Young Canadian side gets chance to show skills at Vancouver rugby sevens event
After a spate of retirements and with other veterans taking time off, Canadian coach Henry Paul will field a young squad at this weekend's HSBC Canada Sevens in Vancouver.
The tournament marks the first HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series event since the circuit ground to a halt due to the pandemic after the Vancouver tournament in March 2020 when Canada finished third.
"It's a new group so there's some excitement there. And some trepidation," said Paul, a former sevens star with England. "But I can't wait."
The participating teams head to Edmonton next to play Sept. 25-26. The two Canadian events, which will also feature a four-team women's competition, will serve as a truncated 2021 season.
World Rugby says there will be no relegation from the 2021 Series and the results will not count toward seedings for future events.
Canadian co-captain Nate Hirayama, Connor Braid, Justin Douglas and Conor Trainor have all retired in the wake of the Tokyo Games, where the men finished eighth in their Olympic debut.
Paul's roster in Vancouver features just three members of that Olympic squad -- Phil Berna, Jake Thiel and Andrew Coe -- although Josiah Morra has also played in the World Series. Berna will captain the side with Thiel as vice-captain.
Co-captain Harry Jones, Mike Fuailefau, Lucas Hammond, Patrick Kay, Matt Mullins and Theo Sauder are members of the Olympic roster sitting out the Vancouver event.
"I'm hoping, fingers crossed, that we don't lose too many more," said Paul. "But right now, we said we'd give them off until October."
"We needed to give them some time to really regroup," he added. "And it's an exciting time for these young guys that we've named in this team."
The 2022 World Series season will start with back-to-back combined events in Dubai. The first, Nov. 26-27, will be held behind closed doors while the second, Dec. 3-4, will see fans in attendance at the Sevens Stadium.
The full 2022 schedule will be announced later with "alternative host options" being considered to replace Australia and New Zealand events in January.
Only seven of the men's core teams are taking part in Vancouver with New Zealand. Fiji, Australia, Argentina, Japan, France and Samoa among those missing.
The Canadian men have been drawn in Pool C with the U.S., Chile and Germany.
Pool A features South Africa, Kenya, Spain and Mexico. Pool B is made up of Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong and Jamaica
Chile, Germany, Hong Kong, Jamaica and Mexico are invited teams. The Mexican men's and women's sides were late additions after France withdrew due to travel issues.
A lot of the young Canadian side trained with the Olympic team in the lead-up to Tokyo.
"They deserve their spot," said Paul. "They've been training for nine weeks. And I'm excited to see who's going to stand up, take the ball, take it by the scruff of the neck and have a dig ... we don't give away the jersey cheaply."
Paul points to Jack Carson, Alex Russell, Matt Oworu, Nick Allen and Matt Percillier among the Canadian youngsters to watch.
Paul expects many of the teams to showcase young talent at the Canadian events.
"That's exciting for world rugby," said Paul. "There are going to be some stars that emerge."
With participation limited due to COVID-19 and pandemic-related travel restrictions, an accompanying women's competition will feature just four teams: Canada, Britain, the U.S. and Mexico.
The women's "Fast Four" competition format will see the teams play each other before the top two decide the gold and the other two meet for third. Former Canada captain Kelly Russell will coach the women's sevens squad at the Canadian events.
Attendance in Vancouver will be capped at 50 per cent of B.C. Place Stadium's lower bowl capacity, making about 13,500 tickets available. Last year, a crowd of 39,533 -- the largest single-day crowd in Canadian rugby history -- saw the Canadian men reach the podium.
The crowd will be bigger outdoors at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. Rugby Canada is making half of the 32,000-capacity lower bowl available and may push that to 60 per cent if demand warrants.
World Rugby had said six men's and four women's rounds were scheduled in the final four months of 2021. But previously announced 2021 stops in Singapore (Oct. 29-30) and Cape Town (Dec. 10-12) will not take place. And the Hong Kong Sevens, slated for Nov. 5-7, was cancelled earlier.
Next year will also see rugby sevens at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (July 29-31) and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town (Sept. 9-11) following the World Series.
Last season, the men got in six of 10 planned tournaments and the women five of eight before the schedule stalled. A women's event in Langford, B.C., scheduled for early May last year was one of the tournaments cancelled.
Phil Berna (capt.), Vancouver, Vancouver Rowing Club; Jake Thiel (vice-capt.), Abbotsford, B.C., Abbotsford RFC; Matt Oworu, Calgary, Pacific Pride; Nicholas Allen, Vancouver, UBC Thunderbirds; Alex Russell, Chichester, England, McGill University; Ciaran Breen, Victoria, Cowichan RFC; Jack Carson, Victoria, UBC Thunderbirds; Matthew Percillier, Victoria, UBC Thunderbirds; Brennig Prevost, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers; Josiah Morra, Toronto, Toronto Saracens; Andrew Coe, Markham, Ont., Markham Irish RFC; Elias Ergas, Vancouver, UBC Thunderbirds; Anton Ngongo, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers.
Olivia Apps, Lindsay, Ont., Lindsay RFC; Fancy Bermudez-Chavez, Edmonton, Nor'Wester Athletic Association; Emma Chown, Barrie, Ont., Aurora Barbarians; Alysha Corrigan, Charlottetown, CRFC/Saracens; Chloe Daniels, Sutton, Ont.; RC Academy/Queen's University; Olivia De Couvreur, Ottawa, Ottawa Irish; Renee Gonzalez, Toronto, UVIC; Asia Hogan-Rochester, Toronto, unattached; Breanne Nicholas, Blenheim, Ont., London St. Georges; Arielle Normandin-Leclerc, Montreal, Town of Mount Royal Rugby; Ella O'Regan, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers/UVIC; Temitope Ogunjimi, Calgary, Calgary Hornets RFC; Sabrina Poulin, Saint-George de Beauce, Que., Town of Mount Royal Rugby.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2021.