2018 USA Sevens Rugby | 2017 Paris Rugby Sevens | 2017 Paris Sevens
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2017 Paris Sevens Preview

The final two tournaments of the season see the World Series return to Paris. Last year, fresh off a shocking first-ever cup victory for Kenya, the Series headed to Paris to see another shocking winner in Samoa. This year, the Series takes to the Stade Jean-Bouin with Canada having stepped into the shoes of Kenya.

Fans of the United States Eagles will carry high hopes into Paris following a remarkable stretch of four consecutive top-four finishes, including a top two finish for only the third time in program history. A mere nine points behind New Zealand, team USA remains a strong contender for a top four finish, but will need to also fend off a hard charge from Australia, which has reached consecutive semifinals and sits just seven points back in sixth place.

In the unprecedented run to four consecutive semifinals, the Eagles have managed to overcome numerous difficult pool draws. To make it five in a row, team USA will need to do so yet again:

Pool APool BPool CPool D
CanadaUSAEnglandAustralia
South AfricaNew ZealandKenyaFiji
ScotlandWalesFranceSamoa
JapanArgentinaSpainRussia

Team Canada is the top seed for the first time in program history. Nevertheless, South Africa will be the focal point for many as Paris kicks off. Despite missing the final in Singapore for the first time all season, settling for sixth after losing to New Zealand to end the tournament, South Africa will almost certainly leave Paris with the Series title officially in hand. The Blitzbokke are a jaw-dropping twenty-five points in front of second place Fiji. With a maximum twenty-two points on offer in a tournament and a minimum of one point for each team, South Africa (157) need only finish fewer than four points behind Fiji (132) and fewer than six points behind England (130) to by the official champion. South Africa will be buttressed by the return of Rosco Specman who was crucial to the success earlier in the season.

Canada will have legitimate hopes of besting South Africa to top Pool A but will also need to be mindful of a let down against Scotland. The Scots entered Paris last season having reached the quarterfinals only once. A bowl victory set Scotland up for a dramatic run to the cup title the following weekend in London. This season started very well for Scotland finishing 6th, 4th, and 3rd respectively through the first three tournaments. One weekend removed from a third-place finish in Wellington, Scotland fell to last in Sydney and has yet to return to the quarterfinal. A challenge trophy win in Hong Kong and loss to Wales in the challenge trophy final in Singapore, have Scotland looking salvage a disastrous season. Two strong tournaments to close could see Scotland move ahead of Canada and Argentina to finish seventh on the series.

Japan will also pose an interesting threat in the final two tournaments. Less than a year ago, Japan was in the Olympic bronze medal match. In its first season back as a core team on the Series, Japan has finished last in four tournaments, and no higher than eleventh. Despite desperately needing to finish strong to close the nine-point chasm, Japan has only made two changes to its last-place squad from Singapore.

England, cup winner in Cape Town and Vancouver, will be the prohibitive favorite to top Pool C.  Despite being the easiest pool to predict for the top spot, Pool D is remarkably difficult to predict as to the second seed to advance to the quarterfinal. France will look to shake off a forgettable season by invoking the spirit of the 2005 Paris champion French squad–France’s only cup title to date. Posing an equal threat is Kenya, which surprised Argentina in Singapore to reach the quarterfinal for only the second time this season.

Perhaps the most interesting angle to Pool C is Spain. Spain became a core team with the reconfiguration of the series (expanding the number of core teams from twelve to fifteen) ahead of the 2012–13 season. Following the 2013–14 season, Spain was the first core team to feel the relegation axe. An amazing run to claim the final spot in the Olympic games was followed up by a victory at the Series qualifier in Hong Kong to earn Spain the right to return to the Series next season as a core team. Although not a core team this season, Spain fills the role as the non-core invitee in Paris and London. Paris will mark Spain’s first Series tournament since the 2014 London Sevens. The Spanish are looking to reach the quarterfinal for the first time since the 2012 London Sevens, and might just have the horses to do it in Pool C.

With hopes of making it three consecutive Series crowns all but officially crushed, Fiji enters Paris looking to hold off England for the runner-up position. The last leg of the series was both the highest and lowest finishes for Fiji this season. In Hong Kong, Fiji walked away with the cup. In Singapore, Fiji walked away winless on Day 2.

