Damian McGrath, the coach who led Canada to its only-ever rugby sevens tournament title, has been fired by Rugby Canada.
It’s a surprise move, given the Canadians have just two tournaments left on the 2018-19 World Rugby Sevens Series season and then have their 2020 Olympics qualifier in July in the Cayman Islands. (With the U.S. a near-lock to win automatic qualification from the series, the Canadians are heavy favourites to win the qualifier.)
In a statement, Rugby Canada CEO Allen Vansen wasn’t definitive about the exact reason McGrath was let go, but still left clues that suggested he and the rest of the rugby union’s leadership believed the Canadians would play better under a different coach.
“A change in leadership now provides the team an opportunity to refine their play through the final two stops on the WRSS and ensure thorough preparation for the RAN (Rugby Americas North) qualifying tournament,” he said.
“Refining play” is a bold comment, suggestive that the middling results achieved this season by the men’s squad were disappointing.
“Rugby Canada feels that this new structure will lead to improved alignment and performance for all its high performance programs, and that must be the priority at this critical time,” he said, leaving further clues.
The clues there would be “improved alignment and performance”; the latter, improved performance being obvious, while improved alignment harkens back to the restructuring that took place last summer, with the sevens program being placed underneath the men’s program; that was a difficult transition, one that led to the sevens players going on strike and moving to unionize.
That dispute was settled in October, leaving little time to prepare for the season. The men’s team started behind the eight-ball and McGrath said more than once that his squad was working from behind as a result.
The Canadians only managed one top-eight finish this season under McGrath and struggled badly at the Hong Kong 7s, putting in a dismal performance that McGrath called the worst he’d seen in his three seasons in charge of Canada. The team rebounded somewhat a week later, but still finished tied for 11th at the Singapore 7s.
McGrath was hired in 2016, replacing Liam Middleton, who was fired after Canada failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics. He quickly rejuvenated the program, which had seen a dip in morale under Middleton, who himself had replaced the very popular Geraint John. (John led the Canadians to a sixth-overall finish in 2013-14, tied for their best ever, and ended up getting a big job offer from the Australian Rugby Union afterwards.)
Originally from England, McGrath had nearly led Samoa to Olympic qualification, but was dismissed two months after his squad was upset by Spain, who went to Rio instead.
McGrath’s player-friendly approach quickly won favour with the squad and the team improved month over month, eventually winning the 2017 Singapore 7s, the first time the Canadians had ever won a World Rugby Sevens Series event.
The Canadians finished eighth that season, tied for their second-best ever finish, and then ninth last year as the cash-strapped Canadians played with the smallest squad on the entire circuit.
But although the Canadians did get a few new bodies who made an impact this season, they struggled to get out of the consolation bracket, too often making errors at crucial moments and losing because of them.
On top of his duties as the men’s coach, McGrath was a regular fixture at youth tournaments and events across the country. “Send me wherever you need me,” he said he’d told his bosses; his presence on so many sidelines drew regular positive notice from players, coaches, parents and fans.
He was just last weekend in attendance at the B.C. schools sevens championship in Vancouver and said he was impressed by the talent he’d seen.
McGrath will be replaced by Henry Paul, who has been assisting men’s fifteens coach Kingsley Jones. Paul, originally from New Zealand, was a rugby league player and represented New Zealand before switching to rugby union while living in England.
He played sevens for England from 2002 to 2006 and also won six caps for England’s fifteens team.
Rugby Canada has appointed Paul through the end of the July qualifier and will conduct a search for a permanent coach.