Canada men's rugby sevens coach Henry Paul is no stranger to Dubai, having played, coached and lived there
That knowledge will come in handy. With 10 members of the program having retired in recent months and a handful of others sidelined by injury, the squad he has taken there for Friday's kickoff of the 2022 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series season will be learning as it goes.
"It's a really young, exciting team," said the New Zealand-born Paul, who represented both New Zealand and England (via his grandfather) on the international scene.
"It's a team that's going to make mistakes. But the nice thing is they seem to learn quickly from those mistakes."
There are plenty of holes to fill.
Co-captains Nate Hirayama and Harry Jones as well as Justin Douglas, Connor Braid, Mike Fuailefau, Lucas Hammond, Isaac Kay, Matt Mullins, Conor Trainor and Adam Zaruba have all retired
Captain Phil Berna, Pat Kay, Brennig Prevost, Anton Ngongo, Sion Griffiths, Matt Oworu, David Richard and Alex Russell are injured. Berna and Kay were both part of the team that finished eighth at the Tokyo Olympics.
Two promising young players, Matt Percillier and Jack Carson, have returned to university.
In Dubai, the Canadian men will play in Pool A with Olympic champion Fiji, Australia, and France. The Canadian women are in a group with Olympic bronze medallist Fiji, Britain, Ireland and Russia.
"I'm exited to see them play," Paul said of his young squad. "We've got nothing to lose going to Dubai. We've everything to gain, in terms of experience and exposure for these guys."
Due to the pandemic, the 2021 men's season was reduced to two events — in Vancouver and Edmonton in September — with several top teams unable to compete due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
South Africa won both stops, with a young Canadian side placing sixth and fourth.
Dubai is hosting the first two events of the 2022 season. The first will be played behind closed doors at the Sevens Stadium. The second event, Dec. 3-4, will welcome spectators back.
The New Zealand and Samoa men will miss both Dubai events due to pandemic-related travel issues.
Canada's 13-man roster has been to a combined 65 World Series events. Jake Thiel (19 events), Josiah Morra (16) and Andrew Coe (15) account for 50 of those.
Thiel, Coe and Theo Sauder (five events) are the only Canadian Olympians in Dubai.
Four members of the Dubai squad will be making their World Series debut. Three others have been to just one tournament, while another has been to two.
In contrast, the British roster totals 283 tournaments. And South African Branco du Preez has played in 75 tournaments, which translates into 380 matches and 1,355 points scored.
Brock Webster and Lachlan Kratz join the sevens squad after being with the Canadian 15s team for November tour matches against Portugal and Belgium. Cooper Coats returns from a broken finger while Thiel captains the team in Berna's absence.
The Canadians scrimmaged against the U.S. prior to flying to Dubai.
"We made a ton of errors but it was such a good learning curve for a bunch of the young guys … (The Americans) had a ton of Olympians playing," said Paul. "It wasn't pretty from our side of things but in terms of growth and learning, it was huge leading into (Dubai)."
South Africa won 12 straight outings in winning the September events in Vancouver and Edmonton. A clean sweep in the pool stages and a quarterfinal victory would see the Blitzboks match their 16-match win streak of 2008-09.
There are nine men's and six women's events on the 2022 season calendar. It could grow with World Rugby saying it is considering potential options for a replacement event for Hong Kong.
The schedule includes a men's stop in Vancouver, Feb. 26-27, and women's tournament in Langford, B.C., April 30-May 1.
Britain will compete in Dubai before England, Scotland and Wales make their return to the World Series,
The 16 men’s core teams after the Dubai events are Canada, Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, France, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, U.S. and Wales.
There will be a new scoring system for the 2022 season due to the pandemic, with not all teams able to take part in every event. The best seven men's results and four women's results for each team will contribute to their final Series standings with the number of contributing results to increase if a replacement event for Hong Kong is added.
Theo Sauder, Vancouver, Vancouver Rowing Club; Jake Thiel, Abbotsford, B.C., Abbotsford RFC; Nick Allen, North Vancouver, Capilano RFC; Andrew Coe, Markham, Ont., Rugby United New York; Cody Nhanala, Ottawa, Ottawa Ospreys; Josiah Morra, Toronto, Toronto Saracens; Brock Webster, Uxbridge, Ont., Oshawa Vikings; Cooper Coats, Halifax, Halifax Tars RFC; D’Shawn Bowen, Toronto, unattached; Lachlan Kratz, Victoria, NOLA Gold; Elias Ergas, Vancouver, UBC Thunderbirds; Thomas Isherwood, Okotoks, Alta., Foothills Lions RFC; Jarvis Dashkewytch, Tsawwassen, B.C., UVIC Vikes.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press