Which Team Canada will show up at Hong Kong Sevens?
A sluggish start doomed Canada in Vancouver, but a returning star may help their chances
It is a global tour with its own World Cup. It is a Commonwealth Games and Olympic sport seen by millions. But without Hong Kong, it may not even exist.
Rugby sevens, as we know it today, has become a truly international festival. The game has its own identity, its own rules and its own stars. The World Sevens Series will soon celebrate its 20th birthday – a testament to the game's enduring appeal.
But it all began with one obscure tournament. The Hong Kong Sevens (Friday on CBCSports.ca, 5:52 a.m. ET) is just one stop on the series tour. But it is so much more. Taking inspiration from its Scottish roots, it is the granddaddy of them all – a veritable Mecca of sevens rugby itself.
Hong Kong is a bucket list destination for fans. For more than 40 years it has taken centre stage every spring in the former British colony. The party atmosphere, seen recently at the Canada Sevens in Vancouver, takes many of its cues from Hong Kong.
It is also the world's biggest sevens tournament. In addition to the main event, the Hong Kong Sevens serves as a qualifier for the World Series. A total of 24 men's and women's nations are in town competing for just two spots on the main tour next season.
Canada has a long association with the Hong Kong jamboree. The men's team won the Plate competition as far back as 1995, while the women are four-time champions – most recently in 2015, completing a hat trick of victories. From next season Hong Kong will host both men's and women's World Series competitions.
So much for the history – let's get to the business at hand.
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The Canadians should have learned a valuable lesson. Sluggish starts seriously hampers a team's chance to advance. Despite home advantage in Vancouver, Canada was embarrassed in its opener, leaking six tries to Samoa.
The response, though dynamic and thrilling, was ultimately to no avail. A heroic victory over Fiji and a dominant performance against Kenya, featuring a Connor Braid hat trick, wasn't enough to earn the hosts a quarter-final berth. Canada regrouped to reach the Challenge Trophy Final on Day 2, but every team needs to be switched on from the get-go.
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In Hong Kong the Canadians get going against Argentina, followed by pool games against Vancouver runners-up France and invitees Portugal. Canada should win that final group game but it will need at least one more victory along the way.
The question is which Team Canada will show up? Damian McGrath's roster will have drawn huge confidence from the rare victory over the Fijians but nearly a month later, is the buzz still there? If they can recreate that intensity in Hong Kong the omens are promising.
The Canadian cause is enhanced by the return of Justin Douglas. The 24-year-old from Abbotsford, B.C., makes his comeback from concussion after missing the North American legs in Las Vegas and Vancouver. His speed, strength and experience can only be of benefit.
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In Douglas' absence, Connor Braid has been carrying the team on his back. His consistency and work rate in all areas of the field have made him one of the most talked about players on the Sevens circuit. The reunion of Braid and Douglas in Canadian colours might just be the necessary tonic.
Precious Olympic qualifying points are also at stake in Hong Kong. The venue has become a second home for the Fijians who have won the tournament four years in a row.
They returned to the podium at the Canada Sevens with a bronze medal. Another strong finish would go a long way to securing one of those coveted, automatic tickets to Japan and the right to defend their Olympic title in the summer of 2020.