Canadian rugby sevens coach Damian McGrath identified depth as a problem in his squad early this season. Now a need for speed is on his radar.
The two are connected in a way.
McGrath has to ride his top players hard in tournaments because his reserve strength is limited. That’s dangerous in the demanding world of sevens.
“So you tend to play those 12 as much as possible and they pick up knocks that you would usually be able to rest. And we don’t have direct replacements,” he said. “It’s not a reflection on our fringe players. They’re just not at that level yet.”
Canada is without the injured Phil Berna (knee) and Adam Zaruba (neck) as it gears up for Friday’s start of the Hong Kong Sevens. If ruled fit, they could rejoin the team for the April 15-16 stop in Singapore.
That injury list is an improvement from last time out in Vancouver, where McGrath’s squad finished seventh despite losing Justin Douglas (thigh contusion) and John Moonlight (knee) for part of the tournament. Carrying knocks from the previous Las Vegas event, both aggravated the injuries in the first game in Vancouver.
And things got worse in the third game when Zaruba suffered a concussion against New Zealand. Berna kept playing despite an injured posterior cruciate ligament. Pat Kay (knee bruise) and Lucas Hammond (groin, hamstring) were also hurting.
“We were battered and bruised at the end of it all,” said McGrath.
Douglas’s speed is crucial for Canada.
“One of our big issues is that we can hold the ball and we can create opportunities â€” and then it’s ‘Look for Douglas,'” said McGrath. “Justin’s our ‘get out of jail’ card. If he’s not there or if he can’t break away, we struggle to put teams away.
“That happened against Argentina later in the tournament. We dominated possession but just didn’t have that finishing edge that England, South Africa, Fiji, New Zealand have. U.S.A. has it with (Perry) Baker and Carlin Isles.
“We’re still searching for that cutting edge and I think it we can get that and add that to the mix, it will be a big step forward.”
It’s one of the reasons that McGrath included Saskatchewan Roughrider Tevaughn Campbell in his travelling squad for Hong Kong and Singapore. The defensive back, who is only training with the team at this point, has no sevens experience but plenty of speed.
Douglas’s older brother Jared also makes the Canada squad for the first time.
The Canadian men open Friday against Kenya before playing France and Series-leading South Africa on Saturday.
Canada is 2-0 against Kenya this season, 1-1 against France and 0-3 against the Blitzboks.
It’s a big weekend for Nate Hirayama, who will be playing in his 50th World Series event, joining Moonlight and Phil Mack as the only Canadians to reach the 50 plateau. The 29-year-old Hirayama also enters the tournament tied with Mack on 973 points as Canada’s sevens points leader.
McGrath saw plenty of positives in Vancouver, especially in the hard fought 15-14 loss to New Zealand in group play.
“We’re a long way from being the finished article but I was really pleased and I’m proud of how they matched up against New Zealand,” he said. “I’ve said it before, we can’t afford to have injuries. If we can get our best players on the field, we can be a match for most teams.”
Canada, which also made the Cup quarter-finals and finished seventh in Las Vegas, currently stands 10th overall.
Luke Bradley, UVic Vikes, Port Alberni, B.C.; Jared Douglas, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Justin Douglas, Abbotsford RFC, Abbotsford, B.C.; Mike Fuailefau, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; Lucas Hammond, UVIC Vikes, Toronto; Nathan Hirayama, UVic Vikes, Richmond, B.C.; Harry Jones, Capilano RFC, Vancouver; Isaac Kaay, UVic Vikes; Kamloops, B.C.; Pat Kay, Castaway Wanderers, Duncan, B.C.; Luke McCloskey, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; John Moonlight (capt.), James Bay AA, Pickering, Ont.; Matt Mullins, Queenâ€™s University, Belleville, Ont.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press