TORONTO — Following an extensive pre-season, coach Liam Middleton hopes Canada can hit the ground running in the HSBC Sevens World Series.
The Canadian men open play Friday in Dubai with much on the line this season.
After losing 21-5 to the U.S. in June at the NACRA Sevens Cup, Canada has just one more shot at a 2016 Olympic rugby berth, via a world repechage tournament. And the 10-event men's circuit comes to Canada for the first time in March with Vancouver's B.C. Place Stadium hosting.
There is no date or venue yet for the all-important repechage other than it will follow the World Series, which wraps up in London in late May. Middleton hopes Canada can host the 16-team event.
Canada will be facing the likes of Hong Kong, Ireland, Morocco, Samoa, Tonga and Zimbabwe for the final Olympic men's berth. The Canadian women have already booked their ticket to Rio.
"It's certainly doable ... but we're also wary that we've got to prepare well throughout the year," Middleton said. "Because sevens is that very strange and random game that can bite you if you're not on your game."
Rivals are ever improving.
"The bandwidth has narrowed considerably in the last two, three years," said Middleton.
Three years ago, only half of the core teams on the world circuit were centralized with pro contracts. Now every one is as well as three — Hong Kong, Ireland and Japan — who are not core teams.
Middleton has worked his squad hard in the leadup to the season with tours to Australia and Florida.
The men placed ninth overall last season, with the Zimbabwe native watching from the sidelines at the start due to immigration red tape. Canada was sixth the previous season under Geraint John.
Middleton has made the most of a full pre-season this time around, although he did not have everyone at his disposal given eight players who took part in the Rugby World Cup need some time off.
There was a heavy emphasis on preparing physically and technically.
"With the new World Series format, with very short periods between tournaments, we knew we had to get a big bank of work done now," he said. "Because really whilst we're in the World Series we're not going to be able to make a lot of gains. We're going to be just really recovering, preparing again, competing, recovering, preparing, competing — pretty much for five months."
Middleton has also worked on expanding his player pool, to create more competition among players. He has a current depth chart of 50, with 24 he believes would be comfortable in the World Series.
"And we need to increase that to 30 by the end of the year," he said.
Managing his roster will be key if he wants to be able to field his strongest team at the repechage tournament.
On the plus side, Middleton will not have to share his talent this season with the national 15-man team given he controls all 20 carded players.
In Dubai, Canada has been drawn in a tough opening pool with defending series champion Fiji, Argentina and Japan. The Argentines placed eighth last season while Japan was 15th.
Canada's record against Fiji is just 2-39-0. But the Canadians are 13-20-1 against Argentina, including a victory in the Pan American Games gold medal match. Canada has 18 wins in 22 meetings with Japan.
John Moonlight returns to captain a 12-man Canadian roster for Dubai that has a combined 300-plus World Series caps.
Ciaran Hearn is out of sevens contention for the near future after signing with England's London Irish, although Middleton says he may be called up for later events.
Rugby Canada has also sent a secondary squad known as the Maple Leafs to play in the companion Dubai International Invitational. The team will be captained by Lucas Hammond and coached by former Canadian international Dave Moonlight, John's cousin.
After Dubai, the Canadian men head to Cape Town for the second stop on the series Dec. 12-13.
Admir Cejvanovic, Burnaby Lake RFC, Vancouver; Justin Douglas, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Sean Duke, B.C. Bears, Vancouver; Mike Fuailefau, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Nathan Hirayama, UVIC Vikes, Vancouver; Harry Jones, Capilano RFC, North Vancouver; Pat Kay, B.C. Bears, Duncan, B.C.; Phil Mack, James Bay AA, Victoria; John Moonlight (capt.), James Bay AA, Pickering, Ont.; Conor Trainor, UBCOB Ravens, Vancouver; Sean White, James Bay AA, Victoria; Adam Zaruba, Capilano RFC, Vancouver.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press