Men’s rugby sevens squad qualifies to join women at 2020 Tokyo Olympics

A quest denied three years ago for Rio 2016 was finally atoned for over the weekend by the Langford-based Canadian men’s rugby sevens team. The squad is bound for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo after ripping undefeated through the North American and Caribbean qualifier in George Town, Cayman Islands.

“It’s a dream come true,” national team veteran and University of Victoria Vikes great Nathan Hirayama said.

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“I don’t think I’ve wanted anything more since it was announced that rugby would be in the Olympic Games. We’ve waited and prepared three years since not getting it done for Rio. This is such a great feeling.”

It came amid a turbulent season.

The national side lost two months of preparation time last fall at Westhills Stadium because of a labour dispute with Rugby Canada.

Head coach Damian McGrath was let go late in the World Series campaign and replaced by assistant-coach Henry Paul on an interim basis. Matters were compounded when star Connor Braid of Victoria, the leading Canadian player on the season, went down with a season-ending injury before the qualifier.

“There are so many crazy emotions after a year of so many ups and downs, both on and off the field,” Hirayama said.

Canada tore through Barbados 47-0, Mexico 49-5 and Bermuda 55-0 in the preliminary round and Guyana 47-5 in the quarter-finals, Bermuda 55-0 in the semifinals and Jamaica 40-5 in the final.

“We prepared well and took nothing for granted, especially with the temperature in the 30s with 80 per cent humidity, and the ball very slippery,” Hirayama said.

On the Canadian team were Hirayama, captain Harry Jones of North Vancouver, SMUS grad Mike Fuailefau of Victoria, Pat Kay of Duncan, Isaac Kaay of the UVic Vikes, Matt Mullins of James Bay, Phil Berna of UBC, Jake Thiel of Abbotsford, Adam Zaruba of North Vancouver and the youthful trio of Josiah Morra, Andrew Coe and Cooper Coats.

The qualification roster likely won’t exactly match the Olympic roster next year in Tokyo as Canada had several key injuries to Braid, Justin Douglas and Lucas Hammond.

The next World Series season will very much be about players auditioning for Olympic spots.

“Now the real work starts,” Hirayama said.

“We’re not going just to be there at the Olympics. We’re going there to play well and do something special. It’s going to be an exciting year.”

Who will guide it at Langford remains the question. Paul’s contract is only through the 2019 Lima Pan Am Games later this summer.

The former pro and dual-citizen New Zealand- and England-capped international looks to have done enough to have the “interim” part of his head-coaching title removed. He was also assistant to head coach Kingsley Jones as Canada qualified for the 2019 World Cup in XVs through the last-chance repechage last November in Marseille, France.

“Getting to the Olympics is a huge honour for the players and I am so stoked for them,” Paul said.

“I would love to be part of it going forward. I believe I have put forward my case.”

World No. 11-ranked Canada became the seventh qualifier for Tokyo 2020. Japan is in as host. Argentina won the South American qualifier. The top-four teams in the 2019 World Series standings — Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S. — qualified directly to Tokyo.

The European, Asian, African and Oceanic regional qualifying tournaments will be held this summer and fall. The 12th and final berth will be awarded through the last-chance, repechage qualifying tournament next year at a site to be decided.

The 2016 Rio Olympics bronze-medallist Canada women’s sevens team, also based in Langford, qualified directly for the Tokyo Olympics by placing in the top four of the 2019 World Series season.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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