2016-17 Cape Town 7s Preview
2016 Cape Town Sevens Preview
Completing the first leg of the 2016–2017 HSBC Sevens World Series, the series heads to Cape Town for the South Africa Sevens. Last year, as with this year, the Dubai Sevens was largely familiar faces atop the final standings. Cape Town in 2015, however, was quite different. Not a single semifinalist from Dubai reached the semifinals in Cape Town, with semifinal irregulars Argentina, France, and Kenya finishing second through fourth respectively. Several of the teams, including team USA, there will be strong hopes of this year’s South Africa Sevens resembling the
The pool draw for Dubai is as follows:
Each pool carries intrigue and unique storylines. However, Pool A is clearly the roughest draw. Based upon the current rankings, the average rank for Pool A is 7.5, Pool B is 8.75, Pool C is 8.5, and Pool D is 8.5. If the fourth seed is removed from each pool, the contrast is even greater: Pool A is 5, Pool B is 6.7, Pool C is 7, and Pool D is 6.7. Even assuming that Dubai was an aberration and using last year’s final standings, the average rank in each pool is 5.2, 6.8, 7.25, and 10.2 (allotting Uganda a 20th-place finish). Under the old award structure, Pool A contains the cup, plate, and bowl champions from Dubai. In short, Pool A is a tricky pool to say the least.
Pool B is interesting. Fiji will be expected to dominate the pool. Both France and Kenya have the ability to pull an upset over Fiji, but should not be expected to do so. The interest lies in the France vs Kenya match. Heading into this season, one might have been justified in expecting Japan to compete in this kind of draw, following a loss in the bronze medal match at the Olympics. Japan played Australia well in Dubai but lost decisively to France, Kenya, and Argentina and even lost to Uganda en route to finishing tied for last. France will be favored, especially after beating Kenya (24–14) in Dubai, but France has proven time-and-time-again that it is an inconsistent side. Kenya has also established a history of playing well in the lone Series event played on African soil, finishing fourth last year and defeating eventual champion South Africa in pool play.
Pool C carries tremendous name recognition, but dubious sevens play of late. Were this a XVs competition, Pool C would be the pool to watch. Instead, England tops this pool after a resurgent bronze medal in Dubai in the wake of team Great Britain’s silver medal success in Rio. Nevertheless, just last year England fell from Dubai runner-up to last place at the USA Sevens. Similarly, no team can boast a prouder sevens tradition that New Zealand. Nevertheless, after a run of twelve series titles in fifteen years, New Zealand has fallen to unprecedented lows the past two seasons, ultimately costing coach Gordon Tietjens his job. To date, New Zealand has still never missed the cup round in any competition, though came excruciatingly close in Rio this past summer and, largely due to injuries, in Cape Town last year.
The fate of New Zealand and Pool C will depend in large part on what Argentina shows up. In Dubai, the Argentines were on the wrong end of tough losses to Wales and Fiji in pool play. In the challenge trophy semifinal, Argentina added a third and final loss to Samoa. The combined margin of defeat was seven points. It is entirely possible that Pool C will come down to a three-way tie at 2–1. If that happens, history shows New Zealand will find a way to make the top two.
The wildcard in Pool C is team Canada. The Canadians have certainly shown in the past that they can compete and may even be able to pull an upset over any of the three teams above them. Nevertheless, the past two seasons and Dubai have shown Canada is a shell of the team that reached record-setting heights in 2014–2015, and should be expected to sit at the bottom of Pool C.
Pool D welcomes Uganda back for a second consecutive tournament. In Dubai, Uganda actually led the United States at the half and then beat Japan in the thirteenth-place semifinal, becoming the first ever non-core invitee in the modern format to have won a match on the series without ever having been a core team. Only Japan, which was a core team in 2014–2015, has ever accomplished that feat before. Still, Uganda will be looking to compete in pool play but should not expect a victory. The decision to boot the ball to touch in attacking territory to end the half against team USA showed a team that is not yet ready to compete against the three accomplished nations above.
