Canadian rugby sevens men score late win to keep World Series hopes alive
LONDON — Brock Webster's late try and conversion lifted Canada to a dramatic 21-19 comeback win over Uruguay on Saturday at the HSBC London 7s, preserving the Canadian men's hopes of escaping relegation from the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
After a heartbreaking 24-19 loss to Kenya, thanks to an Edmund Anya try with less than 30 seconds remaining, Canada needed a result against Uruguay to stay alive in the four-team relegation playoff that is part of the 11th and final stop on the men's circuit this season.
Kenya (2-0-0, six points) is in the driver's seat going into its round-robin finale Sunday against Uruguay (1-1-0, four points). Canada (1-1-0, four points) trails the South Americans on points difference ahead of its finale against Tonga (0-2-0, two points).
The top two sides after round-robin play will face off to see who retains core status on the World Series next season.
A win over Tonga and Canada makes it to the playoff final. The Canadians could also advance with a tie if Uruguay loses.
Canada has a 9-6-0 career edge over Tonga but lost 35-14 the only time they met previously this season, in Sydney in January.
The relegation playoff is a product of the World Series reducing the number of men's teams to 12 from 16 to align with the women's competition and the Olympic field.
Japan, the 15th-place team in the standings, was relegated after last weekend's tournament in Toulouse, France. That left No. 12 Uruguay, No 13 Kenya, No. 14 Canada and Tonga, winner of the World Rugby Sevens Challenger Series, in the round-robin relegation playoff.
The playoff winner will become the 12th core team on the 2024 World Series, while the other three teams will have to enter their respective regional sevens championships in order to qualify for the 2024 Challenger Series and climb their way back to the elite competition.
Japan is taking part in London as an invitational side in the 12-team competition outside of the relegation playoff.
Missing out on the World Series would be catastrophic for the Canadian program.
Dropping out of the sport's top tier would be a body blow at a time when Rugby Canada has facilitated players moving between the sevens and 15s game to increase its depth and provide more playing opportunities. Not to mention vastly increasing the degree of difficulty in qualifying for the Olympics.
The high stakes were evident from the opening kickoff Saturday against Kenya with Canada playing with intent and at a high tempo.
Canada, which has been a core team on the circuit since 2012-13, pulled into the lead three times only to see the Kenyans respond. After Kenyan speedster Kevin Wekesa's third try of the game tied it at 19-19, Anya delivered the late dagger.
Canada had one last chance from the ensuing restart with the game in added time. But a knock-on in the tackle ended the threat.
Alex Russell scored two first-half tries for Canada, with Thomas Isherwood playing provider each time.
Kenya answered with two Wekesa tries, the product of his power and speed. The first was a dashing solo effort down the wing with the powerful Kenyan fending off two would-be tacklers.
Canada led 14-12 at the half, thanks to two Isherwood conversions, with a Max Stewart try upping the lead to 19-12.
The Canadian defence held strong until the dying minutes of the second half.
Kenya improved to 5-3-0 against Canada this season. The Kenyans are led by Damian McGrath, who was in charge of Canada in 2017 when it posted its one and only World Series tournament win, defeating the U.S. 26-19 in the final at Singapore.
In Canada's second game Saturday, Uruguay scored first after a Stewart handling error and penalty with Ignacio Facciolo crossing the line. Isherwood, Canada's man with a mullet, looked to have scored a try in response with a marvellous solo effort run but could not touch the ball down thanks to a try-saving tackle at the line by Mateo Vinal.
Webster made no mistake soon after, slicing through the Uruguayan defence to tie the score at 7-7. But Felipe Arcos Perez accelerated past Canadian tacklers with seconds remaining in the half for a 14-7 Uruguayan lead.
Bautista Basso scored in the corner early in the second half to up the Uruguayan lead to 19-7. Jack Carson replied for Canada, scoring under the posts after a line break by Webster, to narrow the margin to 19-14 with Webster's conversion.
Webster then scored after a powerful run by Matt Oworu, kicking the conversion to give Canada a 21-19 lead with his 21st try on the World Series play. Uruguay had less than a minute to mount a comeback but the effort fizzled out in a penalty.
Earlier, Uruguay then rallied to beat Tonga 15-12 with Baltazar Amaya diving through the air and managing to ground the ball despite a desperate Tongan tackle attack for the winning try in the corner in added time.
Kenya, thanks to another hat trick from Wekesa, downed Tonga 38-26.
The Canadian men made their World Series debut in 1999-2000 with London marking their 190th tournament on the circuit. And they arrived at Twickenham on a high after finishing a season-best fourth in Toulouse.
The Canadians' previous best this season was a 10th in the opening event in Hong Kong. They then finished 11th, 14th (five times) and tied for 15th (twice) and came to London with an 18-39 record on the season.
The Canadian men have been rebuilding in the wake of a mass exodus following the Tokyo Olympics. And this season started with some turmoil with coach Henry Paul stepping down in late November after the season opener. White, a former Canadian sevens and 15s international, took over.
The Canadians have now won all 11 meetings with Uruguay, including a 26-0 victory in Toulouse. But Uruguay had some highlights in its first season as a core team on the Word Series, qualifying for the cup quarterfinals twice.
Uruguay went into Toulouse in 11th spot with a slender one-point advantage over Spain. But the Spaniards emerged from France one point ahead of the South Americans to escape the relegation playoff.
There is other business to be settled in London, even though New Zealand has already clinched the World Series title and No. 2 Argentina and No. 4 Fiji have joined the All Blacks in qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics by virtue of guaranteeing themselves a top-four finish on the season.
With Olympic host France in third place in the standings, the battle for the final automatic Olympic berth will come down Sunday to either No. 5 Australia (125 points) or No. 6 Samoa (116). No. 7 South Africa (116) fell out of contention after missing out on the cup quarterfinals.
The seven-stop women's season ended last week in Toulouse with the Canadian women finishing ninth overall.
Both Canadian teams will take part in the Rugby Americas North Sevens Olympic qualifier in Langford, B.C., in August.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2023
The Canadian Press