VANCOUVER — It was a small first step but the Canadian men began the journey toward the 2024 Paris Olympics with a sixth-place finish Sunday at the World Rugby Sevens Series in Vancouver.
Canada led 7-5 at halftime before allowing 21 straight points in a 26-7 loss to the U.S. in the fifth-place playoff.
Head coach Henry Paul saw positives from a team that dressed nine young players making their first appearance at a World Sevens Series tournament.
“We had a lot of fight in the game," said Paul. “We have taken a lot of big steps over the weekend.
“We have guys that adjusted to the game. They responded as a group and individually. I’m really happy.”
South Africa beat Kenya 38-5 in the gold-medal game. Britain defeated Ireland 24-14 to finish third.
The Canadian women crushed Mexico 48-0 to finish third in the four-team Fast Four tournament. Britain downed the U.S. 34-12 in the final.
Women’s coach Kelly Russell said the tournament was a learning experience for her young team.
“I’m really proud of the effort of all the team,” said Russell, a member of the Canadian team that won bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“Every game we learned something, and we bettered ourselves. Just the consistency to have better moments strung together.”
Sabrina Poulin of St-Georges de Beauce, Que., and Alysha Corrigan of Charlottetown, P.E.I., led Canada with two tries each. Emma Chown of Barrie, Ont., Oliva Apps of Victoria, Nakisa Levale of Abbotsford, B.C., and Chloe Daniels of Sutton, Ont., also scored.
Mexico was outscored 231-0 in five games.
The Canadian women fell 22-12 to the U.S. and 19-5 to Britain before defeating Mexico 39-0 on Saturday. They again lost 22-12 to the U.S. in Sunday’s semifinal.
The Canadian men fell behind early in their match against the U.S. but took the lead on a try by Jack Carson of Victoria. The Americans then dominated the second half.
“Possession killed us,” said Paul. “Their size wore us down but there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the guys.”
Captain Phil Berna praised the performances of players like Carson, Matthew Percillier of Victoria and Elias Ergas of North Vancouver, B.C.
“I think we have a good foundation,” said Berna. “It’s exciting to have depth.
“We have guys at home who didn’t get selected for this tournament and I know they are champing at the bit. I think we’re looking good for 2024, which is our next big milestone.”
Several veterans including Nate Hirayama, Connor Braid, Justin Douglas and Conor Trainor all retired after the summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo where Canada finished eighth.
The men were 3-3 during the tournament and were outscored 124-107.
Canada began the day losing 31-5 to Britain in the quarterfinal, then defeated Spain 33-19. The Canadians began the tournament by beating Germany 24-5 and Chile 19-14 before losing 29-19 to the U.S. on Saturday.
Carson said the team jelled as the weekend progressed.
“It was a learning experience as a whole,” he said. “Now we know what we are capable of. We’re looking at putting it together, upping our performance and playing some better position.”
Ergas said the young players kept their composure playing in front of a hometown crowd.
“Throughout the whole tournament we made a big deal of no matter what is happening in front of us, just keep our heads up, trust our skills, our athleticism, our fitness,” he said.
U.S. coach Mike Friday said he sees Canada’s potential.
“I thought (Canada) improved significantly over the weekend with some great young talent,” he said.
Vancouver's tournament is the first HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series event since the COVID-19 pandemic halted the circuit in March of 2020.
Pandemic concerns limited attendance at BC Place Stadium at around 13,500 in the lower bowl, but fans in the stands still dressed for the occasion.
A group of nuns sat near several monks. There were plenty of superheroes, furry creatures and fuzzy wigs. The Mandolin watched games with Baby Yoda on his lap.
A large white unicorn showed some surprisingly good dance moves. Pirates snacked on popcorn while several pink pigs sipped beer.
The Vancouver tournament featured only a dozen men's teams instead of the standard 16. Rugby powerhouses New Zealand, Fiji, Australia and Samoa skipped the event.
World Rugby says there will be no relegation from the 2021 Series, and results will not count toward seedings for future events.
The Canadian teams will head to Edmonton for next week's stop in the series.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2021.
Jim Morris, The Canadian Press