The road to Rio starts in earnest this week for the Canadian men’s rugby sevens team.
The Canadians need to finish in the top three in a new qualifying section of the annual IRB Sevens stop in Hong Kong to ensure they receive so-called core status. That will allow them to compete at the highest level in the lead up to the sport’s Olympic debut at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
While New Zealand, Fiji and the 10 other existing core teams slug it out starting Friday in Pools A, B and C, Canada and 11 other countries will be looking to climb the ladder in Pools, D, E and F.
Canada lost its core status three years ago and, as such, has seen limited action on the circuit.
Core status next season will mean taking part in an expanded 10-event 2012-13 HSBC Sevens World Series starting in October in Australia.
“It allows you to be able to fully prepare, I think, for the Olympics in 2016,” said Canadian coach Geraint John. “And gives you regular competition and structure for your program. So it’s a big thing.
“At the moment we go to five tournaments. I don’t know how many tournaments we would go in if we didn’t qualify. We could go down to two, we could go down to just one tournament a year.
The qualifying part of the Hong Kong event is dominating conversation, according to John.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” he said. “Everybody’s saying how intriguing and how competitive that competition will be.”
John reckons eight of the 12 teams are in with a chance to win promotion. And all are taking it very seriously.
“We thought we arrived early. We got here late Friday night. [Russia]had already been in here five days [by then]to prepare.”
Zimbabwe has restocked its team with veterans while Spain and Portugal put their 15-man programs on hold to prepare. Japan has strengthened its squad with World Cup veterans.
The Canadians open play Friday against the Philippines, somewhat of a mystery side, before taking on Zimbabwe and Spain on Saturday. The goal is to finish top two in Pool D to advance to the quarter-finals.
Sunday’s two finalists and the winner of the third-place playoff in qualifying play will secure core team status and join the 12 existing core teams at each round of the 2012-13 season.
Next season, the 15 core teams will be joined by one invited team at each event – probably a geographical neighbour.
The promotion-relegation format after this year is fuzzy, says John, who expects clarification as early as this week from the International Rugby Board.
Canada currently stands 10th in the IRB Sevens standings (ahead of core teams Scotland, Kenya and the U.S.), despite not being invited to play in the season opener in Australia. The Canadians will also miss the remaining events in Japan, Scotland and England.
But they showed their teeth in New Zealand, winning their pool before losing 15-12 to Samoa in the quarter-finals.
Their goal since has been to show that was not a one-off.
The Canadians’ arrival last Friday was a little earlier than usual. That came courtesy of the Canadian Rugby Foundation, which paid for their accommodation over the weekend – the IRB only starts picking up the tab on Monday.
John reckons that has helped the Canadians get over jet lag and work out the kinks on the practice field. His team got in a training game with Scotland on Monday and is slated to face Australia on Wednesday.
John brought 13 players to Hong Kong but will only be allowed to name 12 to his roster Thursday. The 13th player was insurance for some injuries – John Moonlight, for example, is coming back from a concussion and a shoulder injury.
“Hopefully he’ll be OK for selection,” John said of Moonlight, who was injured on the New Zealand stop in early February.
Ciaran Hearn is recovering from a hamstring strain and Chauncey O’Toole is dealing with a thumb injury.
In a perfect world, backs DTH van der Merwe and Matt Evans would also be there. But van der Merwe is injured and Evans’ Cornish Pirates are involved in promotion playoffs in the English second division.
The IRB does not mandate clubs to release players for the sevens competition.
“We were lucky to get Chauncey,” John said.
O’Toole has not been playing regularly for the Ospreys and the Welsh club was willing to release him.
Still John likes his squad and, leading up to Hong Kong, has rotated players in throughout the series to ensure as many as possible get experience at this level.
The exact qualifying process for the 12-team Olympic field has not been determined yet. Canada will have to book its ticket via a continental qualification, with the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto a possible venue for that.
Canada won the Pan Am rugby competition last year in Mexico.
The IRB Sevens events feature a 16-country field so “it’s a pretty hard qualification to even get to 12,” said John.
John says the IRB also has yet to determine whether Brazil will get automatic entry as host.
Women’s sevens will also be part of the 2016 Olympics.
Canada, which will be taking part in a companion women’s event this week in Hong Kong, is currently the class of the women’s game.