Seven years ago, Canada roared in the Lion City. 

Dubbed the ‘miracle on grass’ by some, Canada men’s victory over USA in the final to take the title in 2017 remains the only tournament win in their history. 

As Rupert Cox exclaimed on commentary at the time: “Canada is in Disneyland!”

It was, and still is, a remarkable achievement as a confluence of forces came together for the ‘golden generation’ of Canada Sevens. A squad featuring John Moonlight, Nathan Hirayama, Harry Jones and Mike Fuailefau, and coached by Damian McGrath, had been chipping away all season, waiting for the moment to strike.

The memories are vivid for Canada’s all-time point scorer Hirayama, named player of the final that day.

“My overriding memory from that weekend is that, in classic sevens fashion, a bit of momentum can go a long way. When we beat New Zealand in the quarters on day two, it set the tone for the rest of the weekend and we just started rolling.”

Getting to that point had been far from smooth sailing, however. The day before, Canada were thumped by Fiji in the final pool game and coach McGrath let them have it. 

“Damo ripped into us in between the tournament days, rightly so – we were pretty average on day one, managing to sneak through the pool and getting thrashed by Fiji,” Hirayama recalled. 

Hard talk

“Damo wasn’t the kind of guy to come down on us too hard too often, so it definitely hit home with the group that evening when he was basically telling us that how we played, results aside, wasn’t acceptable.

"I remember chatting with him after the meeting, and jokingly we both said, ‘maybe that’s exactly what we needed’.”

As it turned out, he was dead right. Canada’s performance on day two defied the form book, the history book and the play book, as they beat New Zealand, then England in the semis, to set up a meeting with great rivals USA in the decider. 

“Although we had never won a Cup at that point, the feeling in the squad was that we could,” Hirayama said. “We had a talented squad across the board, not to mention experienced, and when we put it together we felt that we could play with anyone.

"We went into every tournament hoping to win, which is an interesting mindset considering we hadn’t till that point.” 

While the 26-19 final score looks close in the record books, Canada took control of the match early, racing out to a 15-0 lead with tries for Matt Mullins, Jones and Fuailefau. 

As USA came back at them, Canada’s steadfast defence on their own try line set them up for Lucas Hammond to score what would be the winning try two minutes from full-time. 

Hirayama had the last touch, running down the clock before booting the ball into the stands to set off wild celebrations. It was, he said, validation for what they always thought was possible. 

“I think it solidified our thoughts and beliefs that on any given weekend we could play with anyone in the world. We always said that, but to prove it to ourselves and everyone else was something we wanted so badly as a group.”

Kenya footsteps

Perhaps it was also something about Singapore. 

While New Zealand and Fiji have dominated over the years with three titles apiece, Canada’s winning feats in 2017 came a year after Kenya’s remarkable win.

Like Canada, it is Kenya’s one and only title and they’re now battling to earn a place back on the main HSBC SVNS series. Kenya winning in 2016 shouldn’t have come as a surprise, Hirayama reckons, adding that they could have won more. 

“It was awesome,” he said of Kenya’s title. “Similar to us, they had a core group of guys who had been around a while, who had showed that they could play with anyone, had made it to finals before, had world class players in a lot of positions.

"But breaking that barrier and winning that tournament – I can only imagine how huge that was for them.”

Times are tough for Canada right now. Stuck at the bottom of the standings they’ll again have to fight for their series survival in the promotion-relegation tournament in Madrid, having staved off relegation last year, ironically by beating Kenya at Twickenham in last season’s play-off. 

There are many reasons teams go through rough patches but reflecting on the win in 2017 has highlighted one area that Canada can perhaps point to as part of the problem.

Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, Stephen Tomasin, Maka Unufe and Ben Pinkelman were all part of the USA team that weekend in Singapore and are still in the squad seven years on, albeit after some time away for a few of them.

Hughes, Tomasin and Baker will play this weekend, while none of Canada’s 2017 team are still going. 

“I think the Canadian side has had one of the largest, if not the largest turnover of players on the series post the Tokyo Olympics, only three years ago,” Hirayama said. 

Growing pains

“About nine or 10 of our players retired right after the Olympic Games for various reasons. Naturally, with that kind of turnover there’s always going to be some growing pains.”

But he remains hopeful the current crop of young players coming through have what it takes to go all the way.

“Despite where they are in the standings at the moment, I see talent in the side and I think they just need time together to grow," he said.

"As a Canadian kid coming up through the ranks, these players have no competition that remotely resembles what the HSBC SVNS series is, so there’s always an adjustment period.”

As the teams get ready to line up in Singapore again, 2017 may seem a long way in the rearview mirror for Canadian rugby.

But what they achieved seven years ago remains a beacon for the programme as they fight for series survival and shows what’s possible in this often-chaotic sport.

Call it a miracle or a Disney fairy story, for Hirayama and his title-winning team-mates it remains simply the greatest day.

By Rikki Swannell

See the HSBC SVNS champions crowned in Madrid, 31 May-2 June. Tickets from €10 available to purchase here.