(Via Patrick Johnson at The Province)
Canada’s first-ever tournament win last month in Singapore has them playing an unfamiliar role this week in Paris: they’re the guys with the targets on their back.
“I”m looking to see how we deal with it,” Canadian coach Damian McGrath says of being on the summit.
He’s realistic: other than South Africa, no team has gone back-to-back as tournament winner this season on the HSBC World Sevens Series.
So in many ways, there’s no pressure at all. The only pressure, McGrath likes to think, is what they place on themselves.
In Singapore, the Canadians played to their strengths and found ultimate success. The loss to Fiji at the end of pool play was a good lesson, one which players and coach noted in the final’s aftermath.
“One of the things we’ve done well is stuck our plan,” McGrath said. “(Against Fiji) we got loose and paid the price.
“Nate (Hirayama) said later that night ‘it’s a wakeup call.’ That gave us a steely determination to get the job done game by game on the Sunday.”
As they have all season, the Canadians were effective on attack on the Sunday. They overwhelmed the Kiwis in the quarters, worked very hard to come back and then sprint past the English in the semis and then in the final, they blitzed the Americans early, held on in the second half and found a late winner to take the cup.
“We have an ability to get hold of the ball and use it till we’re done with it,” McGrath said. That ability to make the most of their possession plays well into their overall game — i.e. play as little defence as necessary. Make the other team do all the hard work.
And for much of the season, McGrath has been brutally honest about his side’s depth. He’s got plenty of athletes, but beyond the 8 or 9 true veterans at his disposal, McGrath is dealing with a lot of inexperience.
— ST Sports Desk (@STsportsdesk) April 16, 2017
Canada’s opening try against the Americans was scored by Matt Mullins, who’s slowly won more playing time this season, his second on the series.
“He’s a great example of a guy who when he plays to his strengths can be effective,” the coach said. Mullins is a big, powerful runner, with an impressive stride length and deceptive top-end speed as a result. “His confidence hasn’t been the highest,” McGrath said.
Mullins found his groove by keeping things simple, by running straight and running hard when he had the ball; by making himself a challenge to bring down. His teammates were impeccable in their work at the breakdown in Singapore, winning back their own ball time after time.
Another unsung hero for McGrath was Lucas Hammond, who only returned to sevens duty in January after taking time off to re-set his bearings.
“In the media, Hirayama was named the player of the tournament, but with the group, Lucas was the player of the team,” said his coach. “He’s not the quickest, he’s not the biggest but he always makes something happen.”
He might have been subbed off in the dying moments of the final with a calf strain, something he’d been fighting all weekend, but that wasn’t going to happen.
“If you’d wanted to get him off the field, you’d need a howitzer,” McGrath said.
Paris group preview
This weekend in Paris, the Canadians have a tricky group, though one on form they should still finish in the top two.
Pool favourites South Africa were untouchable through the first half of the series, winning four of five tournaments and all seven finals until Singapore, where they were upset by the Australians in the quarterfinals. They’ve been saddled with injuries over the past three tournaments and are finally at the edge of their depth. They are seeing the return of superstar Rosko Specman, though. He’s a game-changing player, ready to pull wins out of nothing.
South Africa have a series title on their mind, as they currently sit 25 points clear of second place Fiji. It’s pretty simple: if they match or finish ahead of the Fijians this weekend, they’ll have clinched the title with a tournament to spare.
“We have not started any of the eight tournaments this year looking at the log and will not do so for Paris either,” SA captain Philip Snyman told World Rugby’s official web site.
“Our mindset and attitude have been a simple one this year and we will stick to it, as it delivered the results. We have worked hard, prepared well and all want to go out there to represent our country and make ourselves and our supporters proud.
“Boring as it may sound, the focus will be nowhere else but our opening game against Scotland. We have been successful when we found early momentum and that will be our objective again.”
