2018 Dubai 7s Preview
As music playing in the background of groceries and offices reminds, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” While those jingles are certainly referring to the holiday season, for rugby fans, the reason is a bit different. Kicking off this week in Dubai is the 2017–2018 HSBC Sevens World Series. For fans of team USA there is a great deal of excitement for both the men’s and women’s programs as we lead up to Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco in July.
The excitement is the product of great recent success for both squads. For the men, team USA reached new heights last season. A string of seven top-six finishes to close the year, including five semifinals and a tough loss to Canada in the Singapore Cup Final, lead the Eagles to a fifth-place finish on the series. That was one spot ahead of the team’s previous best. Add to that remarkable years for Danny Barrett and Perry Baker. Each were named to the season dream team, and Baker was named World Rugby’s 7s Player of the Year earlier this week.
For the women, a finals appearance in Sydney and a semifinal run in Vegas saw tremendous growth for a squad that has not always lived up to the high hopes its fans carry for it. After starting with an eleventh-place finish in Dubai, the Women rattled off six straight top-seven finishes, including four top-six showings. It will be important for the Eagles to show that they can sustain that run. In recent years, the team has started slowly and improved as the season progressed.
Dubai, however, has long proved a hurdle for the American women. Since finishing fourth in 2011, team USA has not placed higher than seventh in Dubai. In 2015, the Eagles’ lone victory was a revenge win over Ireland in the eleventh-place match, having lost to the Irish in pool play. In 2016, the Americans started the tournament with a strong win over Russia, but then lost three straight matches before defeating Brazil for eleventh.
A tough pool draw pits the Eagles against defending series champion New Zealand, France, who finished last season only one spot behind the Americans and ahead of team USA in each of the last two tournaments, and South Africa. While the South African women’s team is not as accomplished as its male counterpart, it still a formidable foe. The South Africans have won the Women’s Africa Cup Sevens title the last five years without dropping a match. In the inaugural Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens (2009), South Africa reached the semifinal before losing to New Zealand.
In order to overcome the difficult pool, the American squad will need to be quick learners. Of the twelve women, seven of them combine for a mere three caps. Four are competing in their first tournament and three more have only one prior tournament under their belts. But the team still has out-right stars to help carry the load. Naya Tapper led all Americans and finished second overall in tries last season with an astonishing 32. Joining her are Olympic veterans Alev Kelter and Ryan Carlyle. Kelter continues her unbroken streak of appearances in an Eagles shirt in every series tournament since her debut in 2014. And the side will be captained by Nicole Heaverirland.
The American women will kickoff against France on Thursday (11/30).
For the men, Dubai has often proven a difficult venue to start. With the exception of a tremendous third-place result in 2015, which saw the Eagles defeat New Zealand for the first and second time, Dubai has often proven a low-point in the season. In 2014, team USA finished eleventh before turning the season around in South Africa. In 2016, team USA finished ninth. But there is great reason to expect much better in 2017.
For the first time in recent memory, team USA has the benefit of not starting the Sevens World Series season without getting wet behind the ears. The Eagles were one of twelve teams to compete at the inaugural Silicon Valley Sevens in San Jose, earlier this month. The Eagles beat Tonga, New Zealand, Chile, Fiji, and England ahead of a narrow defeat to Australia in the tournament final. And, mind you, that was a squad with some, but not all of the great stars team USA has assembled for Dubai.
Absent convincing Andrew Durutalo to abandon the Worcester Warriors, it’s hard to imagine a better roster for Coach Mike Friday. Leading the pack, as usual, is Captain Madison Hughes. Hughes was tabbed as the thirteenth man for San Jose, but fortunately was not called into duty. Among Eagles, only Perry Baker outpaced Hughes in scoring last year. But that comes as no surprise, since Baker finished as both the top try scorer and top points scorer on the series. Hughes, was left to settle for third in overall points.
Joining Hughes as absences from San Jose are Baker and Danny Barrett, neither of whom need do anything more to cement a place in American rugby history. Baker is the quintessential speedster on the wing who combines both quickness and decision making to gallop away from defenders, often untouched. Barrett, on the other hand, mixes power and pace to often bulldoze his way through the competition. That is certainly not to say that Barrett cannot out sprint many on the circuit, but he is a man who need not always find a gap to find space, as over a player is just as viable a route as around.
Returning after a lengthy hiatus and having battled back through injury is Carlin Isles. The man often known as the fastest man in rugby has not been in an Eagles shirt since a five-try outing in Australia last season. After a difficult return to health, Isles is poised to provide the much-needed extra energy and speed to spell Baker. Historically, Coach Friday used Isles and Baker interchangeably with each having similar speed and explosiveness on the wing. In Isles’ absence, Baker has transformed into the best player in the game. That likely will see Baker remain the go-to, but the absence of Isles has limited Baker in the past, keeping him on the field longer than desired. The ability to substitute Isles for Baker and keep the gas flowing is invaluable.
