Canadian rugby sevens teams begin march toward Olympics

Next summer in Tokyo will represent an Olympian moment for which Island rugby sevens stars Nathan Hirayama, Mike Fuailefau, Connor Braid and Caroline Crossley of Victoria and Pat Kay of Duncan have waited a lifetime.

But nobody, regardless of reputation, is yet guaranteed to be on the Canadian men’s and women’s teams for the 2020 Olympic Games. National team coaches don’t make final roster decisions in December for an event happening in late July.

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The competition for those 13 Olympic roster spots on each of the men’s and women’s teams will be the battle within the battle for the 2019-20 World Series, which continues for the women and opens for the men today in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“It is step one in what’s going to be a tough year for selections,” said Langford-based Canadian men’s head coach Henry Paul.

“We’ve got guys who are really raring to go and ready to put their hand up for spots.”

The Canadian women, the 2016 Rio Olympic bronze medallists, qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with a top-four finish in last season’s World Series. They began the current eight-event World Series season with a disappointing sixth place at the opening USA Sevens in October in Denver, Colorado.

The Canadian men, who did not qualify for Rio 2016 when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut, guaranteed their place at Tokyo 2020 by winning the Americas regional Olympic qualifying tournament in July in the Cayman Islands.

Sandwiched in were the women’s gold medal and men’s silver medal earlier this year in the 2019 Lima Pan Am Games.

A group of more than 20 men and 20 women have been training through the fall at Westhills Stadium in Langford preparing for the World Series season, through which the Canadian coaches will run through a wide range of roster options looking for that right mix they will take to Tokyo next summer.

The Dubai Sevens kicks off the 10-event men’s World Series season. Veterans Hirayama, Fuailefau, Kay and Braid, the latter returning from injury, got the call for Dubai along with Isaac Kaay from the University of Victoria Vikes.

Hirayama and Harry Jones of West Vancouver will captain Canada in Dubai.

Also getting the nod are emerging youngsters Cooper Coats of Halifax and Josiah Morra of Toronto, who were electrifying in the Olympic qualifier in the Cayman Islands. Making his second appearance after debuting in the Hong Kong Sevens last year will be David Richards from the Victoria-based Pacific Pride XVs program and Canada U-20 team.

Canada will open today in Dubai with pool play against Samoa, New Zealand and Wales.

“[There is] nothing tougher than Samoa, New Zealand and Wales. So we couldn’t have asked for a better draw to really test ourselves against the best,” said Paul in a statement.

“We’re on a good pathway now but it needs to be tested in that game environment so we can keep building and keep looking for ways to grow through this season.”

Meanwhile, Canadian women’s head coach John Tait of Mill Bay has taken in interesting mix of old and new to Dubai. It is led by veteran captain and all-time World Series scoring-leader Ghislaine Landry. Other Rio Olympic-medallists include Charity Williams, Karen Paquin, Kayla Moleschi, Bianca Farella and Brittany Benn.

Six players from the Maple Leaf’s development squad, which played in last month’s Oceania Sevens in Suva, Fiji, were also named to the team. They include Crossley, Elissa Alarie, Emma Chown, Sara Kaljuvee, Kaili Lukan and UVic Vike Pam Buisa.

“The Oceania Sevens was a great opportunity to test our wider squad against some quality competition playing against New Zealand, Australia, and Japan,” said Tait.

“It was a really good exercise for the team, and we learned a lot about each other and about our depth. Hopefully, that will pay off as the year goes on.”

Canada opens pool play today in Dubai against Russia and continues against Brazil and the Americans, the latter who edged the Canadians in the quarter-finals of the opening World Series tournament in Denver.

Tait described it as a tough pool.

“Obviously, the U.S. won the last one against us in a really tight match. It [sixth in Denver] wasn’t where we wanted to finish, but we take a lot of confidence from that experience,” he said.

“The two teams that went to the final [U.S. and Australia], we had those teams beat, really. It was just down to our mental errors in decision making that cost us those games.”

The next World Series events for both men and women are the Cape Town Sevens from Dec. 13 to 15.

The men’s Canada Sevens is March 7-8 at B.C. Place and the women’s Canada Sevens from May 2-3 at Westhills Stadium.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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