Canada’s rugby sevens squads will have home-field advantage this weekend when they look to secure Olympic qualification at the Rugby Americas North (RAN) Sevens in Langford.
The Canadian women also have an edge in that the U.S. won’t stand in their way at Starlight Stadium, given the Americans have already booked their ticket to Paris with a top-four finish in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series this season. The U.S. women placed third overall while the Canadians were ninth.
The Canadian men, who finished 14th on the season, will have to get past the 10th-ranked Americans, however.
The two-day qualifying tournament features seven men’s and five women’s teams with one Olympic berth on the line for each. The second- and third-place sides will get one last crack at Olympic qualification via a later world repechage tournament.
The men’s competition is divided into two pools, with Canada grouped with Barbados, Jamaica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The other group features the U.S., Mexico and Bermuda.
Canada will open against St. Vincent and the Grenadines before playing Barbados and Jamaica on Saturday with the top two in each pool crossing over to meet in Sunday’s semifinals.
“They have some top-end speed and then they have some physicality as well,” Canada interim men’s coach Sean White said of the pool opposition.
“We’re prepared, we’re ready to go,” he added.
The women’s field has just one pool with Canada opening against Mexico on Saturday before facing St. Lucia and Jamaica on Saturday. The Canadians will then wrap up pool play Sunday against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with the top two teams meeting in the final.
“There is a big element of the unknown for us,” Canada women’s coach Jack Hanratty said of the opposition. “So for us, we’re trying to concentrate on ourselves.”
The Canadian men showed their mettle in May when they survived a tense four-team relegation playoff in London to retain their place on the World Series circuit, newly rebranded as HSBC SVNS. The men’s field is being reduced to 12 from 16 countries next season to align with the women’s and Olympic fields.
“It was a special moment for sure,” said White. “And we’re hoping to recreate some of the changing room celebrations if we can take care of our job (on the weekend).”
New Zealand, Argentina, Fiji and Australia finished in the top four of the men’s World Series to secure automatic qualification, with the fifth-place Australians taking the place of No. 4 France, which already has a spot in the Olympics as host.
The U.S. men beat the Canadians in both meetings this season, 19-14 in Dubai (in December 2022) and 22-17 in Singapore (in April).
“Competitive in both games,” said White.
New Zealand, Australia, the U.S. and France topped the women’s World Series standings, with No. 5 Ireland taking France’s place.
The Langford tournament is one of six regional Olympic qualifiers. Uruguay and Ireland have already won their men’s regional events, while Brazil and Britain have won their way to Paris via their regional women’s competitions.
Captain Phil Berna and Cooper Coats both helped the Canadian men get to the Tokyo Olympics via the 2019 regional qualifying tournament in the Cayman Islands. Canada blanked Jamaica 40-5 to complete a 6-0-0 run at the eight-country competition that saw it outscore the opposition 293-15.
The U.S. men qualified directly for Tokyo by finishing second in the World Series.
The American men get veteran Ben Pinkelman and speedster Perry Baker back this weekend.
Pinkelman, a 2016 Olympian who had been sidelined by a back injury, rejoins the U.S. squad for the first time since 2021. Baker missed the World Series finale tournament following shoulder surgery.
“For the first time since Dubai, we are also able to have a full squad to select from,” said U.S. coach Mike Friday.
The Canadian women, who won bronze in 2016 in Rio, qualified for Tokyo by finishing third overall in the season standings.
The Canadian men and women finished eighth and ninth, respectively, in Tokyo, while the American men and women each finished sixth.
The Canadian men missed out on Rio in 2016 when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut. They lost 21-5 to the U.S. in the regional qualifying final in Cary, N.C., and then were beaten 14-12 by Russia in the quarterfinals of a repechage tournament in Monaco.
The Canadian women prepared for this Olympic qualifier with back-to-back tournaments involving Australia, China, Japan and Hong Kong “which got us not only in the right head space for this weekend but gave us a chance to test ourselves in a non-pressurized competition against three top teams” said Hanratty.
Japan and Australia also brought over their academy teams, allowing Hanratty to see his developmental Maple Leafs side in action.
The squad features seven players who were part of Canada’s 15s team at the recent Pacific Four Series in Ottawa — Olivia Apps, Florence Symonds, Fancy Bermudez, Alysha Corrigan, Maddy Grant, vice-captain Justine Pelletier and captain Sophie de Goede.
Apps captains the sevens side. Apps, Breanne Nicholas and Julia Greenshields represented Canada at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ethan Hager, from Brantford, Ont., was a late addition to the men’s roster, replacing the injured Josiah Morra.