TORONTO — The stars are coming out for the Las Vegas Sevens.
Fly half Quade Cooper, a veteran of 58 tests for the Wallabies, has joined the Australian team while South Africa speedster Bryan Habana, who has 64 tries in 117 test appearances, has been drafted into the Blitzboks side, along with fellow Springbok Ryan Kankowski. Veteran forward Liam Messam returns to the New Zealand sevens squad, joining fellow All Black Sonny Bill Williams.
The Las Vegas tournament, the fifth stop on the 10-event the HSBC Sevens World Series, runs Thursday through Sunday at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Canadian sevens coach Liam Middleton expects to see more big names from the 15-man game as the Olympics draw near. And while Rio marks the Olympic debut of rugby sevens, he believes the crossover won't stop there.
"I think we're going to see more and more of it in the sevens game," Middleton said. "Its appeal as a sport, as a rugby game is increasing massively .... I think it's great for the game because it shows that sevens is not a feeder game for the 15s any more. Worldwide it's now a stand-alone sport that holds a lot of credibility and holds a lot of respect."
Canadian fans will get to see some of those crossover stars in Vancouver when the World Series makes its debut in Canada on March 12-13. Organizers have already pronounced a sellout with 56,000 tickets purchased over the two days at B.C. Place stadium.
Middleton believes the transition to sevens is no cake-walk.
"There's a challenge there ... because it's not an easy game to adapt to. I'll be interested to see how those guys do," said the Zimbabwe native. "But we certainly feel as a squad that the experience of being a sevens player day-in day-out holds some value and some advantages."
Canada, which placed ninth in the overall standings last season, ranks 12th so far this season and is coming off a season best-performance in Australia where it won the Bowl title to finish ninth.
"I think we're in a good place," Middleton said. "Physically we're the best we've ever been ... And we feel our technical tactical game is really strong."
Canada leads the circuit in kickoffs and ranks in the top four in tackle effectiveness and breakdown effectiveness, according to World Rugby statistics.
"We take confidence from the fact that a lot of the bits and pieces are really good. And it's really just about putting them all together," Middleton said.
The Canadians may also benefit by playing on the artificial turf in Las Vegas. They are one of the few teams who regularly train on it.
Canada has been drawn in Pool D along with the U.S., which stands seventh in the standings, as well as No. 2 South Africa and No. 13 Wales. The goal is to finish in the top two in the group to advance to the elite Cup quarter-finals.
Canada has yet to play the Americans or South Africans this season but is 20-16-0 and 5-32-0, respectively, against them all-time. Canada is 1-1 against Wales twice this season and 13-23-1 all-time.
Las Vegas marks a milestone for Phil Mack, who becomes just the 29th player to appear at 50 tournaments on the circuit. The 30-year-old from Victoria made his series debut in Hong Kong in 2005.
"A huge milestone for a fantastic player," said Middleton.
Mack has 956 career points and is looking to become the 13th player in series history to reach the 1,000-point plateau.
Sean Duke, Conor Trainor and Justin Douglas are back from injury in the Canadian lineup.
Admir Cejvanovic, Burnaby Lake RFC, Burnaby, B.C.; Justin Douglas, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Sean Duke, unattached, Vancouver; Mike Fuailefau, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Lucas Hammond, Toronto Nomads, Toronto; Nathan Hirayama, UVIC Vikes, Richmond, B.C.; Harry Jones, Capilano RFC, West Vancouver; Pat Kay, unattached, 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