After a breakthrough campaign that saw their first ever tournament win on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the Canadian men kick off the 2017-18 season in Dubai on Friday looking to show their worth.
They want to build on the victory in Singapore in April. And they also want to prove to purse-holders back home that their program deserves funding.
After failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics, the men’s sevens team lost its funding from Own The Podium for fiscal 2017-18. In 2016-17, that amounted to $850,000.
Rugby Canada has since made a presentation to get some funding back but won’t learn the decision until mid-January.
“We can only be hopeful because I think we have a really good case,” said Canadian coach Damian McGrath.
The Canadian men finished eighth overall last season, up from 13th in 2015-16. They were ninth and sixth, respectively, before that.
Following Dubai and Cape Town, the Canadian men will play World Series events in Australia, New Zealand, Las Vegas, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, England and France.
The Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast are sandwiched between tour stops in Hong Kong and Singapore in April. The season wraps up in July at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco.
“It’s going to be a marathon not a sprint. The games are just going to keep on coming,” said McGrath. “So between now and the end of July it’s full-on.”
He expects top teams to rotate players to keep them fresh throughout the long campaign. Canada doesn’t really have that luxury so will hope to keep its big guns healthy so McGrath can field his top squad at all events including the Commonwealth Games.
The squad announced for the Dubai and South African stops features veterans of the World Series, including captain Harry Jones, Canada sevens tournament cap leader John Moonlight and playmaker Nathan Hirayama, who was fourth in scoring last season with 269 points.
Strike runner Justin Douglas turned heads last season with 40 tries, third on the circuit behind American Perry Baker (57) and England’s Dan Norton (51).
Liam Underwood (shoulder) and Phil Berna (broken arm) are back from injury. Connor Braid and Admir Cejvanovic have returned from the fifteens team.
“We have a really well-balanced team,” said McGrath. “We’ve had great preparation. I’m excited. The players are really excited. Pre-season seems to have been going on for an eternity so we’re just looking to getting out there and getting started.”
The only players missing are Andrew Coe, who is with the fifteens squad (and currently injured), and Adam Zaruba, who has been training with McGrath’s squad on Vancouver Island while awaiting word of interest from NFL teams. Zaruba attended the Philadelphia Eagles training camp, hoping to catch on as a tight end.
Montreal Alouettes defensive back Tevaughn Campbell is with the developmental Maple Leafs team that is competing in a separate competition in Dubai.
“He’ll get some game minutes away from the spotlight,” said McGrath.
Canada opens Friday against Kenya before taking on Uganda and defending Series champion South Africa, which won five tournaments last season including Dubai. Kenya finished 12th last season while Uganda, which took part in just two events, was 17th.
“Our game against Kenya is going to be the key for us in the group,” said McGrath. “It’s the first game for us. Kenya are one of those teams that can be the best team in the world or the worst on the day. It just depends which way it goes for them.
“But they rarely just fall over and give in. So it’s going to be a very stern test straight off the bat.”
The World Series returns to Vancouver in March for the third year in a row. Last year’s tournament drew more than 76,000 fans over two days to B.C. Place Stadium.
The Canadian women, third on the circuit last season, open their Dubai competition Thursday.
Phil Berna, UBC Thunderbirds, Vancouver; Connor Braid, James Bay AA, Victoria; Admir Cejvanovic, Burnaby Lake RFC, Burnaby, B.C.; Justin Douglas, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Mike Fuailefau, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Lucas Hammond, Toronto Nomads, Toronto; Nathan Hirayama, unattached, Richmond, B.C.; Harry Jones (capt.), Capilano RFC, North Vancouver; Isaac Kaay, UVIC Vikes, Kamloops, B.C.; Pat Kay, Castaway Wanderers, Duncan, B.C.; John Moonlight, James Bay AA, Pickering, Ont.; Matt Mullins, Queen’s University, Belleville, Ont.; Liam Underwood, Balmy Beach RFC, Toronto.