Another year, another Canada Sevens where the home team did a lot of things well, including a thrilling upset of Fiji and a big comeback win over Scotland, but in the end, it was a terrible performance in the weekend’s opening match against Samoa that settled the whole story.
The Canadians lost that first game, then bounced back to post wins over Fiji and Kenya, but still found themselves playing on the consolation Challenge Trophy side of the draw on Sunday.
They showed well on Sunday, first thumping Spain, then getting that fan-pleasing win over Scotland.
It all set up a final against Australia. The Australians hadn’t found themselves on this side of the draw yet this season, a statement about the usual standard that they play to.
In beating Canada in the Challenge Trophy final and earning ninth place, they showed why they usually aren’t in this spot. On the other side of the coin, the Canadians were a team who simply hit the depth wall.
Until the final, they’d managed to survive the loss of star playmaker Nathan Hirayama and big winger Adam Zaruba after day one, but their absence also wore on the group as a whole.
The Canadians had plenty of possession, forcing the Aussies into 26 tackle attempts, a high number for a Canadian opponent on the weekend, but the Aussies just did more with their own ball, scoring five tries to Canada’s three. Australia’s tries were scored by Dylan Pietsch (2), John Porch, Henry Hutchinson and Simon Kennewell. Canada’s scores were by Luke McCloskey, Isaac Kaay and captain Harry Jones, on the final play of the game.
Jones said his team had plenty of positives as they pushed themselves to their limit.
“I’m really proud of them,” he said. “This tournament has been really positive for us, a lot of the review and the things we’ve been working on have started to come together.”
Still the Samoa loss on day one would be hard to forget.
“It stings a lot. I’ve payed a lot of sevens in my time and not making the cup quarters in your home tournament, I’ll lose some sleep over that for sure,” he said of the reality of going 2-1 on the first day, beating Fiji, but not making the cup quarter-finals because of that brutal loss.
A final of thrills
It was the third final in four years for South Africa, who finally tasted victory in Vancouver by defeating France 21-12 in a very physical final.
The French scored first through a Pierre Gilles Lakafia try, but the South Africans battled back and scored twice before half time, getting tries from Impi Visser and Selvyn Davids. (Davis was named player of the final.)
In the second half, a try from South Africa’s Werner Kok put the Blitzboks into an insurmountable lead. France’s Stephen Parez scored a minute later but both teams shut the door on defence in the game’s final five minutes.
“I think we’ve been working very hard here (in Vancouver), it’s a lovely place, every year is very special. The big thing is we did better than last week. We made a step up from day one,” Kok said.
The French were a surprising opponent in the final, but their physical game carried them well, especially in the opening seven minutes.
“They had a phenomenal weekend, they played some great, great rugby. They surprised us in the first half. We knew it was going to be a war, it was the small things we had to do well, we stuck to our defensive system,” Kok added.
And he had praise for the B.C. Place surface.
“It’s actually funny because last weekend, it’s a smaller field, it was supposed to be more physical but this field is so quick, so nice to play on, you must be on the top of your game. It was another amazing Canada Sevens.”
France coach Jérôme Daret paid tribute to his team’s work on the weekend, which surprised everyone. The French had only made one previous quarterfinal this season.
“Today we played with heart, with spirit,” he said in French. “That’s most important to me. I think they had success because of that.”
“It really was about cohesion (this weekend),” he added. “Since the beginning of the season, we had played well, but we weren’t always united at the same time.”
Grind and grind and grind
Along with Saturday’s defeat of Fiji, the semifinal win over Scotland will probably be the one Canadian fans will most remember.
The Scots roared out to a 14-0 lead in the first half, mostly powered by the men in blue dominating possession. Glenn Bryce and Nyle Godsmark, both straight-ahead runners scored the tries.
The Canadians turned the possession tide in the second half.
They picked up an early try from Jones, set up by Connor Braid, who, in the absence of the injured Nathan Hirayama (fractured ribs, suffered Saturday), took on a role as the team’s primary play maker.
Minutes later, Braid made another try happen, taking on a pair of Scottish defenders before off-loading a pass to Jones, who sprinted over the line.
The game now knotted at 14, the Canadians kicked off but the Scots couldn’t control the ball. The Canadians mounted a series of attacks up the middle of the field, each runner breaking clear only to be hauled back by a Scottish defender.
But the direct play created a huge hole wide on the right, with Kaay waiting, calmly.
He got the ball and ran for the line. He put his hand up in celebration, a bit too early he admitted.
“I was praying it was going to come. I had so much space I think they still almost caught me at the end, (I was) celebrating too early. The boys stuck in. Awesome,” he said of the try, which threw the fans in the stands into a frenzy.
Of Braid’s performance, Kaay smiled.
“It’s just a confidence thing. We were joking before we’re going to have to get a bigger door to get his head through the door,” Kaay joked.
“The guy has grown in confidence, he’s been a real big leader for us. He’s changed as a leader as the weekend’s gone on. As a player that’s amazing to see, watching him evolved from a guy who can speak a lot to a guy who’s saying very little and just showing in his play.”
In the opening game of the day for the Canadians battered Spain 33-7 in their Challenge Trophy quarterfinal.
The Canadians scored five tries, led by a pair for both Connor Braid and Matt Mullins and then a second-half solo effort by Phil Berna.
Spain got a lone tally from Alejandro Alonso.
The Canadians started on the front foot and never took their foot off the gas, getting a try in the first minute by Braid, whose powerhouse running as always been in evidence this season. The home team then kept the scoreboard rolling over, Mullins scoring his first just over a minute later, and then Braid again.