The length of the current season, the season that is about to end for the Canadian men’s rugby sevens team, is staggering.
It’s been 54 weeks since the Canadians began pre-season, head coach Damian McGrath figures.
There have been 10 tournaments on the World Rugby Sevens Series. There was a pre-season tournament in San Jose (remember that?). There was the Commonwealth Games in April, splitting up the year.
And now there’s next week’s big showcase event in San Francisco, the Rugby World Cup Sevens.
“Definitely feeling the effects of a long year, but the boys are still enjoying it,” insists captain Harry Jones. “We’ve had a couple solid weeks of training.”
“The boys are fired up for one last push in San Fran.”
McGrath managed to get through the year while leaning heavily on 14 core players. He used just 19 in all, as budget cuts imposed by a million-dollar government funding slash meant he couldn’t retain as many depth players as he would have liked.
But at the end of it all, McGrath says the dozen men he’s taking to San Francisco are just about the best he’s got.
“We’re as confident as can be,” he said Tuesday.
This year’s edition of the sevens world cup features a never-before-seen format in the shorter game: A straight take-no-prisoners knockout format. You lose once and you’re done.
The top eight teams are seeded straight into the round of 16, waiting to play a winning team from one of eight qualifying-round matches featuring the other 16 squads.
McGrath is not a fan of the schedule.
“A disappointing way to do it,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s been done for rugby reasons.”
Seeded 10th, Canada opens up against 23rd-ranked Papua New Guinea. The Canadians are heavy favourites — even the coach admits that — but the Papuans have been known in recent years to push their opposition hard.
Still, the Canadians’ style, one that sees them retain the ball better than any team on the series, wearing down their opponents in the process — and forcing more penalties out of the opposition than any other team on the series — isn’t the kind of scene in which the Papuans are likely to succeed.
If the Canadians win their opener, they’re up against Argentina in the next round. The Argentines were a Jekyll-and-Hyde squad this season on the world series, with two second-place finishes and a third place in the first five tournaments.
But injuries and players being pulled from the squad had an impact on the second half: The Argentines fell off, made a couple cup rounds before becoming mired in second-division finishes to close the year.
Consistently, though, the Canadians and the Argentines played tight, tight games. There’s plenty of reason to think the Canadians win this one.
If they do, they get the likely gift of the Fijians in the quarter-finals. (Book it, as the Fijians will face Japan or Uruguay in the round of 16.) Stranger things have happened, of course, but you have to think Fiji are the hot favourites to advance, given how their season went, finishing second on the series and having five tournament titles to their name.
The 12 Canadians who will go to San Francisco are a veteran crew: Jones, Mike Fuailefau, Isaac Kaay, Admir Cejvanovic, Nathan Hirayama, Pat Kay, Justin Douglas, Connor Braid, Matt Mullins, Luke McCloskey, Andrew Coe and Lucas Hammond.
There’s heaps of experience and heaps of talent. But is there any gas left in the tank?