Henry Paul interview: I'm massively bothered not to be with Canada at the Rugby World Cup, but I understand
The former Jebel Ali Dragons coach helped the XVs side clinch a place in Japan - the last of the 20 teams to do so. Now in charge of the sevens side, Paul is now plotting the country's course to reach next year's Olympics in Tokyo
Early in 2018, Henry Paul asked for indefinite leave from his job coaching rugby at Kings Al Barsha in Dubai, and headed to the other side of the world instead.
The former dual-code international was bound for Canada, where he had been recruited to help their national rugby team qualify for a major global championship in Japan.
Eighteen months on, and Paul has achieved his target twice over – and yet he will be absent when Canada line up against Italy in Fukuoka this month.
Initially he was signed up to oversee the defensive gameplan of Canada’s 15-a-side team, who had one final shot left at Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification.
They navigated the last-chance repechage competition in France in November 2018, meaning they were the last of the 20 teams to book their place in Japan.
Since then, though, the 45-year-old New Zealander has been enlisted to oversee their sevens team’s own bid to make it to the Olympic Games, which coincidentally is also in Tokyo next year. And he promptly ticked that box, too, after they were successful at a tournament in the Cayman Islands in July.
Dovetailing his role with the sevens team and the defence coach job with the XVs side was a bridge too far, though.
So, while Canada’s XVs players are preparing to face the might of New Zealand and South Africa in Japan, Paul will be back on Vancouver Island plotting a course through the World Sevens Series to the Olympics.
“I’m massively bothered, but I understand,” Paul, the former Jebel Ali Dragons coach, said of having to miss the World Cup.
“Rugby Canada showed faith in me to give this team the best shot, not just at this World Series, but also of going for a medal over in Japan [at the Olympics].
“I came in to do a job, which first off was to help the team get to the Rugby World Cup. Obviously, we were the last team to qualify.
“Being amongst these players, I don’t know how they got themselves into this situation. They were really switched on in Marseille for the repechage last year.
“I don’t think we were ever going to lose that. We were desperate to win, and had too much quality in the squad.”
Canada maintained their record of reaching every World Cup since its inception in 1987 when they won all three matches at the competition involving Hong Kong, Germany and Kenya.
Despite their muddled route to the World Cup, Paul is confident Canada can give a good account of themselves at the competition.
Given the prevailing challenges – some that are unique to Canada, others that are shared by most nations beyond rugby’s established elite – he argues that the country is a high achiever in the sport.
“In terms of travel, no one realises the costs and time,” Paul said.
“It is a six-hour flight [from their base in Langford on the west coast] to get to Victoria, or Halifax. There is good rugby in Toronto, too, and that is a good three- or four-hour flight. The country is huge.
“Another problem Canada had was, with some guys overseas, they never had their best team together.
“We have limited games as it is. Tier 1 teams get 50-odd Tests between World Cups. We are probably looking at 20, so less than half.
“We just have to make the most of it. It is a challenge. None of the boys moan about it, it is usually more us coaches.
“To have a team going to the World Cup, with a consistent team on the World Sevens Series, and with a women’s team that are in the top three or four in the world, it’s pretty good for an amateur rugby country.”
Paul is harbouring ambitions of adding a new entry to Canada rugby’s list of achievements, in the form of a medal at the Olympics.
It might seem a lofty target, but all the sides beyond the established elite in the abridged format took inspiration from how Japan fared when sevens made its Olympic debut in Rio in 2016.
Japan, who have not been anywhere near as regular participants on the World Series as Canada in the past, beat New Zealand in Rio, and only missed out on a bronze medal in the third-place match with South Africa.
Paul, who went to Commonwealth Games in Manchester and Melbourne as a player with England, is excited by the challenge that awaits.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be part of a squad going to an Olympics,” said Paul, who remains officially interim head coach of Canada sevens, despite filling the breach since May.
“We have to temper our excitement. It is a big series. We need as many fit guys as possible in camp from now until the moment we cut the squad down to 13 before we travel [to Tokyo].
“I’m good mates with Simon Amor [the England and Great Britain coach]. Obviously, with GB doing so well making the final in Rio and getting a silver medal, it is good to hear his stories.
“But now we want to make some of our own ones. If we can get ourselves right, we have seen what Japan did to the All Blacks, and you never know – sevens is a crazy game. We have potential to be competitive.”
Henry Paul looking forward to bringing Canada 'home' for Dubai Rugby Sevens
Henry Paul quickly became part of the fabric of UAE rugby after he was appointed Jebel Ali Dragon coach in 2016.
He still has a home in Downtown Dubai, and he will be hoping to lean on some help from his friends when he brings Canada back to start the World Sevens Series here in December.
“Historically Canada haven’t done very well in terms of opening the World Series with a bang,” Paul said of a Canada side who finished 11th on the series last season.
“The idea will be to get over a week or so earlier, if possible, to make use of some of the contacts we have there.”
Paul was coach when the Dragons warmed up for the Gulf League tournament at the 2017 Dubai Rugby Sevens with a training match against Fiji.
Stuart Quinn, the Dragons chairman, says the club will be glad of the chance to help their former coach’s new charges ahead of December’s tournament.
“It is once in a lifetime stuff for rugby players to be able to benchmark themselves against international teams,” Quinn said.
“We will definitely be lining up a few games of scrag. We have already organised to have some run out matches against them, and are trying to help get them some extra pitch time.
“It will be great to have Henry back here for the Dubai Sevens, and we are looking forward to having him back here.”
Updated: September 17, 2019 03:35 PM