There have been more valleys than peaks of late for the Canadian men’s rugby sevens team. But Canada climbed high at the Wellington Sevens on the weekend.
The Canadians, who started the season with back-to-back 13th-place finishes in Dubai and Cape Town, found their stride under new coach Damian McGrath and placed fourth Sunday in New Zealand.
South Africa defeating Fiji 26-5 in the championship game on a windy day at Westpac Stadium. Canada won four straight matches before falling 21-5 in semifinal action to the high-flying Blitzboks, who have won two events and finished runner-up in the third. Adam Zaruba, named to the tournament all-star team, scored a late consolation try for Canada.
The last time the Canadian men finished as high as fourth was Japan in April 2015. Canada’s best showing on the circuit was a second in Glasgow in May 2014. And it marked the first time Canada had made it to the elite Cup part of a tournament draw since the 2014-15 season.
The Canadians came within seconds of finishing third Sunday but fell victim to a late try by James Fleming in a 28-22 loss to Scotland in the third-place match. The Scots played with just nine men due to injuries.
McGrath and his team felt they were hard done by in the dying seconds, denied a legitimate penalty deep in Scottish territory at the start of the move that led to the winning try.
Kaay’s first try on the circuit, set up by a nifty Mike Fuailefau offload, had given Canada a 22-21 lead with 65 seconds remaining. Scotland, taking the kickoff at its goal-line, drove the length of the field on a sweeping six-pass move to score with Fleming eluding a desperate finale tackle attempt by John Moonlight.
“If you had asked me earlier in the week whether I would have accepted top four, I would have gladly said yes,” McGrath said. “But then when you get there and know really the boys are disappointed because we could have, should have, won that game at the end against Scotland to take well-deserved bronze I think.”
Canada believed Kaay had won the ball at the breakdown after the kickoff following the Canadian go-ahead try. That would have given Canada possession and ended the Scottish threat. Instead Fleming scored the winning try with just 20 seconds on the clock.
North Vancouver’s Zaruba, a powerful six-foot-five 265-pounder, had three tries against Scotland.
Prior to the South Africa loss, Canada beat Argentina 17-12 in the Cup quarter-final Sunday on tries by Zaruba, Fuailefau and Justin Douglas.
The World Series moves next weekend to Sydney, where Canada will play in a pool with Argentina, the U.S. and Russia. McGrath will have to await word on injuries to Nathan Hirayama, Matt Mullins, Harry Jones and Douglas.
Hirayama pulled up lame with a hamstring issue chasing Fleming early in the second half of the bronze-medal match. He is doubtful for Sydney, where he was scheduled to serve as captain. Mullins was not used Sunday after injuring his foot the first game of the tournament. Jones and Douglas are expected be ready by the weekend.
McGrath, the former Samoa coach, took over the Canadian team after coach Liam Middleton was let go following a disappointing 2015-16 season that saw Canada finish 13th in the overall standings and fail to secure Olympic qualification.
Canada’s performances in the first two tournaments were spotty. McGrath’s team went 2-3-1 in Dubai and 2-4-0 in Cape Town.
The Canadians rebounded to win their pool in Wellington, defeating Scotland 28-19, Wales 28-5 and Russia 29-0 on Day 1.
McGrath says his players know he believes in them. And they believe in his approach to the game.
“We’re a long way from being the finished article and I hope this isn’t a flash in the pan. I hope it’s a solid base for things to come,” the coach said. “It’s a big step, we’re there to be shot at now. And I’m interested now to see how the players react to this success.”
South Africa was unbeaten throughout the weekend, conceding just three tries in six games.
It beat Olympic champion Fiji twice in Wellington, winning their first meeting in a difficult pool 31-12 on Saturday, then demonstrating its superiority with four tries in Sunday’s final.
“We are happy to get a first win (in Wellington) since 2002 and it’s extra sweet after last year’s defeat in the final,” South Africa captain Phillip Snyman said. “Playing Fiji twice in one weekend doesn’t make it easier but our defence system was great.
“Hats off to the guys and the coaching staff. It wasn’t zero tries (conceded) so definitely there is some work to be done before (the next round in) Sydney.”
The Blitzboks beat Fiji for the title in Dubai before losing to England in the final in Cape Town.
With files from The Associated Press
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press