Wales enters Cape Town in an extremely rare top seed. Despite laying claim to the 2009 World Cup title, the Welsh have been a nonfactor for several years. Yet, in Dubai, a strong squad came through to finish fourth. Ultimately, the second seed, Scotland, finished sixth after losing to Australia, which Wales defeated earlier in the day. In a battle between home nations, the victory will depend largely on the bounce of the ball on that day. Similarly, Samoa, which, like Scotland, claimed one of last year’s cup titles, is a side that could easily advance out of Pool D. The Samoans have played inconsistently against talented sides and struggled with weak sides. The one thing that is certain is that Samoa will not be pushed aside easily. In the end, I think Pool D will be won by Scotland and followed by Wales.
Returning to Pool A, the top three teams could each win this tournament. The fourth team, Russia, should end 0–3. South Africa is the obvious favorite. But, team USA came within two conversions clanging off the post of defeating South Africa in Dubai. Australia also proves a fierce competitor, having just finished fifth in Dubai and fourth in last year’s Series. For team USA, the difficulty will be achieving a rare victory over either side with a young roster missing its top goal kicker and captain, Madison Hughes.
In coach Mike Friday’s first season with the Eagles, an astonishing eight players competed in every single tournament. A ninth, Zack Test, would have competed in all nine, but was an injury scratch from the 2015 London Sevens. Last season, only three players competed in every tournament: Folau Niua, Madison Hughes, and Perry Baker. Each also competed in Dubai to extend the streak of those three players to twenty World Series tournaments, not counting the NACRA qualifier, Pan Am Games, and the Olympics. In Cape Town, captain Madison Hughes’s streak comes to an end. Hughes departs for a brief hiatus and is expected to return in the new year. Hughes, like many, has competed both in international sevens and XVs, and the brutality of those engagements has taken a toll.
Hughes joins core players Zack Test and Garret Bender on the hiatus list. In addition to those three, Ben Pinkelman and Carlin Isles remain sidelined with injury. Moreover, coach Friday has returned stateside to further his duties with the XVs program. In Dubai, assistant coach Chris Brown was the official head coach, with Friday providing assistance. Now, it is entirely Brown’s team in Cape Town. Unquestionably, Brown is perfectly qualified and experienced to lead this team to victory, but it sets up a larger question of USA Rugby’s commitment to sevens excellence, with the XVs team free to plunder the sevens roster and coaching staff seemingly at will, including weeks before the Olympics this past summer.
Filling in for Hughes is Davenport alumnus Anthony Welmers. Perry Baker will serve as the team’s captain in place of Hughes. Fortunately, most everyone is expected back in the new year, but there is one major exception. One of the nine-tournament guys from 2014–2015 was Andrew Durutalo. Durutalo left the sevens team after the NACRA qualifier in the summer of 2015 to focus on the XVs World Cup and then to compete in the Super League. Durutalo returned for the Olympics and has remained with the team for the first leg of the series. His absence was a clear whole in the 2015–2016 team, leaving Danny Barrett as the sole bruiser and requiring Garrett Bender to try and fill big shoes. The return of Durutalo has been a welcome sight, but seems like it might go largely unrewarded before his XVs duties call him back.
That said, it is beyond question that Test, Bender, and now Hughes absolutely have earned time off. Each man has given more to the program than can ever be tallied. And in Dubai, Hughes did not quite look his top-shelf self. His tackling was less crisp than he is accustomed. Last year, Hughes finished the top tackler for team USA and number four in the Series (118 total). In Dubai, Hughes did not finish in the top 20, with Stephen Tomasin pacing the Eagles at 16 tackles. Granted, Hughes did not play against Uganda. The point remains the same, Hughes looks like some rest will do him well, and we certainly look forward to having him back.
Aside from his leadership, the biggest drop off without Hughes will be at goal kicking. For years, the conversion rate for the United States was a constant weakness. Hughes has managed to turn that weakness into strength. In 2014–2015, Hughes slotted 176 points with the boot. Last year, he upped that tally to 216. In the process, Hughes finished last season as the top scorer on the series and shattered the Eagles’ points record. In Dubai, Hughes added 12 conversions and added three more tries to extend the American points record to 764 in his time on the series.
The action gets underway on Saturday (12/10) and concludes on Sunday (12/11). Check back for a breakdown of the 2016 South Africa Sevens.