After a disappointing 13th-place finish in Sydney and news that Own The Podium is cancelling funding to the program, the Canadian men’s rugby sevens team looks to reverse its fortunes this week in Las Vegas.
The hope is to build some momentum â€” or at the very least avoid injury â€” with the Vancouver stop on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series looming March 11-12.
Canada coach Damian McGrath, who took over the team this season, says his players know that poor on-field results over the last two years cost them the funding.
“That’s certainly a motivating factor for them. They want to show that A) they’re better than probably the results reflect and B) that they deserve to be funded alongside other sports.”
The Canadian men finished 13th on the world circuit last season, ninth in 2014-15 and sixth in 2013-14. They currently stand 12th after four events on the 2016-17 World Series.
Success won’t be easy in Las Vegas with the poor showing in Sydney resulting in a tough draw.
Canada’s opening match Friday is against top-ranked South Africa, which has won three stops this season including the last two in Wellington and Sydney. The Canadian men will likely have to excel in their remaining pool games against No. 7 Wales and No. 10 France to advance to the elite Cup quarter-finals.
Making the Cup quarters means a top-eight finish. Failure to do so means finishing anywhere from ninth to 16th.
The margins can be razor-slim.
Canada went 4-2-0 in Wellington and finished fourth. It was 3-2-1 in Sydney and placed 13th, with a tie against Argentina dropping the Canadians into consolation play.
The Canadian men won five of six matches last year in Vancouver, losing to Wales on a last-second try, and finished ninth.
For McGrath, the blueprint for success is simple this season.
“I need our key players to be healthy, that’s for sure,” he said.
He says the drop off from Sydney to Wellington was largely due to the loss of playmaker Nathan Hirayama and having Justin Douglas, Adam Zaruba and Pat Kay struggling to play through illness or injury.
Unlike top teams on the circuit, Canada simply doesn’t have the depth to survive such shortfalls, according to McGrath. That lack of bench strength is felt especially on the second weekend of back-to-back tournaments.
“We have to hope our senior players stay healthy,” he said. “Injuries are part and parcel of rugby. I just hope we can get through this one unscathed and then really show the Canadian public on home soil just how good the core of the sevens team is.”
Organizers say they have already sold 73,000 tickets for the Canada Sevens, with the two-day capacity just over 75,000 at B.C. Place Stadium.
The good news for McGrath is Hirayama returns from the hamstring injury that forced him to watch the Sydney event from the sidelines. He suffered a slight tear of the hamstring trying to run down a Scot in the final game at Wellington.
Hirayama is not 100-per-cent fit but is back in training, McGrath says he will be monitored this week and will not play unless deemed good to go. It helps that the Vegas event is spread over three days, rather than the normal two, giving him more recovery time.
Balancing that is the fact that the tournament is played on a narrow, unforgiving artificial turf field at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“We still have another five tournaments to go after Vegas so it would be foolish to force Nate just to have him play,” McGrath said. “If we’re unsure then we won’t risk him. And even if we do include him, I’ll be selective about how we play him.”
Phil Berna returns to the squad, recovered from surgery to repair an arm broken in December in Cape Town. He replaces Matt Mullins (plantar fasciitis), who may be available for Vancouver if needed.
Luke Bradley, rewarded for showing well in training, comes in for Karsten Leitner.
The Vegas tournament will be a Canadian-record 53rd for veteran John Moonlight, surpassing Phil Mack’s mark of 52 strips on the World Series.
Moonlight, 29, made his debut at the 2009 Hong Kong Sevens. His World Series career count now stands at 94 tries and 470 points.
Phil Berna, UBC Thunderbirds, Vancouver; Luke Bradley, UVic Vikes, Port Alberni, B.C.; Justin Douglas, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Mike Fuailefau, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Lucas Hammond, UVIC Vikes, Toronto; Nathan Hirayama, UVic Vikes, Richmond, B.C.; Harry Jones (capt.)Capilano RFC, Vancouver; Caleb Jordan, Montreal Wanderers, Montreal; Isaac Kaay, UVic Vikes, Kamloops, B.C.; Pat Kay, Castaway Wanderers, Duncan, B.C.; Luke McCloskey, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; John Moonlight, James Bay AA, Pickering, Ont.; Adam Zaruba, Capilano RFC, Vancouver.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press