It’s not often you can say you still have a chance to make the quarterfinals after dropping the first two games of pool play, but Canada’s men’s rugby sevens team is in exactly that position after dropping losses to Great Britain and Fiji on the first day of competition at Tokyo 2020.
After dropping a 24-0 loss to the British first thing Monday morning, the Canadians cleaned up their act against Fiji, the defending gold medallists and really only had themselves to blame in not taking at least a draw in their afternoon match, losing 28-14.
The fact they avoided a blowout against Fiji was key, as they find themselves on par with the fourth team in their pool, Japan, who dropped a big loss to Great Britain after losing a close encounter with the Fijians to open the days play.
In Tuesday’s showdown vs. the hosts, it will be a chase for not just a win but for a strong margin as well as the best two third-place finishers — out of three — will make the quarterfinals and points-difference is always the crucial tie breaker.
As far as day one was concerned in the end, Canada’s was a series of lessons about the deadly nature of mistakes in rugby sevens.
After playing a very hard, scoreless six minutes to open the day, a stretch that same Canada match Great Britain tackle for tackle, the Canadians suddenly found themselves dragging a touch and that’s all that British superstar Dan Norton needed.
The British speedster, who helped his team win silver in Rio and is the all-time leading try scorer on the World Rugby Sevens Series, burst through a stretched Canadian defence and strode over the Canadian goal line to put his side up at the close of the first half.
The British never looked back, as they kept the tempo high through the first half on their way to a 24-0 win, putting them into first place in Pool B.
Norton scored again to open the second half after his teammates retained possession following the second-half kickoff and forced the Canadians, who had tried to win the ball back as it descended from high above following a Nathan Hirayama kick, into scramble mode.
That’s another lesson: smart rugby people know that the first element in scoring is to break the defence. Get the defenders scrambling and never give them time to re-set.
Great Britain was suddenly up to a 12-0 lead. Canada never found anything after that.
They had a good stretch of possession before the first Norton try, but began to struggle with the pace of the game in the second half and couldn’t create a similar sequence in the second.
Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the Canadians’ game action since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic began was a pair of tournaments in Dubai in April. Great Britain, on the other hand, were able to play in hard events in May and in June.
The Brits also flew to Japan a week before the tournament to acclimatize, while the Canadians only arrived in Japan on Friday, after having tried living in Japan Time during their final two weeks of training at the Rugby Canada training centre in Langford, B.C.
Great Britain’s final tries were scored by a pair of Scots: Ross McCann and Robbie Fergusson.
“Weren’t good enough in attack. Fair play to GB, I thought they defended really well, putting us under pressure,” Hirayama told Postmedia post-game. “I don’t know if we strung more than two phases together the entire game in attack.”
Canadian head coach Henry Paul was pleased about his team’s defensive work in the first half but highlighted two areas for concern that would need to improve vs. Fiji.
“But we didn’t handle their breakdown counter and our ball from our ruck was too messy and put our attack under pressure,” he told Postmedia. “We started to step in and that was easy for GB’s defence.”
Before the game’s kickoff, the British players all took a knee, like many other athletes have done since the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick first did so a half-decade ago, as a protest against police brutality and racism.
In the day’s second game against Fiji, the Canadians started much more brightly.
After the Fijians took a penalty right off the kickoff, hitting Canadian co-captain Harry Jones in the air, the Canadians worked the ball around well and demonstrated a pair of trends that would prove to keep them in the game: getting back to attack with a steady precision while also retaining possession after tackles in the breakdown.
Just as their coach wanted.
The problem was that they kept making little mistakes and at the end of the first opening sequence, Matt Mullins spilled the ball in the tackle, handing possession back to the Fijians, who don’t need much ball to make maximum use of it.
Off the ensuing scrum, Napolioni Bolaca powered through a poor tackle attempt to sprint through the Canadian line and score a try from 75 metres.
The Canadians went back on the attack following the re-start but again, an unforced error, a low pass this time from Justin Douglas to Connor Braid, forcing Braid to step on the line, led to the second Fijian try.
Another missed tackle by the Canadians ended in a try for Jiuta Wainiqolo.
The Canadians, though, didn’t quit, scoring a fine try on the stroke of half time. Pat Kay started the sequence with an outrageous side step creating inside space of Hirayama to run through, before passing the ball out wide which created more space inside again.
Hirayama watched his teammates do the work on the outside and then was johnny-on-the-spot to collect a pass and sprint under the posts.
The Canadians went into halftime with a hint of belief and came out of the second half gates on a mission.
The problem, again, was a series of little mistakes. A couple attacks died when the ball runner got isolated and the Fijians turned the ball over.
At one point a frustrated Mullins chucked the ball away, drawing a yellow card. (The Fijians were likely twice lucky not to see yellow in the second half, as they took out a Canadian in the air for a second time and also swatted a Canadian pass attempt away, but the referee wasn’t interested in either.)
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The Canadians survived the Mullins yellow by cranking up the defensive pressure in a way that the Fijians surprisingly couldn’t handle. Then they went back on the attack but again little mistakes kept them from finding an equalizing score.
Eventually the Fijians took their moment as they took over possession and Aminiasi Tuimaba rumbled over to seal the game for Fiji.
Douglas burst clear on the right wing and scored in the corner with just seconds left giving Canada a glimpse at a chance of a draw after Hirayama nailed an uncoventional conversion by swing a low kick from left to right through the posts.
But the Canadians couldn’t organize an effective attack and yielded a late fourth score to Fiji, which does make their standing against Japan a little more difficult, but they’ll go in with confidence to that encounter, knowing the hosts were absolutely blown out of the water by Great Britain, a team that the Canadians normally match up well with.
“We let ourselves down on a few occasions today. We need a big one against the Japanese which won’t be easy and a little luck from other pools. Never want to be in the position where your fate lies in others hands but I’ve seen crazier things happen,” Hirayama said at the end of the day.