Two more tickets to Rio 2016 will be up for grabs this weekend as the World Rugby regional association Olympic rugby sevens qualifiers head to North America.
The winner of the men’s and women’s inaugural NACRA Sevens Championship in Cary, North Carolina (13-14 June) will join the six teams who have already confirmed their place at the XXIX Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The men’s event is expected to be a straight shootout between the two North American powerhouses, hosts USA and border rivals Canada, who finished 41 points apart in sixth and ninth respectively in the 2014-15 HSBC World Sevens Series.
USA have been drawn in Pool A with Mexico, Barbados, Jamaica and St Vincent, while Canada are joined in Pool B by Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Cayman Islands and Bahamas.
Mexico and Guyana, the next best ranked sides in the region, failed to win a single match between them when representing NACRA at the HSBC/Cathay Pacific World Sevens Series 2015-16 Qualifier back in March, and USA coach Mike Friday admits it is hard to look beyond his side and Canada when predicting a winner.
“With all due respect to the other teams I think it will be between us two,” said Friday, who is expected to announce his final 12-man squad on Wednesday or Thursday. “The other nations are further behind ourselves and Canada in terms of their rugby development and have smaller playing pools.
“We will respect every opponent we play because humility is a big part of our environment, but we are in control of what we do and, if we apply ourselves properly, then we will get that opportunity against Canada.
“The chances of both of us not making the semi-finals whether we top our pool or finish second are very, very slim. So whether we meet in the semi-final or the final that match-up is inevitable.”
Return of Mack
Canada have reintroduced a number of their ‘big guns’ in order to make it through to Rio via the NACRA Sevens instead of the more circuitous repechage route.
Talisman Phil Mack (pictured right) returns to the Canadian sevens squad for the first time after a long injury lay-off while European-based 15s players, Jeff Hassler, Tyler Ardron and Taylor Paris.
“Tyler, Jeff and Taylor join us from the club season in Europe, all of them have played sevens for Canada previously and they bring different elements to our game,” said Canada sevens coach Liam Middleton. “We also see the return of Phil who adds a lot of playmaking ability to our side.”
The team is captained by John Moonlight, while Connor Braid, Mike Fuailefau, Adam Zaruba, Harry Jones, Nathan Hirayama, Conor Trainor and Sean Duke all keep their places after appearing in the London Sevens, the final event of the 2014-15 HSBC Sevens World Series.
Justin Douglas is recalled to the line-up, as is Ciaran Hearn, both of whom had missed recent tournaments due to injury. However, there is no place for Pat Kay, Sean White, Admir Cejvanovic or Matt Evans, who all appeared in London.
USA, meanwhile, have selected 15s international Chris Wyles, fresh from his stunning title-winning season in the English Premiership with Saracens in their squad alongside Brett Thompson. Ten of the 12 members of the squad that won London are included in the 13-man travelling squad which will be reduced to 12 ahead of the tournament.
St Vincent provide USA with their first opposition at the WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday, while Canada begin their campaign against the Bahamas.
Paying the price
USA and Canada met in each of the last two Sevens Series tournaments, USA recovering from their 40-0 humiliation at the hands of their rivals in the opening game in Glasgow to beat Canada 29-10 in the London quarter-finals en route to lifting their maiden Cup title.
“The problem with success is that people can take it for granted, but that’s one thing this group won’t do,” Friday said. “We know how dangerous Canada are because we felt that in Glasgow when we didn’t get our game right. We understand the brutality of sevens; if you are slightly off your game you pay the price.
“As I said to the boys afterwards sometimes you have to get it wrong to get it right, and let’s hope that was one of those times and we only have to go through it one. Our changing room after that game was a very reflective one, not on our ability but on our attitude.
“They are the growing pains you get with a young squad who are coming to terms with what is expected and what is required to compete at the top end of the game and not just participate.”
Winning their first-ever Series tournament in London last month has only served to ramp up expectations on Mike Friday’s men.
“The expectation has gone through the roof,” Friday admitted. “People have short memories. This same team was a relegation team this time last year so it is credit to the boys that they have got to where they are now. They have worked really, really hard, and if we stick to the values of the environment and the fundamentals of the game and we turn up we’ll be in a very good place to make that final step.
“Of course the prize is big, but our approach hasn’t changed,” added Friday. “For us it is just a normal tournament week. The reality is that the pitch dimensions are roughly the same, there are two sticks at each end and there’s a bit of grass.
“If we focus on staying in the moment and make sure we do things accurately with and without the ball and work for one another then it’s just another day at the office.”
NACRA Sevens Championship 2015 pools - men’s
Pool A: USA, Mexico, Barbados, Jamaica, St Vincent
Pool B: Canada, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Cayman Islands, Bahamas
USA women eager to take second chance
Having just missed out automatic qualification for Rio 2016 via a top four place in the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series, the USA Women's Sevens Eagles go into the NACRA Sevens Championship as overwhelming favourites to belatedly book their spot at the Olympics.
The USA will play Barbados, Cayman Islands, and Jamaica in pool play at WakeMed Soccer Park, before facing three additional matches when the tournament reaches the knockout stages the following day.
The Eagles have not seen any of their three Pool A opponents on the circuit in its short history, but the team has been able to prepare for matches against the entire NACRA Sevens field with film.
“There’s no way in the world that we’re going to send a team there and underestimate who we’re playing against,” said coach Ric Suggitt. “That’s not happening.
“Rest assured, we’re not taking it lightly. We have good enthusiasm and good leadership inside the group.”
Suggitt includes two sevens debutants, Carmen Farmer and Richelle Stephens, in his 12-strong squad. Farmer was a member of the USA Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 side, while rising young star Stephens has international experience from appearing at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in China.
USA will begin their regional qualification campaign against Jamaica.
NACRA Sevens Championship 2015 pools - women’s
Pool A: USA, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Barbados
Pool B: Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Bahamas, Guyana
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