announced this summer, but there were changes made to clauses covering sevens appearance fees and performance bonuses, bringing them closer in line with what the sevens team had previously been operating under before.

“Both sides feel like they gave more than would want to have … but that’s a sign of good negotiation,” he said.

He called the concerns the players had aired about the training environment and how it would affect their aspirations towards qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as “fair.”

“Those are challenges and questions we fully respect the players in,” he said. “That process is still unfolding.”

“We knew these changes (in program structure), as they always do, were quite a challenge.”

The players’ push to form their own union, under the auspices of the United Steelworkers, is ongoing and remains in front of the B.C. Labour Relations Board.

“We remain firmly of the opinion is the best avenue is for the players to form a players association (rather than a full-on union),” Vansen said.

The first tournament of the season is in Dubai and it kicks off on Nov. 30.

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