TORONTO â€” His team down 12-7 at halftime to Argentina at the Sydney Sevens, Canada rugby coach Damian McGrath urged his players to pick up the tempo and stick to the game plan.
“You’ve the quarter-finals in the palm of your hands and in a moment you’re just throwing it away,” he said.
Needing a win to advance to the Cup quarter-finals on the weekend, Canada clawed its way to a 17-17 tie on a Pat Kay try with less than 15 seconds remaining. But the hard-luck Canadians had to settle for the tie after Kay, subbing as kicker for the injured Nate Hirayama, missed the conversion attempt.
Instead of contending in the tournament’s top eight, the Canadian men dropped into consolation play and finished 13th for the third time in four stops on the 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
A sparkling fourth-place finish in Wellington the week before showed the Canadians are better than their current 12th place on the overall standings. But injuries and a lack of depth are costing Canada.
“I would back our starting seven or eight players any time against any team,” said McGrath, who took over the Canadian team this season. “The week before in Wellington we had a very consistent starting lineup, which I regard as our strongest, and we went all the way to the closing stages.”
But with Hirayama sidelined and Kay, Justin Douglas and Adam Zaruba all ailing, Sydney was a different story.
“The loss of those four key players with no real replacements maybe highlights where we are as a program â€” that we’ve got some good players but there’s a big drop-off to what comes next,” McGrath said.
To that end, the English coach will be in Toronto this weekend to scout talent at an Ontario under-18 camp. Finding depth will take time, he acknowledges.
Hirayama, Canada’s influential playmaker, suffered a hamstring injury in the dying minutes at Wellington and had to sit out in Sydney. Kay and Zaruba were hurt in the first game there.
“In the normal course of events I would have withdrawn them from the competition,” McGrath said. “But with no real like-for-like replacements, I tried to squeeze a little bit more out of them and ultimately it was too much for them.”
Amazingly Douglas tied for second in tournament scoring with five tries despite fighting a bug in the sapping heat and humidity Down Under.
“Fair play to him. He climbed off his sick bed and tried to take part but he was nothing like the force he usually is,” said McGrath.
“Standing still on the sideline was hard work. You were sweating and feeling drained,” he added. “To run out there, even when you’re fit, was even harder. But to try and do it when you’ve been sick and your stomach wasn’t feeling great, I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Zaruba played with a pulled leg muscle. Kay had suffered a buttock contusion in the opening game in Wellington and was hit in the same spot in the first minute of the first game in Sydney. “And it just got worse and worse,” said McGrath.
“I’ve never seen anything like it really,” he added.
After failing to advance against Argentina, a battered Canada opened Day 2 with a demoralizing 19-7 loss to Japan, which came into the game with an 0-18-0 season record.
“That was the lowest point for us … we just didn’t do any justice to ourselves,” said McGrath.
On the plus side, Canada bounced back to beat Papua New Guinea 33-20 and a tricky Kenya side 10-5 with some good contributions from the bench. And despite his injury, the six-foot-five 265-pound Zaruba turned heads by running down Kenyan strike runner Collins Injera at the stroke of halftime.
“I think he enjoyed that and I certainly did as a coach,” said McGrath.
McGrath replaced his ailing big man at the half. Douglas and Kay didn’t start the last two games.
McGrath hopes all four injured players as well as Phil Berna, who broke his elbow in Cape Town, will be back for Las Vegas and Vancouver stops next month.
The March 11-12 Vancouver event received $220,000 in funding Thursday from the B.C. government.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press