Germany rugby sevens project on hold for former Canada coach Damian McGrath

After leading Samoa and Canada to rare tournament wins on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, coach Damian McGrath now faces the challenge of getting Germany's part-time players promoted to the top-tier sevens circuit.

It was going well until COVID-19 slammed sports to a halt. McGrath, who got one of the last planes out of Frankfurt in mid-March amidst sightings of people at the airport in full bio-suits, is now hunkered down at his home in Leeds, England.

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"I managed to get out just in time," said McGrath.

He may be back soon. He got a call from his boss earlier this week saying the restrictions in Germany could be lifted in two to three weeks. Bundesliga soccer teams have already resumed practising in small groups.

"We may be able to start training again, which is great news if true," he said. "The panic for me is getting out of England because we're in complete lockdown. There are no flights in or out of the U.K. at the moment."

Germany has progressed quickly under McGrath, who took over the team last October.

The German men won the first round of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series, defeating Hong Kong 10-0 in the final in Chile in February. The Germans then finished fifth later that month in Uruguay, winning five of six matches.

"We were disappointed not to win both legs, really," McGrath said.

The third and final round of the 16-team Challenger Series, was to be held in Hong Kong earlier this month with the top eight teams vying to earn a spot with the big boys in the World Series. But the tournament was postponed due to the pandemic.

"We were really confident of doing some good things there. The disappointment, I think, is World Rugby is struggling to find a satisfactory date to replay it so I don't know how they're going to get over that."

The Challenger Series winner will replace the bottom-placed core team in the World Series next season.

The competition is tough. Countries with limited resources have seen the action-packed short sevens game as a way of getting into rugby. Chile and Uruguay have played on the World Series and Japan is ramping up for the Tokyo Olympics.

Still, McGrath's German side has won 11 of 12 Challenger matches to date, outscoring the opposition 301-93. And the one loss, a 17-12 setback at the hands of Chile in Montevideo, came down to some controversial officiating decisions, according to McGrath.

His team is made up of soldiers, students, engineers and other workers. Training is squeezed around jobs, in the early morning or evening.

"That's been the hardest thing — just finding the time to get together as a group."

Germany was also supposed to play in the European sevens championship in June but that too has been pushed back.

McGrath can field a good starting side but depth is an issue.

"There are some individuals who would get a game in most teams in the world," said McGrath.

The sevens side is funded by the government while the German 15s side is somewhat in disarray after juice drink billionaire Hans-Peter Wild stopped bankrolling the program.

The sevens team trains at the Olympic training centre in Heidelberg, where McGrath lives while his family is back in England.

"It's enjoyable," he said. "It's a little bit different than the hectic World Series merry-go-round but that's where they're aiming to be."

Rugby Canada fired McGrath last May with two events remaining in the World Series season as well an Olympic qualifying tournament. The Canadians, whose pre-season had been disrupted by a two-month labour dispute, stood 12th in the standings at the time.

He was replaced by Henry Paul, an assistant coach with the men's 15s team. The Canadian men currently stand eighth after their third-place finish in Vancouver last month.

"it seems like a lifetime away," said McGrath, who remembers his time in Canada fondly. "I still keep in touch with the players and staff on a regular basis."

"It had a big effect on us leaving (Canada)," he added. "It was a bit like a loss in the family."

McGrath was hired in October 2016, succeeding Zimbabwe's Liam Middleton whose contract was not renewed after Canada failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Germany beat Canada in the last-ditch qualifying tournament in Monaco.

McGrath, who had previously helped Samoa to a 2016 tournament win in Paris, led Canada to its first-ever World Series win in 2017 in Singapore.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2020.

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