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Rugby sevens coach hits the ground running ahead of debut with Canada in Dubai

12/04/2014 12:30 EST | Updated 02/03/2015 05:59 EST
It's been a whirlwind start for Liam Middleton as coach of the Canadian men's rugby sevens side.

Appointed in late September, the Zimbabwe-born coach didn't make it to Victoria until two weeks ago because of immigration red tape.

Essentially Middleton had a week to work with his players on the West Coast before flying out to Dubai for Friday's start of the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, the second stop on the HSBC Sevens World Series.

"It did mean I got some sessions in with the guys and we've had a couple here in Dubai so far," said Middleton, taking the glass half-full view. "I think it was probably enough time to get integrated in the squad. Any less would have been a little bit of a challenge.

"But I'm happy with a week with the guys. A bit more would have been nice. It was just good to get there and get to these tournaments."

After Dubai, the teams head to South Africa for a Dec. 13-14 tournament.

Middleton previously served as the Zimbabwe sevens coach and director of rugby at the Zimbabwe Rugby Union. He also coached in England with second-tier Bristol and Hartpury College.

The 37-year-old Middleton has big shoes to fill.

Canada had a breakthrough season in 2013-14 when it finished sixth on the circuit under Welsh coach Geraint John, who subsequently quit to take over the Australian sevens program. Under John, Canada reached the final in Glasgow and placed third in Las Vegas.

The stakes are raised this season with the top four teams earning automatic qualification for the 2016 Olympics, where rugby sevens makes its debut.

Should Canada not crack the top four, it still has two more chances to make the 12-team Olympic field. One team will qualify from a North American and Caribbean regional tournament with another coming out of a last-ditch 16-team world playoff.

Middleton missed the first event of the season in Australia in October when Canada placed 13th in the absence of the injured Nanyak Dala, Nathan Hirayama, Phil Mack, Mike Scholz and Sean White. Canada went 0-3-0 in its pool but the losses were all by small margins: 17-15 to the U.S., 14-12 to Argentina and 19-12 to England.

Middleton also has to contend with injuries in Dubai. Dala (facial injury), Hirayama (shoulder), Harry Jones (groin) and Liam Underwood (concussion) are all out while Ciaran Hearn is being rested after the November 15-man tour.

"We'll be in a similar boat," he said of his roster. "But I don't think it's a bad thing for us to try and open up our squad a little bit as we build over the next couple of years."

Canada, which is in a challenging pool with South Africa, Wales and Portugal, features five players who have never played in Dubai before.

On the plus side, the speedy Mack is back in the sevens squad.

"He's a phenomenal rugby player. A phenomenal sevens player," said Middleton, who has been to the Dubai event seven times. "He's added a fair bit of leadership and he's also give us some creativity in the midfield which we need. Particularly with Harry Jones not being in the squad with us."

While Middleton travels to Dubai and South Africa, wife Sarah and sons Struan (two) and Ethan (nine months) will be settling in the Victoria area with Langford, home to Rugby Canada's Centre of Excellence, their likely final settling point.

So far he likes what he sees.

"I think it's fantastic. The scenery is phenomenal and we've felt very welcome in the Langford area."

Canada Roster

Admir Cejvanovic, Burnaby Lake RFC, Vancouver; Justin Douglas, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Sean Duke, UVIC Vikes, Vancouver; Mike Fuailefau, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Lucas Hammond, Toronto Nomads, Toronto; Pat Kay, UVIC Vikes, Duncan, B.C.; Phil Mack, James Bay AA, Victoria; John Moonlight (capt.), James Bay AA, Pickering, Ont.; Jack Smith, James Bay AA, Lakefield, Ont.; Conor Trainor, UBCOB Ravens, Vancouver; Sean White, James Bay AA; Victoria; Adam Zaruba, Capilano RFC, Vancouver.

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