Canadian men and women win rugby Pan Am gold but get to podium in different ways
TORONTO — The Canadian rugby sevens women crushed anyone in front of them en route to the top step of the Pan American Games medal podium. The Canadian men had to claw their way there.
But when the dust settled Sunday before a raucous crowd of close to 20,000 under bright sunshine at BMO Field, both were gold medallists. They just took different ways to get there.
"They were clinical. We went the hard way," said Harry Jones, who muscled his way over the goal line with several Argentine players on his back for the winning try in Canada's 22-19 win in the men's gold medal game.
"They put quite a few points on every team. But we had to grind it out a bit. They were firing on all cylinders."
The two Canadian teams celebrated together after the men's win, which was the last game of the night. And after the medal ceremonies, they posed for a celebratory, golden photo.
The Canadian women thumped the U.S. 55-7 in their final, running the table after going down 7-0. Canada won six straight matches at the Games, outscoring its opposition 285-19 and running in 47 tries while yielding just three.
"Probably our best performance of the year," coach John Tait said of the final.
Canada got three tries from Karen Paquin, two each from Ashley Steacy and Ghislaine Landry and singles from captain Jen Kish and Magali Harvey. Steacy and Landry combined for five conversions.
Throughout the weekend, the Canadian defence was like a jackal tearing the ball away from the opposition to trigger attacks.
"The best defence is being on offence," said Steacy, who serves as the team's point guard on defence.
Harvey and Paquin tied for the tournament lead with eight tries.
Canada was the top-ranked team in the Games' inaugural six-team women's competition, finishing second in the Women's Seven Series last season. The Americans were fifth and Brazil eighth.
For the women, it was a triumphant end to a magnificent season under Tait. They qualified for the 2016 Olympics by finishing second to New Zealand in the Women's Sevens Series, were runner-up in the penultimate stop on the circuit in London and won the season finale in Amsterdam.
With Kish leading a character-rich, talent-laden squad that includes Steacy, Landry, Paquin, Harvey and Kelly Russell, the future is bright.
"There's definitely more great days for this team," said Kish. "Every time we put on the Canadian jersey we want to give the best performance that we can. We're always cup-hunting. We always want to be the best that we can be so you can expect many more trophies from us building towards Rio. "
The U.S. Eagles were the top-ranked side in the eight-team men's competition, finishing sixth in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series this season, ahead of No. 8 Argentina, No. 9 Canada and No. 16 Brazil.
The Canadian men dodged a bullet in the quarter-finals in a 17-12 overtime win over underdog Chile before staving off the U.S. for a 26-19 victory in the semis.
In the final, they rallied from a 12-0 deficit on tries by Conor Trainor and Nathan Hirayama. Argentina pulled ahead 19-12 on a converted try before Phil Mack darted in to cut the deficit to 19-17.
Jones made like the Hulk in scoring the winning try, chasing down a Hirayama kick and then dragging opponents with him as he muscled his way to the goal line and touched the ball down.
"I think the boys really reflected the Canadian spirit," said coach Liam Middleton, a native of Zimbabwe whose team got better as the year wore on. "They were courageous, tenacious.
"We were against the wall. And what we talked about after the Chile game was the type of adversity we were in, we were either going to crumble or we were going to catapult ourselves to the top. And we decided which way we were going to go."
Canada edged Argentina 26-24 in the inaugural men's rugby sevens competition four years ago in Guadalajara, where they had to watch the South Americans miss a conversion with no time remaining to get the gold.
The men had made it hard on themselves Saturday, when they lost their final pool match to Argentina. That meant a semifinal matchup with the top-ranked Americans.
Canada almost didn't get there.
In the quarter-final, the Canadian men needed a Jones try and Hirayama conversion with no time left on the clock to force overtime at 12-12 against an overachieving Chile side that was down to five men after two players were sin-binned in the final seconds.
Hirayama gets a huge assist on the tying try. He could have scored in the corner, where the required conversion would have been doubtful, but instead hurled an infield pass to Jones so he could cross near the posts where the conversion would be near automatic.
With the hooter having sounded, the Chileans had a chance to end the game and win but Tomas Ianiszewski failed to clear the ball out of bounds after a Canadian knock-on. Rugby does not end when the clock hits zero. Play continues until the unfolding sequence ends.
A Mack try, on a typically opportunistic sniping run from the little man, one minute into OT ended the drama and moved Canada into the semis.
"Sometimes you get those moments and then sometime you don't," said Middleton. "it's how you pick yourself back up from that."
There were more challenges.
Canada led 12-0 in the semifinals but the Americans fought back, with speedster Carlin Isles scoring their first try while injured Canadian Mike Fuailefau was receiving treatment elsewhere on the field after being knocked unconscious banging heads with a teammate going for the ball.
Isles tied it up at 12-12 in the second half with Canadian Admir Cejvanovic sin-binned for knocking him down after he scored. Cejvanovic later said he thought a taunting Isles hadn't touched the ball down yet.
Whatever the reason, Isles paid for something and limped off after the big Canadian nailed him.
The U.S. went ahead with the Canadians a man short. But a fine Hirayama try knotted the score at 19-19 and Cejvanovic redeemed himself with no time on the clock, diving in for the winning try to cap off a Canadian attack.
Hirayama, who like Mack was a sparkplug for the Canadians, led the men's side of the tournament in scoring with 34 points. American flyer Isles led the try count with six.
U.S. men's coach Mike Friday congratulated the Canadians for their win. But he also noted that the Eagles had left six or seven top players at home.
"This was very much a development tournament for us," he said.
"We've qualified for Rio so we know what we're moving towards," he added. "It was good to see the young guys operate under the pressure of a proper international tournament."
The Canadian Press