Rugby Canada: What to know about 2024 Olympic rugby sevens qualification

Qualifying action for the Paris 2024 Olympics runs Saturday and Sunday in Langford, B.C.

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Even before qualifying action for the Paris 2024 Olympics gets rolling on Saturday morning in Langford, two things are clear: the Canadian women are a lock to win the single Olympic qualification spot on the line, while on the men’s side either Canada or the U.S. will write their ticket to France a year from now.

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“Look, with all due respect to the other teams, for both ourselves and Canada it’s going to come down to the final game on Sunday,” U.S. head coach Mike Friday told Postmedia on Thursday.

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Both Friday’s squad and the host Canadians, the men coached by former player Sean White, the women by Irishman Jack Hanratty, are full-time members of the HSBC SVNS series.

The rest of the field will be hard-working, speedy, with plenty of pluck … but they’re just not on the same playing field.

“We’re pumped,” White said. “The big thing for us is we haven’t played a tournament for a while. All these games will present their own challenges. On any given day, anything can happen.”

Is it pre-season or post-season?

The two men’s teams haven’t played since May, when both competed at the London Sevens.

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In Canada’s case, they finished on a high note, securing the 12th and final spot for the 2023-24 series. That win, defeating Kenya, Uruguay and Tonga, came a week after the Canadians’ best finish on the season, a surprising fourth place in Toulouse.

“That feels like a year ago,” White said with a laugh. But there is little doubt the late-season success was big for his team’s psyche. They finally found some success after an up and down year, including the most important win they could have outside of qualifying for Paris: keeping themselves on the rugby sevens series, cementing their place as full-time professionals.

“This tournament is almost the closure to our season,” White went on. “In September a new carded group comes in.

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“London, that was a preview of what we were looking for here (in Langford). It’s always simple in sevens: if we can take care of our roles, we’ll have success.”

The Americans, on the other hand, slumped down the stretch. They started the season well, sitting in the top five after the first two events on the calendar.

Then they ran into injuries, and there was no quarter given by their opponents.

“It was the most competitive world series we’ve ever seen,” Friday said, flatly.

“We’ve got a squad for the first time since Dubai (last December). We are ready, physically in a very good place.”

Friday isn’t a fan of where this weekend’s tournament was placed on the calendar.

“I’ve not been shy in making my views clear on this, on where it’s positioned. It’s hugely disrespectful to the series teams involved,” he said. “I am immensely disappointed in player welfare. We’ve not had an off-season. By next summer, we’ll have been at it for three years straight. We could quite easily have positioned this at the end of June or put it closer to the Pan Am games (in October).”

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The ultimate start

The Canadian women battled injuries and confidence all season, but Canadian women’s coach Jack Hanratty is happy with what his squad learned about itself over the season. And, unlike the mens’ coaches, he sees this weekend as just the beginning of a long year ahead.

“In our first two tournaments last season, we ended up getting knocked out by points difference. That happened a third time,” Hanratty explained.

“In later events, we were reliant on other teams to advance. We want to get away from that. Vancouver was a turning point, but we still needed some help.”

Because of injuries, Hanratty used 23 players across the season. And over the past two seasons, he has handed debuts to 15 players.

His squad was young, with lots of learning to do. That’s not the case any more.

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“The question was, were we good enough in-house,” he asked rhetorically, before implying that he thought his players had taken a big step up in their self-realization of what winning a place in the squad really means.

“Over the last two months, we’ve had a really good training base: 21 senior, 16 academy,” he said. “That made it a very competitive training environment.”

“One of the biggest issues this year was we weren’t favourites,” he went on. “It’s something we want to take on. It’s a pressure I’d much prefer to have. We’re in a place where we’ve had a really good buildup.”

“I think it’s good to think about what’s on the line because this time, the Olympics will be over,” he added.

The format and what’s on the line

The tournament kicks off Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. — streaming coverage available on the CBC Sports and CBC Gem apps — with the bulk of pool play running through the end of Saturday. The men’s tournament is divided into two pools, with the Americans in a three-team pool, the Canadians four.

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Sunday will see semi-finals and finals for the men — the men’s final is at 4:30 p.m. — while the women’s event features a five-team round robin where pool play begins on Saturday and concludes on Sunday morning, setting up the top two women’s teams to face off in a final at 5:30 p.m.

Winners of the finals will qualify directly for the Olympics next summer, while the second- and third-placed teams will progress to a final global qualification tournament, set for next June.

The American women aren’t here this weekend, as they have already qualified for Paris by finishing third overall last season (the top four teams on the 2022-23 season automatically qualified).

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