Also on the roster are San Jose dream team selections Ben Pinkelman, Folau Niua, and Stephen Tomasin. It is often easy to overlook the contributions that these three men make to the team, though sometimes they make it so apparent that you could not overlook them even if you tried. It has been said before and should be repeated over and over again: Folau Niua is the best restart kicker in the game and team USA drops off dramatically without his consistency. Add to that his field awareness and timely to space, and you have a player every bit as vital to the team as anyone else. Similarly, Pinkelman is a tremendous defender and all-around worker. And Tomasin’s six tries and thirty-two points in San Jose speak for themselves.
Also in the lineup from the Silicon Valley Sevens are series regulars Matai Leuta, Maka Unufe, and Martin Iosefo. Iosefo and Unufe combined for six tries in San Jose and are always poised to find a seam and explode for a score or pound defenders. Leuta is another one of the pieces that you can overlook but has been part of the vital core of team USA success. Last year, only six players were in the lineup for all ten tournaments: Durutalo, Niua, Baker, Tomasin, Iosefo, and, you guessed it, Matai Leuta.
More recent additions to the squad are Joe Schroeder and Malon Al Jiboori. Al Jiboori received a cap last season in very limited action. He was designated the thirteenth man for several tournaments and saw limited action in the semifinal victory over Australia in Singapore. He will be looking to cement himself into every-tournament status this season. Like Al Jiboori, Joe Schroeder will be looking to break into regular status in what will be his first outing on the series. Schroeder notched two tries in San Jose to help get him this spot.
Also traveling with the team will be Naima Fualaau as the thirteenth man. Fualaau was with the team in the last leg of the 2016–17 series in England.
The draw for team USA is far from easy. The Eagles will start with Argentina. Despite a slight dip in recent years, Argentina is always a tough out and is coming off a strong season that included six quarterfinals and a challenge trophy. Team USA will look to build on an impressive five-match winning streak over Argentina that began last season in Australia.
The second match for the United States is no less difficult. Although Samoa has been on hard times in recent years, it is a team that can always come together and win big, as the Samoans have shown in each of the past two seasons in Paris. And Samoa enters with wins over Fiji, Canada, Ireland, and Japan, and a draw with England in San Jose. While those squads were not necessarily at full strength, the simple fact is that Samoa looked much improved earlier this month and will be a tough out.
And the final match of pool play should be the pool decider between the United States and New Zealand. It is easy to sleep on New Zealand after what a squad in the all black shirts did at the Silicon Valley Sevens. That team found itself on the cusp of missing out on an international quarterfinal for the first time, needing help to get in. And once the team was in, it was awful, settling for seventh. But the team in Dubai is much different, much more experienced, and will be reminiscent of the All Blacks Sevens teams in recent years: far from invincible, but poised to chug along to yet another top-four series finish.
For the men, the action gets underway Friday (12/1) in Dubai and concludes on Saturday (12/2). Make sure to check back for a complete recap of all the action.
The 2018 Dubai 7s will be available on ESPN 3 via the links below.
|Air Date (EST)||Start Time (EST)||End Time (EST)|
|Fri 12/1/2017||12:00 AM||12:22 AM||USA vs. Argentina>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||12:22 AM||12:44 AM||New Zealand vs. Samoa>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||12:44 AM||1:06 AM||Australia vs. Wales>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||1:06 AM||1:28 AM||Fiji vs. Russia>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||1:30 AM||1:52 AM||Canada vs. Kenya>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||1:52 AM||2:14 AM||South Africa vs. Uganda>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||2:14 AM||2:36 AM||Scotland vs. France>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||2:36 AM||2:58 AM||England vs. Spain>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||3:00 AM||3:22 AM||USA vs. Samoa>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||3:22 AM||3:44 AM||New Zealand vs. Argentina>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||3:44 AM||4:06 AM||Australia vs. Russia>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||4:06 AM||4:28 AM||Fiji vs. Wales>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||5:14 AM||5:36 AM||Canada vs. Uganda>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||5:36 AM||5:58 AM||South Africa vs. Kenya>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||5:58 AM||6:20 AM||Scotland vs. Spain>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||6:20 AM||6:42 AM||England vs. France>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||9:00 AM||9:22 AM||Argentina vs. Samoa>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||9:22 AM||9:44 AM||New Zealand vs. USA>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||9:44 AM||10:06 AM||Wales vs. Russia>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||10:06 AM||10:28 AM||Fiji vs. Australia>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||10:31 AM||10:53 AM||Kenya vs. Uganda>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||10:53 AM||11:15 AM||South Africa vs. Canada>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||11:15 AM||11:37 AM||France vs. Spain>|
|Fri 12/1/2017||11:37 AM||11:59 AM||England vs. Scotland>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||12:30 AM||12:52 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||12:52 AM||1:14 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||1:14 AM||1:36 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||1:36 AM||1:58 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||2:00 AM||2:22 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||2:22 AM||2:44 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||2:44 AM||3:06 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||3:06 AM||3:28 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||4:38 AM||5:00 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||5:00 AM||5:22 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||5:22 AM||5:44 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||5:44 AM||6:06 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||6:35 AM||6:57 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||6:57 AM||7:19 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||7:19 AM||7:41 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||7:41 AM||8:03 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||8:57 AM||9:19 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||9:19 AM||9:44 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||9:44 AM||10:08 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||10:08 AM||10:33 AM||TBD>|
|Sat 12/2/2017||10:33 AM||10:58 AM||TBD>|