VANCOUVER — The Canadian rugby sevens team is of two minds these days.
While the players want to do well in front of their home fans when the HSBC World Sevens Series visits Canada for the first time this weekend, they also have one eye on an even bigger prize.
“I think the highlights for us this year are this tournament and getting to the Olympics,” said head coach Liam Middleton. ”Those are two major tournaments. They’re two things we want to peak at.
“It’s the elephant in the room. We want to do well here because it’s short-term. But long-term we really want to get to the Olympics.”
Canada has one last chance to qualify for the Rio Games at a winner-take-all event in Monaco in June, but captain John Moonlight said playing well over the last five World Series events, including Saturday and Sunday at B.C. Place Stadium, will go a long way in determining their Olympic fate.
“Rio’s there, but we’ve got to focus on this tournament,” he said at Wednesday’s opening press conference. ”We’ve got to do the best we can here and the best we can when we go to Singapore and Hong Kong and all the way along. If we do that, things are going to go right for us in June.”
Canada finished a disappointing 14th out of 16 teams last weekend in Las Vegas, including a 24-12 loss to Samoa, a side that Middleton’s men could face with that final Olympic spot on the line in a few months. Samoa is currently ranked 11th in the World Series standings, while Canada sits 12th.
“We were just on the edge of doing something great (in Las Vegas),” said Middleton. ”The margins are tiny. We didn’t take the opportunities that came to us.”
The fast-paced seven-on-seven version of rugby is played on a regulation pitch, but games include two seven-minute halves with a one-minute break. It can also be an all-day event for fans — the first of Saturday’s 24 matches kicks off at 9:30 a.m. local time, with the day’s final game set to start just before 7:30 p.m. Sunday will see another 21 matches, including the final.
Canada, which won gold at last summer’s Pan Am Games in Toronto, has been drawn into Pool B this weekend with No. 4 Australia, No. 13 Wales and No. 15 Russia.
Top-ranked Fiji is in Pool A with Kenya, Samoa and Portugal, while Pool C features South Africa, Argentina, Scotland and Brazil. Pool D includes New Zealand, the U.S., France and England.
With more than 30,000 fans expected both days at B.C. Place, Moonlight said his teammates are excited to perform in front of the Canadian crowd.
“There’s a lot of guys whose families have never seen us play on the world stage,” said Moonlight. ”It’s an opportunity to show everyone what we do all over the world.”
Following last weekend’s setback, Canada has one win and two losses in three meetings with the Samoans over the season’s first five World Series events, and Middleton is keen to see his players get a few more cracks at them — possibly in Vancouver — ahead of what could be an Olympic showdown.
“Our goal is to get a consistent win over Samoa to really get that dominant scenario before we go into that qualifier,” said Middleton, pounding his fist into his hand. “Each tournament throws that opportunity. We want to meet Samoa, we want to play them so we can get on top of them.”
Note: Along with Canada and Samoa, the final Olympic qualifying tournament in Monaco will include Chile, Germany, Ireland, Hong Kong, Mexico, Morocco, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Tunisia, Uruguay and Zimbabwe. … Canada’s women’s sevens team, which also won Pan Am gold last summer, has already qualified for Rio.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
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