The Canadian women’s rugby sevens team heads into the 2022 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series season with an overhauled roster and new interim coach.
Meanwhile, with 10 members of the program having retired in recent months and a handful of others sidelined by injury, the men’s squad will be learning as it goes.
Both teams are set to open a new World Series season on Friday in Dubai behind closed doors at the Sevens Stadium. It’s the first of back-to-back events there. The second event, Dec. 3-4, will welcome spectators back.
The Canadian women are in a pool with Fiji, Ireland, Britain and Russia. The Canadian men will play in a pool featuring Olympic champion Fiji, Australia and France.
Live coverage of rugby sevens action from Dubai is available on CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app starting Thursday at 11:40 p.m. ET.
It has been 663 days since the last women’s Sevens Series action, with New Zealand winning the Sydney Sevens on Feb. 2, 2020.
Due to the pandemic, the 2021 women’s season was cancelled although the Canadian women took part in two mini-events — in Vancouver and Edmonton in September — with several top teams unable to take part because of travel restrictions.
As it is, New Zealand’s men’s and women’s teams, the 2020 Series champions, and the Samoan men won’t participate in Dubai. The Canadian women finished runner-up at the last two events in Dubai.
New beginning for women
The only returnees from the Canadian Olympic team on the Dubai roster are Elissa Alarie, Olivia Apps, Pam Buisa and Breanne Nicholas, who captains the squad. Irish-born Jack Hanratty takes over as head coach.
Those four plus Emma Chown have a combined 51 World Series tournaments under their belt. The other eight will be making their debut on the circuit.
Rugby Canada says Olympic veterans Charity Williams, Keyara Wardley, Julia Greenshields and Karen Paquin were unavailable for selection, either through injury or other reasons.
Buisa, Gonzalez and Paquin were part of the recent 15s tour to Britain.
Former captain Ghislaine Landry and fellow Olympians Britt Benn, Bianca Farella, Kaili Lukan and Kayla Molesch have either retired or are taking time away from rugby.
Dubai represents a new beginning for the women’s sevens program, in the wake of a formal complaint under Rugby Canada’s bullying and harassment policy and a disappointing ninth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics.
Rugby Canada said while an independent review into the complaint concluded “the conduct described in the complaint reflected the experiences of the 37 NSW7s [national senior women’s sevens] athletes,” it was not behaviour that fell within the then-policy’s definition of harassment or bullying.
The exact nature of the allegations against former coach John Tait has not been made public. Tait called them “unfounded’ but stepped down. He is now technical director of B.C. Rugby.
“We’ve really been focusing on just giving a love back to the game,” said Hanratty. “And kind of re-starting.”
“The one thing I’ll say is I think the athletes have been really open,” he added. “With new coaches, there’s a certain element of trust that needs to be built up. Obviously they have to understand us and our philosophies and our styles of coaching and we have to understand them as athletes and how they explore the game.”
‘Everything to gain’ for men
Men’s coach Henry Paul is no stranger to Dubai, having played, coached and lived there.
“It’s a really young, exciting team,” said the New Zealand-born Paul, who represented both New Zealand and England [via his grandfather] on the international scene.
“It’s a team that’s going to make mistakes. But the nice thing is they seem to learn quickly from those mistakes.”
There are plenty of holes to fill.
Co-captains Nate Hirayama and Harry Jones as well as Justin Douglas, Connor Braid, Mike Fuailefau, Lucas Hammond, Isaac Kay, Matt Mullins, Conor Trainor and Adam Zaruba have all retired.
Captain Phil Berna, Pat Kay, Brennig Prevost, Anton Ngongo, Sion Griffiths, Matt Oworu, David Richard and Alex Russell are injured. Berna and Kay were both part of the team that finished eighth at the Tokyo Olympics.
Two promising young players, Matt Percillier and Jack Carson, have returned to university.
“I’m exited to see them play,” Paul said of his young squad. “We’ve got nothing to lose going to Dubai. We’ve [got] everything to gain, in terms of experience and exposure for these guys.”
Thiel, Coe and Theo Sauder (five events) are the only Canadian Olympians in Dubai.
Four members of the Dubai squad will be making their World Series debut. Three others have been to just one tournament, while another has been to two.
The Canadians scrimmaged against the U.S. prior to flying to Dubai.
“We made a ton of errors but it was such a good learning curve for a bunch of the young guys. [The Americans] had a ton of Olympians playing,” said Paul. “It wasn’t pretty from our side of things but in terms of growth and learning, it was huge leading into [Dubai].”
There will be a new scoring system for the 2022 season due to the pandemic, with not all teams able to take part in every event. The best seven men’s results and four women’s results for each team will contribute to their final Series standings with the number of contributing results to increase if a replacement event for Hong Kong is added.