The Canadian men’s rugby sevens team looks to join Canada’s women this weekend in booking its ticket to the 2020 Olympics.
And while the automatic qualification of the U.S. — thanks to their second-place finish this season in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series — opens the door for the Canadian men for a first-ever Olympic berth, they will have to beat the best of the rest with an injury-riddled roster.
The Canadian men, who finished 11th on the season, get their chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics at the 2019 RF Group RAN (Rugby Americas North) Sevens this weekend in George Town, capital of the Cayman Islands.
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. The Canadian women, bronze medallists at the 2016 Olympics, qualified by finishing third overall — along with Series-leading New Zealand, the U.S. and Australia.
Fiji, the U.S., New Zealand and South Africa secured automatic qualification on the men’s side, joining host Japan in the 12-country Olympic field.
Canada opens Pool A play Saturday against Barbados before facing Mexico and Bermuda at Truman Bodden Stadium. Pool B is made up of Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and the Cayman Islands.
The tournament winner qualifies for Tokyo. The second- and third-place teams will have another opportunity via a last-chance repechage tournament in 2020.
At the Rio North American qualifier in June 2015, Canada defeated the Bahamas 45-0, Trinidad & Tobago 38-7, Guyana 51-0, the Cayman Islands 36-0 and Mexico 34-0 prior to 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
It’s been a roller-coaster year for the Canadian men, who sat out two months prior to the start of the 2018-19 season due to a contract dispute with Rugby Canada.
Interim coach Henry Paul, a former England sevens player, says his players have been around long enough to know the dangers of underestimating the opposition.
"They already know any time you take things for granted or you’re complacent, you can get upset," he said.
"They’ve been working their guts out for the last few weeks," he added. "No stone has been unturned. We’ve looked at everything and anything that can give us an edge and an advantage."
Paul, an assistant to 15s head coach Kingsley Jones, led Canada on the final two stops of the World Series season.
The Canadian men tied for seventh in London to match their best result of the season but lost key players Justin Douglas and Connor Braid to injury. Canada then placed ninth in Paris to wrap up the season.
Douglas (ankle) is tied with Nate Hirayama as Canada’s all-time leading try-scorer (with 136) while Braid (shoulder) finished fifth in the World Series DHL Impact Player Award standings, a statistical analysis of individual player performance.
Also sidelined by injury are Admir Cejvanovic (hamstring), Lucas Hammond (ankle) and Cole Davis (core).
"Real tough injuries on some really good blokes," said the 45-year-old Paul. "But as a (team), we’ve just got to kind of get over it and adapt."
Andrew Coe, Cooper Coats and Josiah Morra join the Canadian lineup after impressing at London and Paris.
A positive result on the week will raise the profile of rugby sevens and help 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 lack of funding meant the Canadian men arrived later at tournaments, reducing preparation time. It also hindered player development with few opportunities for up-and-coming players to hone their tournament skills.
Canada’s competition on the weekend is expected to come from Jamaica and Guyana.
"We’ll take each game at a time," said Paul, declining to identify which team may offer the stiffest competition.
Heat will be a concern. The forecast calls for weekend temperatures in the low 30s but it will feel like 41 C. There is also the possibility of thunderstorms.
The Canadians will be hoping to join Argentina, which won the Sudamerica Rugby Sevens with 39 tries in six games to become the sixth men’s team to confirm its place in Tokyo. Argentina, which finished ninth overall on the World Series, downed Brazil 26-0 in the final.
Paul will also lead Canada at the Pan American Games, which start later this month in Peru.
"After that we’ll see," he said of his coaching future with the sevens squad.
The six-team North American women’s qualifier, also this weekend in the Caymans, is a round-robin featuring the Bahamas, Bermuda, Jamaica, Mexico, St. Lucia and Trinidad & Tobago.
At the end of the round-robin, the top two teams will meet in the final with the remaining four playing ranking games. With Canada and the U.S. already qualified, the top two will advance to the 2020 women’s repechage tournament.
Phil Berna, UBC Thunderbirds, Vancouver; Cooper Coats, Halifax Tars, Halifax; Andrew Coe, Markham Irish, Toronto; Mike Fuailefau, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Nathan Hirayama, unattached, Richmond, B.C.; Harry Jones, Capilano RFC, North Vancouver; Isaac Kaay, UVIC Vikes, Kamloops, B.C.; Pat Kay, Castaway Wanderers, Duncan, B.C.; Josiah Morra, Toronto Saracens, Toronto; Matt Mullins, James Bay AA, Belleville, Ont.; Jake Thiel, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Adam Zaruba, Capilano RFC, North Vancouver.