So much to play for. So much to dream about. Glittering prizes await the victors from now until they culminate in a crescendo next summer.
The Canadian women’s team has set lofty goals. This season, of all seasons, is the time to execute.
Rugby sevens in now an Olympic sport. It made its debut in Brazil and in case you missed it, Canada left Rio with a bronze medal after beating Great Britain to earn a place on the inaugural podium.
Ultimately, another Olympic medal is the target for the Canadians. It is a realistic goal but there is a long road ahead, and more players in the game before they march proudly into the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo next July.
The journey has already begun. There is room for improvement this weekend in Dubai. The season opening event in Glendale, Colo., ended in disappointment after a promising start. Canada blew a halftime lead in their quarter-final against the U.S. and was then upset by Spain in a playoff for fifth place.
The Americans went on to triumph on home soil, throwing down the gauntlet to their rivals. There can be no question they are among the medal favourites for the 2020 Olympics and it would be a major surprise if they fail to improve on their fifth place finish in Rio.
The cross-border rivalry will only intensify in the coming months. It will resurface as early as Friday with Canada and the U.S. drawn in the same preliminary pool. This is no longer about bragging rights. It is about establishing seniority and superiority in an evolving world order.
This will be the eighth HSBC women’s tournament in Dubai. Only two nations, New Zealand and Australia, have won in the desert. That southern hemisphere dominance will surely be challenged this time around.
The Black Ferns and the Australians are both missing key personnel. New Zealand captain Sarah Hirini has joined superstars Michaela Blyde and Portia Woodman on the sidelines. Aussie playmaker Charlotte Caslick is out with a hamstring strain, adding her name to a growing injury list.
By contrast – Canadian head coach John Tait has a healthy squad to rotate. Britt Benn and Sarah Kaljuvee both missed the USA Sevens but are fit to return in Dubai where their tough tackling defensive instincts will be vital.
Tait’s troops should be in buoyant mood. This time last year the Canadian women enjoyed their best-ever finish in Dubai, losing only once, to New Zealand in the championship game itself. Another podium would be the ideal early season boost and remind their opponents Canada can compete at the highest level.
Canadian men will lean on veterans
Dubai also signals the start of the men’s sevens season. Fiji begins the defence of its World Series title after winning three of the final four tournaments last season to pip the U.S. The Americans enjoyed a break out campaign and, similar to their female counterparts, will be targeting a first Olympic medal in rugby sevens.
Canada’s men will also be at the Olympics for the first time. The Canadians’ path was paved by the Americans’ World Series runner-up finish last season, a result that sealed the USA’s Olympic berth without the need to negotiate regional qualifying.
Canada will lean on the vast experience of veterans Nathan Hirayama and Harry Jones as Henry Paul tackles his first full season as head coach after replacing Damian McGrath who was controversially fired late last season.
Connor Braid – Canada’s proven game changer – is back for Dubai after missing Olympic qualifying through injury. And watch out for a group of promising youngsters. Josiah Morra, Jake Thiel and Cooper Coats, all in their early 20s, know this season will double as an Olympic audition.
Fulfilling potential is the challenge ahead for teams and individuals alike. A new season invites fresh narratives with plot twists we didn’t see coming. Let the games begin.