A roller-coaster rugby sevens season that started with a player strike ended in Olympic qualification for Canada’s men Sunday.
The Canadians completed a dominant run at a regional qualifying tournament, defeating Jamaica 40-5 in the final of the eight-country competition in the Cayman Islands to book their ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The comfortable victory left Canada with a perfect 6-0-0 record at the RF Group RAN (Rugby Americas North) Sevens. The Canadian men outscored their opposition 293-15 at the tournament.
"A lot of us have been grinding for this for a long long time," said Canadian veteran Harry Jones. "There’s a lot of boys back home back as well that should be here too. We have five or six boys that are injured and not able to be here. They’re on that field with us."
The men, who missed out in 2016 when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut, will join the Canadian women in Tokyo. The women, who won bronze in 2016 in Rio, had already qualified.
"I’ve seen the disappointments in the past from Team Canada," said interim Canada coach Henry Paul, a former England sevens player who is an assistant coach with the Canadian 15s team. "Not anyone’s fault, just I think things worked against them. But this time we tried to do things differently."
Paul said Canada did its homework on its opposition and looked to play with more freedom with the ball.
Isaac Kaay scored two tries and Jones, Pat Kay, Andrew Coe, and Nate Hirayama added singles for Canada, which led Jamaica 19-0 after two late scores in a sloppy first half. Hirayama booted five conversions.
Kaay’s try late in the first half saw him use his boot to knock a low pass into his hands as he raced towards the posts.
After Jamaica cut the lead to 19-5 with a try early in the second half, a converted Kaay try increased the Canadian lead to 26-5. Jamaica’s cause was not helped when a player was sent to the sin-bin with under three minutes remaining.
Jones touched down a Hirayama grubber kick before Hirayama scored under the posts to pad the Canadian advantage.
The Canadian players gathered in a scrum of bodies after the final whistle to celebrate Olympic qualification.
Canada blanked Bermuda 55-0 in semifinal play and dispatched Guyana 47-5 in the quarterfinals earlier Sunday at the Truman Bodden National Sports Complex.
Jamaica, which had won five straight to get to the championship game, beat Mexico 24-7 and Barbados 24-10 to advance Sunday.
Adam Zaruba and Kay each scored two tries and Coe, Jake Thiel, Cooper Coats, Matt Mullins and Phil Berna added singles in the semifinal win over Bermuda. Coats and Hirayama combined for five conversions for Canada, which led 22-0 at the break.
Earlier Sunday, Canada ran up a 26-0 lead at halftime en route to downing Guyana.
While Canada is headed to the Olympics, runner-up Jamaica and third-place Mexico will have another opportunity via a last-chance repechage tournament in 2020. Mexico thumped Bermuda 50-0 in the third-place game.
The automatic Olympic qualification of the U.S. — thanks to its second-place finish this season in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series — opened the door for the Canadian men for a first-ever Olympic berth.
But they came to the Caymans with an injury-riddled roster, missing Justin Douglas (ankle), Connor Braid (shoulder), Admir Cejvanovic (hamstring), Lucas Hammond (ankle) and Cole Davis (core).
The Canadian men arrived as the team to beat and they showed why Saturday, blanking Barbados 47-0 before thumping Mexico 49-5 and Bermuda 55-0 in Pool A play.
Jamaica took top honours in Pool B, outscoring Trinidad & Tobago, the Cayman Islands and Guyana 111-12.
The top four finishers this season on both the men’s and women’s sides of the World Rugby Sevens Series earned automatic Olympic qualification. That meant Fiji, the U.S., New Zealand and South Africa joined host Japan on the men’s side in the 12-country Olympic field.
Canada’s women qualified directly by finishing third overall — along with Series-leading New Zealand, the U.S. and Australia.
The Canadian men finished 11th in the World Series after a roller-coaster year that saw the players sit out two months prior to the start of the 2018-19 season due to a contract dispute with Rugby Canada.
Canada cut through the opposition at the Rio North American qualifier in June 2015, before running into the U.S. in the final in Cary, N.C., where Canada lost 21-5.
The Canadians’ qualifying journey ended in a 14-12 quarterfinal loss to Russia in the Olympic repechage in Monaco, an event Spain won to earn the final berth in the 2016 Rio Games.
Canada has fired two coaches since, with Zimbabwe’s Liam Middleton getting the axe after the Monaco repechage. His replacement, England’s Damian McGrath, was let go in early May. McGrath can take credit for developing the depth that helped Canada fill the injury holes at the qualifier.
Paul led Canada on the final two stops of the World Series season.
Making the Olympics will be a much-needed boost for Rugby Canada’s bottom line. Own The Podium recommended $6.31 million in funding to the women’s sevens squad in the first three years of the Tokyo quadrennial. The men got $130,000.
The Canadians become the sixth men’s team to confirm its place in Tokyo. Argentina won the Sudamerica Rugby Sevens to punch its ticket.
The six-team North American women’s qualifier was a round-robin featuring the Bahamas, Bermuda, Jamaica, Mexico, St. Lucia and Trinidad & Tobago.
Jamaica and Mexico finished 1-2 at the end of the round-robin and, with Canada and the U.S. already qualified, will both advance to the 2020 women’s repechage tournament. Mexico beat Jamaica 19-15 in the women’s championship game.
The final three matches of the day were delayed when the tournament ambulance had to transport a player to hospital during a placement game. The final matches were put on hold until the ambulance returned.