The Canadian men’s sevens rugby hopefuls have been working out daily at Westhills Stadium knowing an Olympian moment of truth looms next week.
Interim head coach Henry Paul announced Tuesday who among them have been chosen for the Americas and Caribbean Olympic qualifier July 6-7 in George Town, Cayman Islands, with the winning national side advancing to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.
Not that there’s any pressure.
That will be alleviated by the steadying veteran presence of former University of Victoria Vikes great Nathan Hirayama, Mike Fuailefau of Victoria and captain Harry Jones of North Vancouver.
That stabilizing trio will be abetted by a trio representing a new wave. Josiah Morra, Andrew Coe and Cooper Coats were rewarded for their breakout play at the final World Series tournaments in London and Paris with inclusion along with Hirayama, Fuailefau and Jones for the Olympic qualifier.
Also named were Pat Kay of Duncan, Isaac Kaay of the UVic Vikes, Matt Mullins of James Bay, Phil Berna of UBC, Jake Thiel of Abbotsford and Adam Zaruba of North Vancouver.
“We’re all really focused heading into this tournament, said Paul, in a statement.
“There’s a lot of good energy in the squad right now, but we know we have a job to do. We have seen some exciting attacking rugby from this group, but I think there is more we are capable of producing. There’s a lot of experience, talent and drive here with a couple younger guys that are an exciting addition. We’ve been working hard these past couple of weeks to get ourselves ready on every level.”
The group knows the difficulties of a trying season will all be forgotten if it ends with Olympic qualification for Tokyo 2020.
The national side lost two months of preparation time last fall at Westhills Stadium because of a labour dispute with Rugby Canada. Then, head coach Damian McGrath was let go late in the World Series campaign and replaced by assistant coach Paul, a dual Kiwi-British citizen and former pro who has caps for New Zealand in league and England in union, and with a silver medal with England in sevens at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
Matters were compounded when Connor Braid of Victoria, the leading Canadian player on the season and second at the time in the World Series impact player of the year rankings, went down with a season-ending separated collarbone in the penultimate London Sevens tournament.
But Canada rallied to place top eight at London and win the consolation-side Challenge Trophy in the season-ending Paris Sevens.
“I have utmost confidence in this group and strongly believe the boys can do it and qualify for the Olympics,” said Braid, who is out until September.
A big break for Canada is that the U.S. will not be at the Americas and Caribbean qualifier. The top four teams in the 2019 World Series standings qualified directly for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S. earned those berths, meaning the Americans have no need to take part in the regional qualifier. That would appear to pave the way for Canada.
Canada placed second to the U.S. in the 2015 regional Olympic qualifier and then again failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics through the repechage last-chance world qualifier held in Monaco as shock upstart Spain took the final Rio Summer Games berth. That is sorely and well remembered in the Canadian camp among the veteran players.
“Obviously, 2016 didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” said Canadian captain Jones.
“We’re doing everything we can to not only qualify for Tokyo 2020, but to prepare ourselves to medal at the Olympics.”
World No. 11 Canada opens the Americas and Caribbean qualifier with games against Barbados, Mexico and Bermuda. The playoff rounds go on the second day. The tournament champion qualifies directly for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with the second and third place teams advancing to the repechage last-chance world qualifier next year where the 12th and final Olympic berth will be decided.