Scotland got off to a hot start this season, with third (in which they beat the Canadians), fourth and sixth-place finishes over the opening three tournaments on the season. But a catalogue of injuries sustained in Wellington, Sydney and Las Vegas has scuttled their season, though they did rebound some in Hong Kong and Singapore, twice playing in the ninth-place Trophy final, winning once. The two sides have been tightly matched this year, but the Canadians won the last match in Vancouver.
Japan are Canada’s opening opponents on Saturday and are likely to struggle. After a thrilling effort at the Rio Olympics, they squad was ripped apart as the Japan rugby union isn’t all that interested in sevens at the moment. Most tournaments have seen a very inexperienced squad selected, with a number of players pulled from the ranks of the Japanese second and third divisions. It would be a huge upset if the Japanese pulled off a win here.
The highlight of Canada’s squad for Paris and London is the return of Adam Zaruba to the lineup. He was dealing with a concussion and then a neck problem after the Vancouver tournament, which kept him out of selection for Hong Kong and Singapore.
The coach is, of course, delighted to have his biggest weapon back.
Mullins started in Zaruba’s customary winger spot on the Sunday, with Luke McCloskey in the role on the Saturday.
Given past deployment, Luke Bradley looks most likely to revert to the number 13 jersey, meaning he’ll only play if another player is forced to drop out of consideration during the tournament due to injury.
Squad: Luke Bradley, Jared Douglas, Justin Douglas, Mike Fuailefau, Lucas Hammond, Nathan Hirayama, Harry Jones, Isaac Kaay, Pat Kay, Luke McCloskey, John Moonlight (captain), Matt Mullins, Adam Zaruba
— Damian McGrath (@mcgrath_damian) April 16, 2017
McGrath pays tribute to ‘structures’
After the win in Singapore, McGrath took a moment to recognize the work of his coaching predecessors Liam Middleton and Geraint John.
John was in charge of the Canadian sevens squad at the beginning of centralization in 2011/12 before leaving for Australia in a shock move in 2014. Middleton, his replacement, was in charge for two seasons but was dismissed after the men failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics.
“It’s a collective effort,” McGrath said of why he sought to recognize his predecessors. “It’s about all the coaches and staff, Those people did the ground work.”
“He’s taken a lot of flack but Liam put in place a lot of the structures behind the scenes. Geraint built before him too.”
Back to back part two
It’s worth noting that McGrath is the defending Paris 7s winning coach, as the Samoans won the cup last year under his leadership.
At the time, it looked to be setting his side up as heavy favourites to claim the final spot for Rio, but of course his side lost in the final at the Monaco 7s to Spain, who won many fans for their heart-swelling performance.
The final two tournaments can be true x-factor events as many of the top squads try out younger players both by choice and because of injury challenges. Canada is in a very healthy mode, which was the key to Samoa’s win last year, McGrath noted at the time.
With the Samoans, he only took charge at the beginning of September and so he set out a plan “to peak at the end of the year.”
“People want instant results, in this day of Internet and fast food, everybody wants it now,” he said a year ago. “We knew we’d have some heartache on the way but we felt confident if we could stick to our plan, we were looking to finish strongly by this May/June time.”
There are some parallels with his current Canadian path, as he only took the reins in September. The advantage here of course was there was already a training plan in place under assistant coach Lee Douglas, though the players were behind where they wanted to be because of their contract hold out, which wasn’t resolved until just before McGrath’s arrival in Victoria.
A future for Campbell?
Finally, there was the question of CFLer Tevaughn Campbell, who trained with the team in the weeks leading up to Hong Kong and then was brought along on tour. He dressed as the 13th man both weekends but was never called upon.
With CFL training camps set to get going, he’s returned to Regina, where he’s under contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders for another season.
The trial was a success in McGrath’s eyes and he’s hopeful the speedster will be back.
“I was dying to get Tevaughn on,” he said. “But we just kept winning.”
All action at the Paris Sevens can be streamed live at worldrugby.org.