Canada rugby sevens coach sees positives but looks for more consistency

Rugby sevens coach looks for more consistency

New Canada coach Damian McGrath promised himself he would take stock of his resources on and off the field over the first two stops of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

What he saw in 13th-place finishes in Dubai and Cape Town ran the gamut.

“There were lots of really positive things,” the English native said. “In terms of performance on the field, some things that gave me great hope and other things where the inconsistencies of previous times are obviously still there. So it’s a lot to work on.

“I think the thing that’s hit me most of all is that we lack strength in depth. That’s got to be our priority in the next 12 months.”

Canada went 2-3-1 in Dubai and 2-4-0 in Cape Town.

McGrath will get another look at his squad in action this weekend in Wellington and Feb. 4-5 in Sydney.

John Moonlight gives way as captain to Harry Jones in New Zealand and Nate Hirayama in Australia. Moonlight, who appeared in his 50th Series event in Cape Town, is on the roster but temporarily steps down as skipper because he missed several weeks training with the team due to his preparations to become a fire fighter.

“He’s too important a player to do without,” McGrath said. “I’m really pleased that John’s going to be available.” 

Injuries have not helped the cause with three players going down during one ill-fated passage of play in a 43-14 loss to Argentina in Cape Town.

Phil Berna subsequently required arm surgery while Liam Underwood remains out after aggravating a shoulder injury. Pat Kay hurt his hand but has since recovered.

Canada will face Wales, Scotland and Russia in Pool D in Wellington where Isaac Kaay gets his first senior call-up. This season Canada is 1-0 against Russia, 0-1 against Wales and has yet to face Scotland.

The Canadian men are 13-30-1 all-time against Wales, 11-16 against Scotland and 16-8 against Russia.

“We got a couple of tough draws in the previous two legs. Nothing’s ever easy but I’m hoping that gives us a fighting chance of maybe grabbing a quarter-final place,” McGrath said of his Wellington pool.

In the first two Series stops, Canada dug itself some deep holes and mounted some stirring comebacks.

McGrath says the mistakes can be fixed. And he took some of the blame, saying because of his short time with the team he had not focused on set pieces.

Retaining or winning the ball at kickoffs — a key skill in sevens where ball possession is all-important — had been a strength last season. But the Canadians had their problems right out of the gate.

“Our kickoffs were awful for one reason or another … That was our big Achilles heel throughout the whole two weeks of competition — our inability to get our hands on the ball for a period of time,” the coach said. “When we did, we scored some good tries. When we didn’t, we chased around and suffered for it.

Against France in Cape Town, McGrath estimated it was 6 1/2 minutes before his team touched the ball. Canada trailed 28-0 going into the half and subsequently lost 42-14.

“We never lose, we always learn. And we learned a valuable lesson in several things,” McGrath said of the first two stops. “So I’m confident that if we can get those little things right, it will put us back on an even keel.

“We showed against New Zealand and Fiji at different times we can match with the big boys and have success. We need that consistency in our play.”

Against Olympic champion Fiji in Dubai, Canada reeled off 19 straight points after falling behind 19-0, only to lose 26-19 on a last-ditch try by the Pacific Islanders.

In Cape Town, Canada rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie New Zealand 19-19 on a late Justin Douglas try. The All Blacks did not help themselves, with some poor ball handling at the close as they seemed destined for a go-ahead score.

“Those things give me a lot of hope for the future,” said McGrath, who nevertheless hopes his team won’t make life so difficult on itself in Wellington and Sydney.

The Canadian coach also savoured a 26-24 win over Samoa, the team that fired him last year. In that game, Canada rallied from a 17-0 hole to win on a late Kay try.

 

Canada

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; Caleb Jordan, Montreal Wanderers, Montreal; Isaac Kaay, UVic Vikes, Kamloops, B.C.; Pat Kay, Castaway Wanderers, Duncan, B.C.; Karsten Leitner, UBC Thunderbirds, Vancouver; Luke McCloskey, Castaway Wanderers, Victoria; John Moonlight, James Bay AA, Pickering, Ont.; Matt Mullins, Queen’s University, Belleville, Ont.; Adam Zaruba, Capilano RFC, Vancouver.

 

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press