Canada head coach Damian McGrath speaks during a news conference in Vancouver, Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Canada rugby sevens men open play in Las Vegas with one eye on Vancouver

The Canadians stand 11th after four events on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series

The Canadian men’s rugby sevens team opens play at the USA Sevens on Friday, looking to avoid injury while building momentum for the Vancouver stop that follows a week later.

Coach Damian McGrath is already without speedster Justin Douglas (concussion) and Lucas Hammond (ankle). Pat Kay, who scored a highlight-reel try off a restart against the U.S., at the last stop in Sydney, Australia, may not be able to go because of a turned ankle.

On the plus side, veteran Harry Jones is back from a shoulder injury that has sidelined him since the Rugby World Cup Sevens in July 2018. Admir Cejvanovic also returns to the lineup.

The Canadians, who stand 11th after four events on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, take on No. 8 Spain and No. 1 New Zealand at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday before completing pool play Saturday against No. 10 Samoa. The tournament wraps up Sunday.

New Zealand tops the standings after winning two events and finishing third in another.

On their day, the Canadian men can beat anyone. McGrath is confident they can take down Spain and Samoa.

“We can beat those teams,” said McGrath, an Englishman who once coached Samoa.

But he knows sides like Spain have benefited from financial resources that have allowed them to arrive in advance of tournaments to acclimatize, as well as extra training camps.

Canada’s goal is to finish in the top two in Pool A to reach the Cup quarterfinals. That means more points in the standings and a better chance at a favourable draw for Vancouver March 9-10.

The annual stop at B.C. Place Stadium is the sport’s biggest showcase on Canadian soil, drawing a festive crowd often in fancy dress and always in a mood to party. For Canadian players used to having to travel the globe to ply their trade, it’s a rare chance to showcase their skills in front of friends and family.

“For the players, it’s the big one,” said McGrath.

It’s also a much-needed money-maker for Rugby Canada. The two-day Vancouver event has drawn a total of 213,630 spectators in its three years on the circuit.

So far this season, the Canadian men have tied for 11th in Dubai, Cape Town and Sydney. They tied for seventh in Hamilton, New Zealand.

A two-month labour dispute ahead of the season did little for the team’s preparation. More recently, inclement weather has made Langford, B.C., a less than hospitable training base.

While he needs the bodies, McGrath is not about to rush any players back from injury. He knows that can only make things worse if the injury is reaggravated.

“The Olympic qualifier in July is where we need all our stars on deck,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize later in the season.”

The top four finishers at the end of the 2018-19 World Series secure automatic qualification to the 12-team field at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Host Japan also qualifies automatically, leaving seven other spots to be decided by regional qualifiers followed by a world repechage.

Canada is in the unaccustomed position of cheering on the U.S., knowing that automatic qualification for the Americans — who currently stand second — increases its chances of making the Olympics.

Canada lost 21-5 to the U.S. in the NACRA Sevens Cup final in the leadup to the 2016 Rio Olympics. It was then beaten 14-12 to Russia in the quarterfinals of a last-ditch qualifying tournament eventually won by Spain.

Douglas has been sidelined by what the team initially thought was an “innocuous bang on the head” in Hamilton in late January. It has sadly proved to be far more serious with Douglas suffering from severe headaches and vision problems.

“It gives you an indication of how serious concussion can be,” said McGrath.

Douglas is not expected back until Hong Kong in April, at the earliest.

It’s a huge blow to the Canadian team. Douglas, Canada’s all-time tries leader, is a game-breaker with blistering speed.

Injuries present opportunities, however. Given their chance, Cole Davis and Jake Thiel have both impressed.

Canada Roster

Phil Berna, UBC Thunderbirds, Vancouver; Connor Braid, James Bay AA, Victoria; Admir Cejvanovic, Burnaby Lake RFC, Burnaby, B.C.; Cole Davis, Calgary Saints, Calgary; Mike Fuailefau, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Nathan Hirayama (capt.), unattached (Richmond, B.C.; Harry Jones, Capilano RFC, North Vancouver; Isaac Kaay, UVIC Vikes, Kamloops, B.C.; Pat Kay, Castaway Wanderers, Duncan, B.C.; Luke McCloskey, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Matt Mullins, James Bay AA, Belleville, Ont.; Jake Thiel, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Adam Zaruba, Capilano RFC, North Vancouver.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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