When Potential Turned Into Success
The 2014–2015 HSBC Sevens World Series was easily set to be the most important in series history. On top of the usual stakes, the top four finishers in the season standing earned a bid to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. With only twelve spots in rugby’s triumphant return to the ancient games, the teams that qualified through the series were able to avoid the difficult road through regional qualifiers and the dreaded repechage. When it was all said and done, the four teams to book places in Rio were as I had predicted: New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji, and England. Though the top four, as a group, may have been predictable, that was about the only thing about this past season that was.
The nine-tournament season got under way with the Gold Coast Sevens in October. As would become a theme throughout this season of change, the tournament was the last installment of the Sevens World Series to be held in the usual venue. Starting next year, the Australian leg of the tournament moves to Sydney. The tournament crown went to the Fijians after a hard-fought victory over Samoa. New Zealand, the perennial favorite riding an amazing four-year streak of series championships, stumbled to a plate finish. For team USA, the tournament was the first chance to see what former England and Kenya coach, Mike Friday, could do to turn a team that stared down the barrel of relegation in 2013–2014 into a competitor. The Eagles failed to reach the cup round out of a difficult pool but managed an important victory (17–15) over rival Canada. In the end, the Americans cruised through the bowl competition to claim the team’s first bowl championship since 2011.
After a two-month break, the series rolled into Dubai. Once again, the United States was hampered by a difficult pool draw. Despite close losses to England and Australia, the Americans fell to the bowl round and a semifinal defeat to France. The result was disappointing in the wake of increasing hopes built upon the strong showing on the Gold Coast. It was one of only two times in the season that the Americans failed to score at least 100 combined in their matches. The real shock of Dubai was Samoa failing to reach the cup round. Still, as the United States had done in the first tournament, Samoa marched through Day 2 undefeated to claim the bowl. In the top tier, it was the Blitz Bokke of South Africa that stole the show with a resounding victory over Australia. The All Blacks Sevens of New Zealand continued to struggle and fell to Fiji in the third place match. The result hoisted Fiji to the top of the table.
Heading into the third event, one week removed from Dubai, the Eagles had continuously failed to impress. The South Africa Sevens in Port Elizabeth is where that script began to change. Finally drawing a more favorable pool, team USA thumped Wales and Kenya to notch two wins in pool play. Despite a 26–0 shutout loss to South Africa, the Eagles were on their way to the cup round for the first time in the season. A quarterfinal loss to New Zealand sent the Eagles to the plate semifinal where they bested Scotland on the way to a 21–14 victory over Fiji for the plate title. The loss coupled with South Africa’s second consecutive cup victory, bumped the Fijians out of first place in the series standings. New Zealand, continuing its steady climb toward improvement, reached the cup final, only to lose to rival South Africa. As in Dubai, the shocking story of Port Elizabeth was the continued fall from grace suffered by Samoa as the team fell in the shield final. In the span of two tournaments, a team once viewed as a dark horse to claim a top-four series finish had crashed from second place to fourteenth.
Heading into a two-month break before the Wellington Sevens and USA Sevens, team USA had found some success but had yet to reach full potential. In Dubai, it was Zack Test who lit up the scoring column, notching seven tries in all. Not to be outdone, speedster Perry Baker proved early to be a fantastic compliment to emerging star Carlin Isles–often called the fastest man in rugby. Baker nearly matched Test’s pace in Dubai with six tries of his own. In Dubai, the scoring was more balanced as Isles once more led the pack with five tries. Finally, in South Africa, captain Madison Hughes led all American scorers, a familiar position as the season progressed. Isles notched six tries, but Hughes’s prolific boot made the difference as his three tries were complimented thirteen conversions to post an impressive forty-one-point tournament.
With the All Blacks Sevens having progressed from fifth-place, to fourth-place, to second-place finishes, it was their time to shine before the home crowd in Wellington. After cruising through pool play with a perfect record, New Zealand posted wins over Australia, South Africa, and England to clinch the side’s first cup title of the season. For team USA, the lingering question was whether the team could string together consecutive cup round births after struggling to do so the year before. Instead of crumbling under the pressure, the United States once more posted a 2–1 record in pool play with the lone loss coming to then-series-leader South Africa. The cup quarterfinal proved considerably more cruel. With a cup semifinal birth in eyesight, and a two score lead over Scotland heading into the final minutes of play, the United States let the match slip away. The plate semifinal against Fiji was another close loss (12–10). Despite the disappointing finish, a more balanced team showed up in Wellington and it was clear the Americans were on the cusp of something special. Seven players managed to dot the ball down at least twice–four of whom did it three or more times. For Samoa, yet another shield final defeat proved that the stumbles in Dubai and South Africa were not isolated events.
The next tournament on the schedule was a stop that has rapidly risen to be one of the crown jewels of the sport: the USA Sevens from Las Vegas, Nevada. In front of a proud home crowd, the Americans powered to a 2–0 start in pool play before once more facing South Africa in the pool decider. Undeterred by the winless record against the Blitz Bokke on the year, team USA took the match to South Africa. In the end, it was the South Africans who were lucky to eek out a 19–19 draw. Atop the pool and set to butt heads with North American rival, team Canada, the Eagles cruised to a twenty-point-shutout victory. The quarterfinal appearance was the first for the United States since reaching the cup final in 2010, and only third ever. Despite the electric run to the semifinals, the Eagles made a few too many errors against a talented New Zealand and fell to a first ever appearance in the third-place match. As Coach Friday said after the 31–0 loss to South Africa to finish the day, the veteran side that was South Africa was able to put its semifinal loss behind it and the Americans were not. The cup title went to a hard-surging Fijian team that celebrated the accomplishment long after the TV cameras were packed away.
