02/25/2015 11:13 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT

Canadian sevens coach tackling problems as Olympic qualifier looms in June

More than halfway through the HSBC Sevens World Series, it's clear the Canadian men's rugby team will have to qualify for the Olympics the long way.

That means a June trip to Cary, N.C., for a regional qualifier and a showdown with the U.S. for the one Olympic sevens berth up for grabs in North America and the Caribbean.

The U.S. blanked Canada 20-0 in the Cup quarter-finals at the recent sevens stop in Las Vegas. After some bad breaks, the Canadians "lost their way a bit" according to coach Liam Middleton.

The Americans finished fourth at the tournament while Canada, third in Sin City last season, tied for seventh.

"The game against the U.S.A. obviously holds enormous weight, because everyone knows what's coming up, everyone knows there's an Olympic qualifier — it's us versus them," Middleton said. "But I come away from that game thinking again those are things that we can improve on. We've got a squad that's still coming together in terms of the synergies as a group."

Middleton's assessment of Las Vegas? "Up and down, but on the whole we're heading in the right direction."

Some had dreamed of an easier route to Rio, given the top four teams on the world circuit gain Olympic qualification automatically. Canada finished a surprising sixth on the circuit in 2013-14.

But injuries, a delay in replacing coach Geraint John and perhaps some flaws beneath the surface have left Canada in 13th place after five of nine events. The Americans, 13th last season, stand seventh.

The straight-shooting Middleton, who arrived in Canada in November, says the impressive results at the end of last season were misleading.

"The best way for me to describe it is it probably sugercoated things a little bit, that there was this thin layer of gold but underneath it there wasn't the structure ... I think there was very much a polished thin layer but the processes underneath were not in place. And that surprised me a little bit."

The U.S. took a different approach.

"While we were celebrating some good tournaments at the tail end of last year, with our 12, 14 players, the U.S.A. were doing pretty badly," Middleton said. "But what they were doing is they were building their structures ... They were building their house while we were celebrating on the roof."

While Middleton sees some good things south of the border, he is confident about what lies ahead.

"I'm not sitting back and going 'Wow. Can we beat them?' Absolutely we can beat them. There's no question in my mind. I think we have some strengths in our team that are unique to us, that they'll never be able to create."

Still he acknowledges there will be so much on the line in a Canada-U.S. Olympic qualifier, that it may "come down to one moment in the game that will tip it."

Canada appears headed to remain in the World Series — the lowest-ranked of the 15 teams is demoted at the end of the season, with Japan likely to go down — and is now gearing towards the Olympic qualifier and Pan American Games.

Middleton was hired last September to succeed Geraint John, who left in June to take over the Australian sevens program. Immigration red tape prevented the Zimbabwe native from arriving in Victoria until November.

Injuries have not helped his cause.

While Liam Underwood and Mike Scholz are fit again, Nanyak Dala, Justin Douglas, Ciaran Hearn, Nathan Hirayama and Phil Mack remain out. And Middleton does not expect any to be back in time for the Hong Kong event in late March.

A few may return for Glasgow and London stops in May, just ahead of the Olympic qualifier.

Middleton says Canada should not be hit this hard by injuries.

"There's a problem there," he said.

Middleton also has to share some of his players with the 15-man national squad, cutting into practice time. Top countries — including the U.S. — operate with separate sevens and 15s squads.

Should Canada be denied in North Carolina, it still has a shot at a last-chance tournament where 16 countries will contest the final place in the 12-team Olympic field.

The Canadian women, coached by John Tait, stand third midway through the season and are on course for direct Olympic qualification.


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