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Scoring star Sean Duke returns to action in Pan Am Games rugby title defence


Med school is on hold for Sean Duke as the veteran back comes out of retirement, looking to help Canada three-peat in rugby sevens at the Pan American Games.

The 31-year-old Duke, who has just started his fourth year of med school at UBC, is hoping a good showing in Lima, Peru, will lead to a return to the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, where he used to be a scoring machine for Canada. 

Duke and teammate Nate Hirayama were both part of the Canada teams that won Pan Am gold in Toronto in 2015 and Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2011 with close wins (22-19 and 26-24) over Argentina in each final. The U.S. won the bronze both times, downing Uruguay.

"It's a special tournament," said Duke. "These multisports games are special because you're part of a bigger team."

The Canadian men open play Friday against Uruguay before taking on Jamaica and Argentina on Saturday with playoffs Sunday.

Duke last suited up for Canada in sevens play at the inaugural Vancouver Sevens in 2016.

A bad back and medical school prompted the Vancouver native to retire from rugby later that year, although he returned briefly in 2017 when summoned by then-15s coach Mark Anscombe for Canada's summer test series. Duke won two more caps, upping his total to 13, and then returned to his studies.

But rugby kept tugging at him.

"I played a bit with UBC and I was like 'Damn I miss this game,'" he said.

He started building in training time with the sevens team in Langford, B.C., during his school breaks.

"Luckily for me this Pan Ams opportunity came up and my school was able to give me a couple of weeks off. So I'm just taking it step by step. Hopefully I'll play well and can set myself up to be involved next year."

If that happens, he will put school on hold "for a little while."

Duke was a longtime star on the sevens circuit and led Canada with 124 career World Series tries (the record is now held by Hirayama and Justin Douglas at 136).

Duke remains 25th on the World Series all-time try-scoring charts. An elegant runner, he had the speed to beat defenders. Or he could just bowl them over.

Duke had struggled with his back for a while before retiring. He suffered a herniated disc during training at the Wellington stop of the 2015-16 season, returning to action in Las Vegas only to have it give way again after one game at the 2016 Vancouver Sevens.

He had previously deferred his admission to the UBC medical school. The injury prompted him to take up that opportunity.

But he says the back is fine now.

"Time is what I needed," he said. "And it's the one thing I didn't have then.

"After stepping away from the game for a couple of years and doing rehab, it seemed to have resolved."

Canada was 11th this season in the World Series overall standings. The Americans finished second but have sent a young squad or Peru with six uncapped players. Argentina placed ninth on the circuit.

The Canadian men won previous Pan Am gold the hard way.

Four years ago, Harry Jones bulled his way over the goal-line with several Argentine players on his back for the winning try in a gold-medal game that saw Canada trail 12-0. The Canadian men dodged a bullet in the quarterfinals in a 17-12 overtime win over underdog Chile before staving off the U.S. for a 26-19 victory in the semis.

In 2011, Canada got the gold only after watching Argentina miss a conversion with no time remaining.

Duke is no stranger to juggling school and elite sport after earning a BSc and MSc in kinesiology from the University of Victoria. His undergraduate degree took six years to complete, with his master’s accounting for another 2 1/2 years.

When he graduates, Duke will join a select band of rugby players/doctors that includes Jamie Roberts of Wales and Jannie du Plessis of South Africa.

Former Welsh star JPR Williams was an orthopedic surgeon.

Former Canadian national team coach Pat Parfrey, who won a cap playing for Ireland, is a kidney specialist.


Canada Pan Am Rugby Sevens Roster

Phil Berna, Vancouver, UBC Thunderbirds; Cooper Coats, Halifax, Halifax Tars; Admir Cejvanovic, Burnaby, B.C., Burnaby Lake RFC; Sean Duke, Vancouver, unattached; Nathan Hirayama, Richmond, B.C., unattached; Harry Jones, West Vancouver, Capilano RFC; Isaac Kaay, Kamloops, B.C., UVIC Vikes; Patrick Kay, Duncan, B.C., Castaway Wanderers; Luke McCloskey, Cranbrook, B.C., Castaway Wanderers; Josiah Morra, Toronto, Toronto Saracens; Brennig Prevost, Victoria, Castaway Wanderers; Adam Zaruba, North Vancouver, Capilano RFC.

Interim head Coach: Henry Paul.


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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