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After rough season, Canadian men look to last-chance Olympic rugby sevens qualifier

Not much has gone right for the Canadian men's rugby sevens team this season.
Canada's Phil Berna is tackled by Jamaica's Nic Franklyn during men's rugby action at the Rugby Sevens Paris 2024 Olympic qualification event at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C., on Saturday, August 19, 2023. Not much has gone right for the Canadian men’s rugby sevens team in a season that has seen Canada relegated from the elite HSBC SVNS circuit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Not much has gone right for the Canadian men's rugby sevens team this season.

Relegated from the elite HSBC SVNS series earlier this month in Madrid after a 3-36-0 campaign that ended with 29 straight losses, Canada will now have to battle other second-tier sides to reclaim its spot among the world's top 12 teams.

The Canadian men, who finished eighth at the Tokyo Olympics, have been a core team on the top sevens circuit since 2012-13 and lifted the trophy in Singapore in 2017.

But the campaign is not over. The men have one last shot at joining Canada's women at next month's Paris Olympics via the World Rugby Sevens Repechage tournament, which starts Friday in Monaco.

It won't be easy. Twelve teams are chasing one Olympic berth and the Monaco men's field includes No. 7 South Africa, No. 8 Britain and No. 10 Spain from the HSBC SVNS circuit.

Britain won silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics and finished fourth at the Tokyo Games.

South Africa collected bronze in Rio and has three World Series season titles while finishing runner-up nine times. The Blitzboks also won this season's opening event in Dubai.

Host Spain delivered the final blow in Canada's relegation battle in Madrid, defeating the 12th-ranked Canadians 22-14 on June 3.

Rugby Canada, with "assistance from funding partners," has been able to keep the men in Europe since then. Bolstered by some extra players and coaches, they prepared in scenic Roquebillière, about an hour north of Nice, before travelling by train Wednesday to Monaco.

"The mood of the team is good," said Canada captain Phil Berna. "We picked ourselves up. It was a bit of a downer — the results in Madrid — but having that two-week camp and all the guys spending a lot time together, just really bonding, was good for us."

Canada has taken part in the Monaco qualifier before, beaten 14-12 by Russia in the 2016 repechage quarterfinals.

Canada opens Pool B Friday against Uganda before facing China and Britain on Saturday. The top two from each of the three groups plus the two best third-place finishers will move on to the quarterfinals.

The Canadian men’s last win was Dec. 10 in Cape Town — a 33-17 victory over France to finish seventh on the season’s second stop. Canada placed last in the other six events, going winless in Dubai, Perth, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Madrid produced for more losses in the relegation bracket.

The relegation fight was a product of the sevens circuit reducing the number of men’s teams to 12 from 16 to align with the women’s competition and the Olympic field.

"Once you reduced the number of teams, obviously the level of competition just goes up, so there's a bit of that" said Berna. "We had good performances in Cape Town and then just a bunch of close calls and moral victories throughout the year, but no actual wins."

"Coming down to the end of the year … it felt like it came down to the demands of the Series being a bit much for the team," he added. "We weren't able to manage (the) load. We had a bunch of injuries."

The positive was a new crop of young players was blooded.

"But it was a tough place to learn for those guys," said Berna, whose season was disrupted by a "slight knee" and hamstring injuries.

The Canada men survived a four-team World Series relegation playoff last year, defeating Kenya 12-7 in London in the final on a last-minute Alex Russell try to preserve its core status.

The 28-year-old Berna, who made his World Series debut in New Zealand in 2016, is pondering his playing future.

"It's been a long career for me being centralized (with the team) and the amount of work for the amount of pay that I've put in, it's time to move on a little bit. But I'm always open to coming in for a few camps and competing if the timelines line up. It might be a brief hiatus but not closing the door by any means," said Berna, who is finishing up a degree in business administration at Royal Roads University.

Canada will be boosted in Monaco by the return of Alex Russell, Ethan Hager and Henry Kirwan. The squad also include Jack Carson, winner of the 2024 HSBC SVNS Men’s Try of the Series award for a highlight-reel score against Argentina in Vancouver with assistance in the buildup from Kal Sager and Berna, with a remarkable off-load while face-down after a tackle.

The Paris men's field already includes host France plus New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji and Australia, who booked their ticket by finishing in the top four of the HSBC SVNS series this season. They are joined by six regional qualification tournament winners: Uruguay (South America), Ireland (Europe), United States (North America), Kenya (Africa), Samoa (Oceania) and Japan (Asia).

The Americans beat Canada 24-14 in the final of the Rugby Americas North (RAN) Sevens last August in Langford, B.C. The Canadian women thumped Mexico 53-0 in their final to qualify for Paris.

Canada Roster

Phil Berna, Vancouver, Vancouver Rowing Club; Alex Russell, Chichester, England, McGill University; Josiah Morra, Toronto, Toronto Saracens; Cooper Coats, Halifax, Halifax Tars; Ethan Hager, Brantford, Ont., Brantford Harlequins; Matthew Oworu, Calgary, Pacific Pride; Thomas Isherwood, Okotoks, Alta., Foothills Lions RFC; Henry Kirwan, Brighton, England, Cardiff Metropolitan University; Kal Sager, Peterborough, Ont., Trent University; Elias Hancock, Ottawa, University of Ottawa; Noah Flesch, Cobourg, Ont., Pacific Pride; Jack Carson, Victoria, UBC.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press