Canada's new rugby 7s coach faces challenges

Rugby Canada has given the keys to its all-important sevens program to Geraint John as it seeks to adapt to the rewards and unexpected problems from the seven-a-side game's inclusion in the Olympics.

Rugby Canada has given the keys to its all-important sevens program to Geraint John as it seeks to adapt to the rewards and unexpected problems from the seven-a-side game's inclusion in the Olympics.

John, who had been Rugby Canada's high performance director, is a former assistant coach of the Cardiff Blues in Wales. He succeeds sevens coach Morgan Williams, the former Canadian captain who was let go as part of Rugby Canada's ongoing restructuring.

The decision to add seven rugby to the Olympics as of 2016 has opened up new doors and created new challenges to Rugby Canada, which looks to satisfy important funding stakeholders in Sport Canada, Own The Podium and the International Rugby Board.

Rugby sevens will appear in the Commonwealth Games for the fourth consecutive time this October in Delhi, India.

But the welcome prospect of additional funding because of the sport's Olympic inclusion has had unexpected side effects.

Targeting funding at the Olympic-bound sevens program at the expense of the 15-man game could have catastrophic effects, Rugby Canada argues in a brief to Sport Canada.

"Being awarded Olympic status has been a very significant achievement," the organization says in "Supporting Rugby: The Newest Olympic Sport."

"A weakening of our domestic and international development program was never identified as a byproduct of such a wonderful achievement."

The sevens game is fast and exciting. And played over two seven-minute halves, it lends itself to a short Olympic schedule in a way that the 15-man game can't. The full version of the game is intense and physical, requiring days between fixtures.

Still, the 15-man code is the dominant version of the game, with pro leagues around the world. Sevens is a sister sport that is about to be thrust on the world stage.

Rugby Canada CEO Graham Brown said: "Getting in the Olympics was great news. Then all of a sudden, we saw all the action-reaction that was happening."

Sport Canada provides monthly financial assistance to 22 members of the men's 15-man team and 22 women, which covers the 15 starters and seven substitutes that each team would carry. It wants that reduced to 12-15 for each team given the reduced sevens rosters (seven starters and five substitutes).

"Sport Canada and OTP now will not card our 15s players, they're only carding our sevens players," said Brown. "Well unless you have 15s rugby vibrant, you'll never find a sevens rugby player because they don't play sevens.

"We play sevens as an augmentation to 15s. Meaning if you're a sevens player, you've played 15 rugby and developed and were identified as a potential sevens player."

Developing rugby players a priority: CEO

Brown believes Sport Canada may be sympathetic to his arguments and offer a transitional change in carding that won't be as severe.

Almost a third — $2.72 million — of Rugby Canada's annual revenue comes from the International Rugby Board because the Canadian 15-man team is seen as a "Performance" nation (ranked 11th through 18th in the world; Canada is currently 14th).

Should that ranking drop, such funding would diminish and the sport as a whole would suffer, Rugby Canada argues.

"Our priority is developing the best rugby players that we can," said Brown. "Because in Canada our sevens players are still our 15s players and our 15s players are still our sevens players. I can only name a few instances where we have sevens specialists in Canada.

"If you ask me in four years from now, you may start to see a bigger divide between sevens and 15s as you get more sevens specialists into the game."

In addition to funding changes, Sport Canada and OTP told Rugby Canada it needed to restructure with a "business plan that shows that you are more committed to sevens rugby than you have been in the past," Brown said.

Rugby Canada's restructuring also comes with input from Kieran Crowley, coach of Canada's 15-man team, who Brown said was asked in February what was needed to better compete.

Crowley asked for more analytical tools. Rugby Canada purchased an analytical system that cost $100,000.

He also identified structural problems. OTP and Sport Canada, meanwhile, identified a need to "better align our sevens and 15 programs."

As a result, "we needed to restructure our whole rugby department," Brown said.

Former internationals axed

As the rugby department grew from modest beginnings, hirings had been done "on a one-off ad-hoc basis," he added.

The restructuring has resulted in the axing of former internationals Williams, who doubled as sevens and skills coach, and John Tait, assistant coach on the men's 15-man team. Both had been on annual contracts.

"In this whole restructuring, we felt that we needed to move from technical, tactical coaches — coaches that can run a practice — to high-performance coaches that can run a program," said Brown.

"And that was the simple essence of it. Our move was to put a better coaching structure in to deliver better opportunities for our players. It's not that the other coaches aren't good. It's just we needed different and better coaching structures."

Tait could resurface. He has applied to be coach of Rugby Canada's national academy and under-20 team.

With little resources behind it, Canada has performed poorly at recently under-20 competitions. The hope is a full-time coach can help stem that slide.

Rugby Canada is also looking for a high-performance manager and a strength and conditioning coach. The organization had been getting strength and conditioning support from the Pacific Institute for Sports Excellence.

Crowley, who had inherited most of his coaching staff, added to his expertise with so-called competition coaches who were brought in around tournaments on tour on a contract basis.

New Zealand club coach Neil Barnes and former Wales defence coach Clive Griffiths helped Crowley at the Churchill Cup and will be part of the Canadian touring squad for its November tour.

In recent years, because of strong competition for berths in the IRB sevens series, the Canadian sevens team has only been a part-time participant.

Next year, the IRB has invited Canada to five tournaments, with support for two more. OTP-Sport Canada have also provided funding for two more.

The IRB is looking at either expanding the current world sevens series or adding a second tier. Rugby Canada hopes to host a sevens tournament at Toronto's BMO Field and is also working on a CIS national sevens competition.