2015 – 2016 HSBC Sevens World Series Preview
After a brief delay occasioned by the Rugby World Cup in fifteens, the highly anticipated HSBC Sevens World Series season is almost upon us. This time last year, we were looking at team USA coming off the worst season since becoming a core member on the series. The 2013–14 season led to hardware, sure, but it was the consolation bracket’s consolation bracket’s trophy–the shield, won four times. The results led to the dismissal of Coach Hawkins after a single season at the helm. When Coach Friday was hired, USA Rugby proclaimed that the goal for the team is a podium finish in Rio. At that point, the goal seemed at best unrealistic and at worst naive. Team Canada had seen its best season on the series and looked poised to secure a stranglehold over North American rugby. With North America competing with the Caribbean for a single qualification into the Olympic games, it looked like the Eagles were not only far from reaching the podium, they were likely not going to qualify for the Olympics.
What a difference a year, and the right coach, makes. In 2013–14, team USA reached the cup round only twice. In 2014–15, the Americans missed the cup round only three times, and twice won the consolation competition. More importantly, the team not only became a frequent visitor to the cup round, the Eagles became a dominant force on Day 2. A side that had only three times in its history reached the cup semifinal did so three times in 2015 alone. The season ended on the highest point in men’s Eagles Sevens history when Coach Friday’s team claimed the crown at the London Sevens after a resounding victory over Australia (45–22).
Following the World Series season, the Eagles turned in a breathtaking performance at the NACRA Sevens to earn the North American bid to the 2016 Olympic games. Later in the summer, a depleted side, with many of the best sevens Eagles called to the XVs Eagles for the World Cup, the team finally lost a match and slumped to a bronze medal finish behind team Canada (gold) and Argentina (silver).
It is safe to say, there has never been a season with greater anticipation for team USA than this year. The season gets under way on December 4 in Dubai. This season’s series has undergone some fairly major changes. Once again, the series has added an additional stop, bringing the number to ten. Additionally, the series has changed a great many of the prior venues. The first leg in Dubai is a familiar location, but the second leg in South Africa moves from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, the Australia stop–last year’s first, this year’s fourth–moves to Sydney from the Gold Coast, the Vancouver tournament in Canada–paired with the USA Sevens–is the new tournament, Singapore replaces Tokyo, and Paris replaces Glasgow. Other familiar venues remain unchanged. The USA Sevens is still in Las Vegas, New Zealand is still in Wellington, Hong Kong will never move, and the season finishes in London as usual.
The biggest excitement for this season is without question that the year will climax in August in Rio with the return of rugby to the Olympics. This is what rugby fans have been waiting for, and team USA is poised to retain gold–having won the last two gold medals in rugby (1920 & 1924). Team USA has already booked its place alongside Brazil (host nation), Argentina (CONSUR champion), France (European champion), Japan (ARFU champion), Australia (Oceania champion), Kenya (Africa champion), and Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand, and Great Britain (the top four teams from last year’s World Series season). One spot remains up for grabs. The winner will likely be Samoa or Canada.
The road to glory in Rio is paved by the hard work of Coach Friday and his staff and the men in residence at the Olympic Training Center. Earlier this month, USA Rugby announced the list of players in residence:
• Nate Augspurger
• Perry Baker
• Danny Barrett
• Garrett Bender
• Pat Blair
• Nic Edwards
• Will Holder
• Madison Hughes
• Martin Iosefo
• Carlin Isles
• Ben Leatigaga
• Mataiyasi Leuta
• Folau Niua
• Mattie Tago
• Mike Te’o
• Zack Test
• Brett Thompson
• Stephen Tomasin
• Maka Unufe
Last year’s team had a core of nine players who made the roster for each leg of the series–with the lone exception of Zack Test who was held out of London by injury. Of those nine–Perry Baker, Danny Barrett, Garrett Bender, Andrew Durutalo, Madison Hughes, Carlin Isles, Folau Niua, Zack Test, and Maka Unufe–only Durutalo is not currently in residence. Following the triumph in London, Durutalo announced that he would be turning his focus to his studies. He still was part of the team in its victory in the NACRA 7s and then stepped into a major role with the XVs team in the build up and at the World Cup this past fall. His lack of inclusion in the list of residence is unfortunate but does not mean for certain that we will not see Durutalo in Rio. It also seems likely that Durutalo may well garner attention from professional clubs in Europe. Mind you, he would not be the first
Notably, of the eight returning core players, Madison Hughes, who captained the team last season and will be expected to maintain that role, will be a full-time resident. Last year, Hughes balanced his senior year at Dartmouth College with his obligations to the national team. The transition into the new year may be a bit rougher for all-time points leader and record holder for most caps Zack Test along with Folau Niua and Danny Barrett. Test, Niua, and Barrett each featured prominently in the Eagles side at the World Cup. These three players along with Brett Thompson–also a member of the Eagles XVs World Cup side–were out of sevens camp following the NACRA victory until the team’s exit from the World Cup early this fall. Although each of these men is a great sevens player, the fitness and structure of sevens is quite different from fifteens. It may take a bit of time to get these four players back to firing at full speed in sevens.
Joining the core players in residency are several players who featured in numerous tournaments last year. Nate Augspurger was on the roster for four tournaments and added six points to his season tally. Nic Edwards joined the roster five times and posted a try. Martin Iosefo became a fairly regular feature making six rosters and adding fifteen points. The same is true for Mataiyasi Leuta who posted ten points in four tournaments and Pat Blair who made four rosters.
There are also familiar faces who did not make the highly competitive roster for the World Series last season, but featured in the side that competed at the Pan Am Game. Will Holder, Ben Leatigaga, Mike Te’o, Thompson, and Stephen Tomasin will each look to break into the rotation for the World Series after strong showings in Toronto. Only Mattie Tago is in residency without having earned a cap for the Eagles Sevens.
Coach Friday has done a wonderful job keeping his successful side together and taking talented athletes and turning them into stars of the seven-a-side game. It is still a long road to Rio, but the once unthinkable goal of defending Olympic gold seems within grasp.
Make sure to check back for coverage all season long, and don’t miss seeing team USA in person at the USA sevens in Las Vegas in March (4–6).