Australia sits atop Pool D on the back of consecutive semifinal appearances. Injuries to Tom Lucas and Ed Jenkins have Australia looking a bit different from the last leg, but the squad is still composed of talent that could win the final two tournaments of the season.

Russia seems unlikely to compete in the tough Pool D for a quarterfinal appearance, but Samoa might. Last year, Samoa surprised everyone by winning Paris. Despite an extremely proud history, that includes twenty-five finals appearances, ten cup victories, and a series title, Samoa had experienced a multi-year drought between the 2012 Dubai Sevens title and the 2016 Paris Sevens crown. In that span, Samoa has fallen from a perennial threat to an also-ran. Under the leadership of Sir Gordon Tietjens, Samoa is expected to right the ship, but has not done so yet. Last in Hong Kong and eleventh in Singapore were extremely poor showings. Nevertheless, don’t count the defending champions just yet.

In what is rapidly becoming an extremely frustrating reality, team USA has again drawn the toughest pool based upon both season standings and results at the last tournament. Pool B has the second highest finishing one seed, and the highest two, three, and four seeds. In season standings, Pool B includes the teams currently ranked 4th, 5th, 8th, and 10th. By comparison: Pool C includes the 3rd, 11th, 12th, and the functional equivalent of 21st (since Spain has not yet accrued any series points); Pool D is the 2nd, 6th, 13th, and 14th ranked teams; and Pool A is the 1st, 7th, 9th, and 15th. The average-season-points totals by pool are: A–83.75, B–86, C–59.6, and D–71.75.

The United States Eagles return to Paris as perhaps the hottest team on the Series. This time last year, however, team USA was anything but. With a loss in the bowl final in Singapore, the Americans snapped an unprecedented nine-tournament quarterfinal streak. In Paris, the Eagles finished in eleventh. The Eagles will be looking to do a great deal better this season.

The second seeded All Blacks Sevens are a constant problem for team USA, but are seriously depleted by injuries. Of course, even an injury-riddled New Zealand side could still make a run to the cup, but more probably, this team will struggle in a difficult pool. If Argentina can bounce back to form and Wales can play its A-game, New Zealand will be in serious risk of missing the quarterfinal for the first time in history, after 154 consecutive top-eight finishes.

USA head coach, Mike Friday, only has three changes to his roster from Hong Kong/Singapore. Replacing Malon Al-Jiboori as the thirteenth man is eighteen-year old Naima Fualaau. Also out for this tournament is Anthony Welmers, who is replaced by Don Pati. Pati was in the lineup for the first four tournaments this season but was not in the squad for any of the four semifinal runs. The big news, however, is that Danny Barrett is out due to injury. Barrett, a dream team selection in Sydney, Vegas, and Singapore is a huge loss. At 110 points on the season–only Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, and Stephen Tomasin have more for the Eagles–Barrett is a huge playmaker on both sides of the ball.

Stepping in for Barrett is Alex Schwarz. Schwarz will make his Series debut in Paris. He is a twenty-eight-year old playing out of Old Blue of New York. Schwarz was brought into Eagles’ camp in Chula Vista in March and has clearly impressed enough to earn the opportunity.

As usual, the squad claims some of the best players in the world. Captain Madison Hughes is one of the most talented tacklers (119) and goal kickers (80 conversions and 210 points) on the series Hughes is fourth in total points, second in most conversions, and fifth in tackles. Folau Niua is easily the best restart kicker in the game along with being a remarkably productive player in virtually every facet imaginable. Perry Baker is the leading try scorer (41), only twenty-one points shy of the top spot on points (205) on the series, and is atop the table for most clean breaks (52), with England’s Dan Norton (43), who now holds the all-time try record, in second. Joining the exclusive list of top talent is Stephen Tomasin who third in the series for tackles (124), second on the team in tries (23), and third on the team for points (149). And no list of world-class talent would be complete without Andrew Durutalo, who is one of the strongest men on the series and does not hesitate to make his presence felt with ball in hand. Returning from the squad that reached the Singapore final are also Ben Pinkelman, Maka Unufe, Martin Iosefo, Matai Leuta, and Mike Te’o.

The action starts on Saturday (5/13) and concludes on Sunday (5/14). Check back for a recap of the 2017 Paris Sevens.

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