Thanks to an extremely rare top-four finish, the United States was seeded atop its pool. Just as in Vegas, team USA posted a two win, one draw record to reach the cup quarterfinal. Unlike Vegas, the Eagles tumbled to a resurgent Samoa in the cup quarterfinal. Samoa would ultimately end its run to the top with a one-point loss in the semifinal to New Zealand. The All Blacks would go on to repeat the result from Vegas by losing to Fiji in the final. For the United States, it was a solid plate semifinal victory over Argentina and a trip to the plate final to face Australia. With a try in sight on full time, an errant exchange caused the ball to tumble to the pitch and the match to end with Australia the four-point victors. Despite taking a slight step backward from Vegas, the result was still a solid showing from a team that had gone from also-ran to feared competitor. Tokyo was a slightly different story.
The following weekend, the series headed across the sea to the island of Japan. The major story of Tokyo was the jaw dropping upsets. Most notably, Japan, a side that seemed certain for relegation managed to reach the cup round at home. Both team USA and Australia–the plate finalists the week before–missed the cut and were left to battle it out for the bowl. After consistent slow starts to tournaments, the United States dropped the opening match to Kenya and failed to find form in time to right the ship. As a result, the team that had topped its pool in consecutive tournaments was left at the bottom of the pool in Japan. Ultimately, the Americans easily climbed into the bowl final and made amends for the prior loss to Australia. The Australian loss proved a major impediment to the side’s hope for a top-four series finish. Heading into Japan, England was in fifth place chasing Australia. With the Aussies missing the cut and England winning the cup, Australia was left on the outside looking in and the final two tournaments heading to Great Britain.
For the United States, the Scotland Sevens, making its final trip to Glasgow, was do or die. Numerous times before, the Eagles have shown patches of glory but then failed to sustain the success. If this team was to be taken seriously, it had to show that Vegas was not a fluke. Things did not start well for team USA. As they had in Hong Kong and Tokyo, the team began the day looking as though they were still in bed. The error prone Eagles were smashed by Canada 40–0. Fortunately, a weak pool draw left the door open for a birth into the quarterfinal. With wins over Argentina and Japan, the Americans were once more where they needed to be on Sunday. With the confidence gained from a bowl victory in Tokyo, the United States edged Australia to advance to a second semifinal on the year. There, the team ran into the buzz saw that was Fiji and fell in a hard fought match. Fiji would go on to a third consecutive finals victory over New Zealand to all but clinch the series title. For team USA, it was a radically different starting line up to face England in the third-place match. The match started looking like the tournament might be bookended with humiliating defeats. Instead, the resilient Eagles closed with a late score to leave a flattering score line of 24–19.
Heading into the final stop of the season, the top three teams–Fiji, South Africa, and New Zealand, had already booked their place in Rio. Only England stood any chance of missing out. Before pool play was through, England had clinched its top-four spot, leaving Australia to the regional qualifiers. For team USA, it was another slow start to the tournament. The Americans fended off France 24–19. Next up was Portugal; the only team that had not reached the cup round all season. Again, the Americans found themselves tested, but pushed through. With a spot in the cup round secured, team USA took the pitch for yet another pool match against South Africa. With some speculation as to what kind of fight South Africa would put up with a possible loss allowing South Africa the opportunity to oust Fiji in the cup quarterfinal and keep hopes of a series crown alive, South Africa took the pitch playing to win. So too, did the Eagles. On this day, it was the United States who proved the superior side. Undefeated through pool play, the Americans earned a rematch with Canada in the quarterfinal. Despite the drubbing a week before, team USA pounded Canada (29–10) to setup a rematch of Glasgow’s third-place match.
England, playing for a home crowd, was left stunned as the United States poured it on to win 43–12. A similar fate befell series champion Fiji against Australia. For the fourth time in as many tournaments, team USA took the pitch against Australia. Boasting a two-match winning streak, the Eagles pulled away from the men from down under to clinch a first ever cup victory for the United States. The win proved that sustained success is a possibility. From cellar to champion in a year, team USA did what many feared impossible. Fittingly, it was captain Madison Hughes who earned the tournament MVP honors in commemoration of a seven-try, sixty-five point tournament.
The season was one of countless records for team USA. The Eagles set new records for most total points in a season, most tries in a season, most cup round appearances, most series standings points, highest series finish, most cup semifinal appearances, and tied a team record for most hardware accumulated in a season. In the end, the team did the most important thing of all: they proved they belong.
Though the season is in the books, next year is just around a corner. Before then, there are still two major events for the Eagles 7s this summer. Next up is the most important competition in program history: the NACRA Olympic qualifiers. The Eagles benefit from being the host nation for the tournament. If history is any indicator, the championship match should pair team Canada and team USA in a winner-take-all battle. Despite the 40–0 drubbing in Glasgow, the United States won every match this past season against team Canada. There can be no doubt that team USA is the favorite to win qualification, but nothing is certain. The NACRA qualifier will be streamed online on June 13th & 14th through USARugbyTv.com.
After NACRA, team USA will head north of the border to compete in the Pan American Games. The Eagles are the defending bronze medalists with Canada having edged Argentina for the gold. It will be very interesting to see what the roster for Pan Am looks like in light of the fact that this is a Rugby World Cup year for the XVs team and many stars of the sevens game are no doubt future roll players for coach Mike Tolkin’s Eagles XVs. That said, for NACRA, it is XVs star and former 7s captain Chris Wyles that has been the surprise addition to sevens camp. There is a lot of uncertainty left this summer, but one thing is for certain, it will be exciting and the Eagles are ready to overcome any challenge.