Canadian men ready for World Rugby Sevens Series relegation playoff in London
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The Canadian men made their HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series debut in 1999-2000 and this weekend’s season-closing tournament in London marks their 190th on the circuit.
It could also be their last for quite a while.
Canada is fighting for its World Series future, embroiled in a relegation playoff with Kenya, Tonga and Uruguay with only one retaining its status as a core team next season.
That’s because the World Series is reducing the number of men’s teams to 12 from 16 next season to align with the women’s competition and the Olympic field.
Japan, the 15th-place team in the standings, was relegated after last weekend’s tournament in Toulouse, France. No. 12 Uruguay. No 13 Kenya and No. 14 Canada will join Tonga, winner of the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series, in a round-robin relegation playoff as part of the season-ending HSBC London 7s.
The playoff winner will become the 12th core team on the 2024 Series, while the other three teams will have to enter their respective regional sevens championships in order to qualify for the 2024 Challenger Series and climb their way back to the elite competition.
While the stakes are high, the Canadian team is focusing on the immediate challenge.
“We’re really not trying to look forward past this weekend … We’ll count the chips wherever they land, at the end of the weekend,” said Canada interim coach Sean White. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve got three games this weekend to take care of. And if we can handle our business, we’ll have a fourth (the playoff final).”
Missing out on the World Series would be catastrophic, vastly increasing the degree of difficulty of qualifying for the Olympics. It would also make the sevens squad a less desirable landing spot for athletes at a time when Rugby Canada has facilitated players moving between the sevens and 15s game to increase its depth and provide more game opportunities.
The plus for the Canadian men is they arrive at Twickenham on a high from finishing a season-best fourth in Toulouse.
“I don’t think the attitude or preparation changes much from where we were leading into Toulouse,” said White. “We want to focus on … what we can control. I think the benefit of getting that payout, coming fourth, is we’re quite certain if we can do that again, we’ll have a very similar result.”
The Canadians’ previous best this season was a 10th in the opening event in Hong Kong. They then finished 11th, 14th (five times) and tied for 15th (twice) and come to London with an 18-39 record on the season.
The Canadian men have been rebuilding in the wake of a mass exodus following the Tokyo Olympics. And this season started with some turmoil with coach Henry Paul stepping down in late November after the season opener. White, a former Canadian sevens and 15s international, took over.
Canada opens against Kenya and Uruguay on Saturday before facing Tonga on Sunday. The top two teams in the playoff will then meet in a high-profile spot on the schedule — between the cup final and bronze-medal match.
White will be without Elias Hancock, who had to return home after needing hospital treatment for a nasty cut on his thumb. Brennig Prevost and Elias Ergas have been brought in as replacements
Canada is 29-24-1 all-time against Kenya, including 3-4-0 this season. The Kenyans, led by former Canada coach Damian McGrath, lost 33-7 to the Canadians in Toulouse.
The Canadians have won all 10 previous meetings with Uruguay, including a 26-0 victory in Toulouse. But Uruguay has had some highlights in his first season as a core team in the World Series, qualifying for the cup quarterfinals twice.
Canada has a 9-6-0 career edge over Tonga but lost 35-14 the only time they met previously this season, in Sydney in January.
The Canadian men’s record on the Series is 434-579-18.
They have only ever won one tournament on the circuit, defeating the U.S. 26-19 in 2017 to hoist the cup in Singapore. Their first-ever cup final appearance was a loss to New Zealand at the 2014 Glasgow Sevens.
Kenya has taken part in 173 tournaments, compared to 44 for Tonga and 33 for Uruguay.
Uruguay went into Toulouse in 11th spot with a slender one-point advantage over Spain. But the Spanish emerged from France with seven points, two more than the South Americans, to escape the relegation playoff.
Uruguay ended up 12th with 54 points, ahead of Kenya (40), Canada (39) and Japan (18).
There is other business to be settled in London, even though New Zealand has already clinched the World Series title and No. 2 Argentina and No. 4 Fiji have joined the All Blacks in qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics by virtue of guaranteeing themselves a top-four finish on the season.
With Olympic host France in third place in the standings, the battle for the final automatic Olympic berth will come down to No. 5 Australia (125 points), No. 6 Samoa (116) and No. 7 South Africa (116).
New Zealand has won five of the last six tournaments, with Argentina interrupting that run by lifting the cup in Vancouver in March. Australia, Samoa and South Africa have also won this season.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2023.