LONDON — Alex Russell scored with a minute remaining to give Canada a dramatic 12-7 win over Kenya in a relegation playoff final Sunday, preserving the Canadian men's status as a core team on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
Kenya, which had been reduced to six men with John Okeyo in the sin-bin for an international knock-on, drops out of the elite sevens competition next season. Canada lives to fight another day.
The win ended a tense weekend at Twickenham Stadium, with the Canadian men dodging several bullets.
"It feels great. It feel like that's where we're supposed to be," said a smiling Canada captain Phil Berna.
The four-team relegation playoff — part of the HSBC London 7s, the 11th and final stop of the men's season — was a product of the World Series reducing the number of men's teams to 12 from 16 next season 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.
Canada becomes 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 top tier.
Japan took part in London as an invitational side in the 12-team competition outside of the relegation playoff.
Captain Nelson Oyoo opened the scoring for Kenya, which took advantage of an overthrow on a Canadian lineout for a converted try and 7-0 lead. There was a lengthy delay with 2:49 remaining in the first half for a Kenyan injury with speedster Kevin Wekesa, who scored six tries Saturday, eventually walking off gingerly.
Josiah Morra tied it up with a converted try in added time before the break after Matt Oworu, a load at six foot and 240 pounds, ran over a Kenyan tackler, leaving him dazed on the ground. Tony Omondi subsequently left the field for a head injury assessment.
The Africans had one final chance to mount an attack but the move ended deep in their territory on a penalty.
The Canadian men made their World Series debut in 1999-2000 and have been a core team on the circuit since 2012-13. London marked their 190th tournament on the stop. Kenya has been a core team since 2004-05.
Canada, Kenya and Uruguay all finished with 2-1-0 records in the relegation round-robin with Uruguay missing out on the final on point difference. Canada was at plus-33, Kenya at plus-13 and Uruguay at plus-five. Tonga finished at 0-3-0.
Kenya had handed Canada a heartbreaking 24-19 loss to open play Saturday, pulling ahead on an Edmund Anya try with less than 30 seconds remaining. That dropped the Canadians' record against Kenya to 3-5-0 this season.
Canada had needed a late try and conversion from Brock Webster to rally for a dramatic 21-19 comeback win over Uruguay in its second game Saturday to keep its hopes alive.
Needing a win over Tonga to make the final, the Canadians answered the call Sunday morning with a seven-try performance in a convincing 43-7 win. Jack Carson and Russell each scored three tries.
It was one-way traffic with Canada, dominant at restarts, building a 26-0 lead before the Pacific Islanders got on the board to make it 26-7 at the break.
The Kenyans are coached by England's 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.
Missing out on the World Series would have been catastrophic for the Canadian program.
Dropping out of the sport's top tier would have been 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 Canadian men arrived in London on a high after finishing a season-best fourth last week in Toulouse, France, where they beat both Uruguay (26-0) and Kenya (33-7).
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. Sean White, a former Canadian sevens and 15s international, took over as interim coach.
Tonga took part in just two earlier tournaments this season, as an invitational side in Sydney and Hamilton, New Zealand. They emerged with 12 points, just two fewer than Canada collected in its first five events.
Uruguay needed to beat Kenya on Sunday by at least eight points to get through to the playoff final. Uruguay won 14-10 but a late Kenyan try and penalty proved to be enough for the Africans to move on.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Uruguay, which came to Toulouse 11th in the standings with a one-point advantage over No. 12 Spain. But Spain collected seven points in France, two more than Uruguay, leapfrogging the South Americans in the standings and escaping the relegation playoff by a single point.
Uruguay made the cup quarterfinals in both Cape Town and Singapore in its first season as a core team. Canada made the quarterfinals just once, in Toulouse.
There was other business to be settled Sunday, even though New Zealand has already clinched the World Series title and No. 2 Argentina and No. 4 Fiji had joined the All Blacks in qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics by virtue of assuring themselves of 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 came down 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.
After falling 19-5 to Fiji in the cup quarterfinal, Australia lost 22-19 to France on a last-second try by Paulin Riva in the fifth-place semifinal. That opened the door for Samoa, knowing a win over Argentina in the cup semifinal would secure Olympic qualification.
Samoa led 7-0 early but Argentina rallied to pull ahead 10-7 on a late try and Vaa Apelu Maliko put a foot on the touchline in the dying seconds to snuff out Samoa's last-ditch attack. Australia then beat Britain 34-7 in the seventh-place game to secure its ticket to Paris.
OIympic champion Fiji held on to edge New Zealand in a 19-17 thriller in the other semifinal, a rematch of the Tokyo Games final.
A try by Taunuu Niulevaea in added time helped Samoa to a consolation bronze medal in a 24-19 upset win over the All Blacks, who had won five of the previous six tournaments. New Zealand had been after its ninth podium finish of the season.
Argentina, the Olympic bronze medallist, defeated Fiji 35-14 in the cup final.
The seven-stop women's season ended in Toulouse with the Canadians 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 21, 2023.