Canadian men in relegation battle in business end of World Rugby Sevens Series season
While Argentina looks to join New Zealand in securing a berth at the 2024 Paris Olympics, the battle at the other end of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings will add more drama to the penultimate stop of the men's season in France this weekend.
The 14th-ranked Canadians are in the thick of it, facing a relegation battle.
The All Blacks defeated Argentina 19-17 in the final in Singapore last month to become the first men's team to join host France at the Olympics. The second-ranked Pumas hope to follow suit in Toulouse, looking to pick up enough points to ensure the top-four finish in the season standings that carries automatic Olympic qualification with it.
New Zealand (with 160 points) has dominated the men's circuit with podium finishes in seven of the nine events, including tournament wins in Sydney, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Singapore. Argentina (140 points) has four podium finishes with wins in New Zealand and Vancouver.
Olympic champion Fiji currently stands third at 130 points, followed by France (122), Australia (112), Samoa (111) and South Africa (106).
The Toulouse tournament, which runs Friday through Sunday, is also the final event of the seven-stop women's circuit. The Canadian women, eighth in the standings, are in a pool with No. 1 New Zealand, the third-ranked United States and Poland, an invitational side.
The Canadian men have a fight on their hands to hold onto their place on the circuit.
The number of core teams in the men's World Series is being reduced to 12 from 16 next season to match the number of women's sides and to align with the Olympic competition structure.
The 15th-ranked core team following Toulouse will be relegated, with Japan currently in the hot seat. The Japanese have 16 points, eight less than Canada.
"There are a couple of scenarios where Japan could get into the next bracket and we could drop down (to 15th)," said Canada interim coach Sean White. "But we're just focusing on if we take care of our job, then those scenarios, they'll wind down pretty quickly."
The teams ranked 12th, 13th and 14th at the end of Toulouse — currently Spain (48 points), Kenya (37 points) and Canada (24 points) — will move into a four-team relegation playoff together with Tonga, the Challenger Series 2023 winners, in the 11th and final round of the season in London on May 20-21.
The playoff winner becomes the 12th core team on the 2024 Series, while the other three teams will have to go through regional sevens championships in order to qualify for the 2024 World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series.
"We get an opportunity here to kind of lay a platform for next week (in London). And we're really looking to utilize that," said White.
Much of the spotlight in Toulouse will be on No. 11 Uruguay, which at 49 points has a slender one-point lead over No. 12 Spain. Both teams will be looking to avoid the relegation playoff in London.
“We are playing for the possibility of staying in the Series, of being among the 11. We have one kill-or-die tournament left,” said Uruguayan coach Ivo Dugonjic.
Uruguay is in its first season as a core team in the World Series and has made the Cup quarterfinals twice already.
Canada will face Uruguay in Pool A play, along with No. 1 New Zealand and No. 13 Kenya.
The tournament winner collects 22 points with the payoff diminishing by position, with the teams tied for 15th earning just one.
The Canadian men picked up one point in two of their nine previous tournaments this season and left with two points as the 14th-place finisher in five others including the last two stops in Hong Kong and Singapore.
The Canadians had their best finish, a 10th, in the opening event of the season in Hong Kong in November. Since then they have finished 11th, 14th (five times) and tied for 15th (twice). They have won 15 games and lost 36 this season.
The season started with some turmoil with coach Henry Paul stepping down in late December after the season opener. White, a former Canadian sevens and 15s international, took over.
Canada has had its share of bad luck, missing out on the Cup quarterfinals on points difference in Vancouver despite winning two of three in pool play including an impressive 29-12 win over Australia, currently fifth in the standings.
The Canadians then lost to Spain and South Africa in consolation play to finish tied for 15th.
Brock Webster returns from injury while Jack Carson joins the men's squad after helping University of British Columbia win the Canadian University Championship in December and more recently the B.C. Premier League championship.
Cooper Coats, Jake Thiel and Matt Percillier are unavailable through injury. Coats, whom White describes as a "bit of an emotional leader" within the group, has missed most of the season.
The early-season coaching change also forced some self-examination
"We spent a good chunk of the year kind of finding our way. And I mean that in a way of tweaking a few things in our attack and defence," White said. "I think it was a really big learning moment and a really big learning for the group. Our challenge was 'What is our identity?' And through that, it's been player-driven, we've found a really good balance of how we want to play.
"But the big challenge for us all year has been our consistency."
Part of that has been due to testing out new talent and combinations, with a goal of coming up with "a really authentic Canadian style of sevens rugby that's repeatable."
"From my point of the view, the credit really lies with the players," said White. "I think they've really taken hold of that style of play and we're just trying to get into that repeatability part of it and put back-to-back performances together that we can be proud of."
After London, the Canadian men will be focusing on Rugby Americas North Sevens in August in Langford, B.C., which serves as the region's Olympic qualifier.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2023
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press