Canada coach Henry Paul knows there is no margin for error at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town.
The tournament features the "winner takes all" knockout format introduced four years ago at the tournament in San Francisco, with a single loss taking teams out of championship contention.
The 24-country men's field in Cape Town sees 10th-seeded Canada open against No. 23 Zimbabwe on Friday with the winner facing No. 7 France in the round of 16.
In contrast, stops on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series start with pool play, with the top teams in each group then advancing to knockout play.
"I would have preferred a pool (format). That way you work your way through the pool," said Paul. "But I do like that we get to play Zimbabwe. We've watched a lot of them in the recent Challenger Series. They're a threat, of course, but I'd like to think our guys can do a job against them. And that gives us a chance to get some game under our belts before hopefully matching up against France. We know how difficult that will be."
France blanked the Canadian men 42-0 on the second day of play at the recent Los Angeles Sevens with the Canadian team feeling the effects of injuries and a tough Day 1 with games against New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S.
"We tried a few things and it didn't come off for us," said Paul, who represented both New Zealand and England as a player. "But the effort was there, in spades. That's all you can ask. Now that we've got that tournament under our belt and we've got those same guys coming down here, I'm hoping that Day 1 in Cape Town we can get through the first game and that will give us a good warm-up into France.
"But we're obviously not getting ahead of ourselves. We respect Zimbabwe. We know that they've got athletes and if you give them time and space, they can hurt you."
The French also beat Canada earlier on the circuit in Dubai (26-14), Malaga, Spain, (38-5), Singapore (40-12) and London (19-14).
The Rugby World Cup Sevens runs through Sunday at Cape Town Stadium.
The Canadian men's team features one change from the Los Angeles roster. Cooper Coats, who was injured in the World Series finale in California, is replaced by Matthew Oworu, who has recovered from the minor injury that kept him out of the L.A. event.
Veteran Phil Berna captains the Canadian men.
The women's competition kicks off with round-of-16 knockout matches. The fifth-seeded Canadians open against No. 12 China with the winner moving on to face either the fourth-seeded U.S. or No. 13 Poland.
The men's best showing at the Rugby World Cup Sevens was a fifth-place finish in 2001 in Argentina. They were 12th four years ago in San Francisco.
The Canadian women, runner-up to New Zealand at the 2013 event in Moscow, finished seventh four years ago.
Like the Canadian women, the men's program has gone through a lot of changes with a spate of retirements after the Tokyo Olympics where the men finished eighth.
The Canadian men finished a disappointing 14th overall in their nine-event World Series campaign. But Paul sees positives, noting close matches against South Africa and a win over Argentina.
"Apart from France in L.A. on Day 2 and then maybe New Zealand which was 26-5 (loss on Day 1), there's been no big scores against us. We've been in pretty much every game up until the last two or three minutes.
"I think the team's really capable. But we're immature in terms of World Series events across the team. We've not got the experience. So those moments where you want clarity and you want clear heads, sometimes we're a bit frantic. You're only going to learn that as you get more experience and they get tougher and more resilient."
The men tied for seventh in July at the Commonwealth Games.
Relegation was off the World Series table this season with the decision of England, Scotland, and Wales to compete as Britain starting with the 2023 Series. The decision, which aligns with Olympic participation. meant no relegation in 2022 since England, Scotland and Wales are being replaced by Britain on the men's side.
In 2023, the 14 core men's teams will be Canada, Argentina, Australia, Britain, Fiji, France, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, Samoa, South Africa, Spain and the U.S. They will be joined by Uruguay, which won last month's World Rugby Challenger Series.
One invitational team will take part in each round, with 16 teams participating at each tournament.
South Africa marks the eighth edition of the men's World Cup Sevens and the fourth for the women. Canada has qualified for every one of those.
New Zealand won the last two editions of both the men's and women's World Cup Sevens.
Anton Ngongo, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers; Jake Thiel, Victoria, Abbotsford RFC; Thomas Isherwood, Okotoks, Alta., Foothills Lions RFC; Phil Berna (capt.), Vancouver, Vancouver Rowing Club; Alex Russell, Chichester, England, McGill University; Josiah Morra, Toronto, Castaway Wanderers/Toronto Saracens; Brock Webster, Uxbridge, Ont., Oshawa Vikings RFC; Matthew Oworu, Calgary, Pacific Pride; D'Shawn Bowen, Toronto, Pacific Pride; Lachlan Kratz, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers/NOLA Gold; Elias Ergas, Vancouver, UBC; Ciaran Breen, Victoria, Cowichan RFC.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press