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Young Canadian rugby team looks to find consistency at Canada Sevens tournament

“It’s been a rebuilding year,” said team captain Jake Theil
United States’ Martin Iosefo (12) vies for the ball against Canada’s Andrew Coe, right, and Josiah Morra, back, during HSBC Canada Sevens rugby action, in Vancouver, on September 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Inconsistency has tripped up the young Canadian men’s rugby sevens squad during the first half of the season, but head coach Henry Paul is confident his team can find its legs during this weekend’s HSBC Canada Sevens rugby tournament.

“We have to stop doing the self-harm things,” Paul said after a practice at BC Place Stadium. “Some of our fundamentals in the sevens game is letting us down. It’s less what other teams are doing. We’ve got to fix what we want to do.”

Co-captains Nate Hirayama and Harry Jones, along Justin Douglas and Connor Braid, are among the 10 veterans who retired from the sevens team that finished eighth at the Tokyo Olympics.

Established players like captain Phil Berna and Jake Theil remain, but this year’s team has been stocked with young faces like Brenning Prevost of Victoria, Elias Ergas of Vancouver and Calgary’s Matthew Oworu.

“It’s been a rebuilding year,” said Theil. “Any time when you have the full team switching over it’s going to be a bit of a tough adjustment.

“It’s difficult, it’s had its ups and downs. Each tournament we kind of build on. Hopefully this is where we’re going to hit our peak. We’re going to be really good in year or two. We just need time to grow.”

The Canadian men have 24 points in five tournaments this year, leaving them tied for 13th place with Wales among the 19 teams competing in the World Rugby Sevens Series.

Canada’s best result was losing in the quarterfinals of the tournament in Malaga, Spain. In the following two tournaments in Seville and last week in Singapore, Canada won just one of 11 games.

Paul said the team has showed flashes of its potential.

“Endeavour and effort I can’t fault,” said the native of Tokora, New Zealand, who played internationally for both New Zealand and England. “We’ve been in most games with a score or less to go with time just expiring and we just do something a little bit silly, a little bit dumb.

“We’re trying to learn from those moments.”

Berna said experience will eliminate some of the mistakes.

“That comes with having a young team,” he said. “We’ve been in this position before.

“Consistency has always been something we’ve been striving for. We’re a bit rough around the edges but (there’s been) a lot of positive moments.”

Another positive step for the team is former Canadian international Sean White being named an assistant coach.

“We haven’t done a really good job of growing Canadian coaches and Canadian rugby is strong,” said Thiel, who missed the Singapore tournament is a leg injury. “We need to start growing the coaches along with the players.

“The thing Sean brings is he’s been around and he knows these young players. Sean will back anybody and he wants to give these kids a shot.”

The tournament, being held Saturday and Sunday at BC Place, will see 16 teams in action including South Africa, which leads the standings with 98 points after winning the first four tournaments.

Australia and Argentina, tied for second with 83 points; the U.S. and Olympic gold medallists Fiji will also compete.

The teams are divided into four pools. Canada is slotted into a challenging group that includes South Africa, Australia and Spain, currently ranked ninth in the standings.

Paul said his team won’t be intimidated.

“We want to be making the quarterfinals,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult. We’re under no illusions … but I think we’re up to the challenge.”

Due to the pandemic, the 2021 men’s season was reduced to two events — in Vancouver and Edmonton in September — with several top teams unable to compete due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions.

South Africa won both tournaments, with Canada finishing sixth and fourth.

Of the 13 players selected to this weekend’s roster, nine were either born in B.C. or play rugby on the West Coast.

Berna said playing in Vancouver, in front of friends and family, will be an advantage.

“It’s always a tournament that provides the boys a lot of energy,” he said. “We just hope it all clicks this weekend. With the fans behind us, I’m optimistic that it will.”

The tournament comes not long after an independent review into Rugby Canada’s high-performance programs painted a damning picture of a dysfunctional organization at odds with its athletes, staff and supporters.

Thiel said the report is a chance for Rugby Canada to move forward.

“Someone needs to lead the pack,” he said. “This new generation of player has accepted that role. It’s never easy to stand up and demand change, but that’s what we have done.

“We’ve let our voices be heard and are trying affect positive change, which I think is coming.”

– Jim Morris, The Canadian Press