Training with the Oak Bay Barbarians as a teenager, the scrawny red head named Connor Braid certainly didn’t graduate as Oak Bay’s next big thing.
Last week at the Vancouver Rugby Sevens tournament in BC Place, Braid showed Canadians why he is considered one of the best sevens players in the world right now. While he’s “having a great time, travelling the world and training everyday,” every success the 28-year-old enjoys is also a humbling tribute to Dylan Jones, his lifelong friend and another Oak Bay High grad and rugby player who died from cancer in September 2017.
A power man on attack and defence, Connor Braid was just awesome for @RugbyCanada in Las Vegas. He was your @DHLRugby Impact Player after a brilliant USA Sevens. Can he back it up at #Canada7s in Vancouver? #DHLImpactPlayer#DHLRugby pic.twitter.com/lRlTlYd3Vi
— World Rugby Sevens (@WorldRugby7s) March 6, 2019
For the second straight year, when Braid scored a try in Vancouver he lifted his shirt to reveal he was wearing Jones’ name on an undershirt throughout the tournament. It was also the second straight IRB World Sevens tournament Braid was named the DHL Impact Player of the tournament, an award based on an advanced stat that combines tackles, breaks, offloads and carries. He leads the 2019 circuit with a combined score of 226. Braid’s also seventh overall in tries on this year’s circuit with 20, including one in Canada’s epic 26-19 win over third-ranked Fiji in Vancouver, which he followed with a hat trick in the next game, a 36-12 win over Kenya.
Canada finished the tournament 10th overall and is now in Hong Kong for the marquee event on the annual World Sevens series, one that injects an estimated $65 million into the local economy.
“I started the tribute [to Jones] in Vancouver last year for his family who were there [at the tournament],” said Braid, who works in commercial real estate with D. R. Coell and Associates in Victoria when he can. “It’s tough when you lose a buddy, and it’s sad when their name stops being mentioned but he’s never gone. In some way I make a little tribute to him everyday.”
Jones fought lymphoma cancer for four years, succumbing at 27. Initially Jones looked to be a rising star in rugby, a high school athlete who excelled in any sport he played. In 2006 Braid and Jones were among five underage players to join the senior Oak Bay Barbarians on tour to the U.K. The two of them were among the characters of the trip but also played, and showed a lot of promise, said Pete Atkinson, who coached Braid at Oak Bay High from 2005 to 2008 and then again at James Bay Athletic Association.
“In high school Braid was one of our best players, but he was a scrappy, scrawny fighter, who didn’t bulk up until after high school,” said Atkinson. “Jones was also very good, they were our leaders.”
Ask Braid, and it was Jones who had the better talent.
“He was a better rugby player than I am,” said Braid. “He was a big supporter and he’s a reminder that it’s a fragile [life]. I put his name on before I run on the field. It gets me fired up when I put it on. When I score a try, I try to keep his memory alive.”
Without a doubt, Braid is now one of the most powerful on the World Sevens circuit, said Sean White, a former teammate.
White was on the Barbarians tour to the U.K. in 2008 as a Grade 12. He remembers then-coach Murray Allen asking White to work with Braid, a junior, in extra training sessions. The two spent multiple seasons sharing the pitch for Canada Sevens and JBAA. White now coaches James Bay AA and the B.C. Bears Sevens program, which meant rostering Braid in a couple of early-season JBAA matches in the fall.
It wasn’t until Braid graduated high school and focused on playing for the Canadian U20 men’s rugby team that he bulked up and became the driven player he is today, adding at least 15 pounds in those first two years, White recalls.
“I think a lot of us athletic guys didn’t put a lot of effort into our schooling,” White said. “Once [Braid] graduated I saw him put a lot of effort and focus into his commitment to himself, and rugby, and it’s no coincidence that his rugby career started to bud.”
To see Braid carrying Jones’ memory on the global stage resonates far and wide in the Greater Victoria rugby community, White said.
“Braid’s finally getting the recognition he deserves, he’s getting noticed, and it’s what we’ve been seeing for years,” White said. “With Dylan, it’s personal for Connor. They’re basically childhood friends, and Connor’s inspired, not just with a chip on his shoulder, but the extra motivation to be the best player he can be and it’s starting to show.”
The ultimate goal for Braid is to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics sevens tournament, a berth the Canadian men missed in 2016 (though the women won a bronze).