2018 Singapore Sevens Preview
For what seems like an eternity, I have said that the most indispensable player on team USA is Folau Niua. As the Eagles attempt to do one better than last year’s silver-medal finish in Singapore, the team will have to do it without Niua. He joins the inactive list alongside Madison Hughes, who has been out since Sydney, and Maka Unufe, who went down injured in Las Vegas but was able to bounce back for Hong Kong. And team USA will not have an easy journey even if the whole squad was healthy.
The Eagles have drawn a pool that includes red-hot Kenya, an England team that just finished third in the Commonwealth Games, and the Hong Kong Challenge Trophy champion, France. In each of the last two World Series tournaments, Kenya has reached the final. For some perspective, the two appearances were Kenya’s fourth and fifth finals appearances all-time. The current run is among the best in Kenyan rugby history. Still, it is possible that Kenya’s run of success has been somewhat of an aberration. The path to the cup final in Canada was unquestionably difficult, including a quarterfinal victory over England that finished fifth and the United States fresh off the cup victory in Las Vegas. But the path in Hong Kong may have been deceptive.
In pool play, Kenya faced an Australian squad that rested most of its usual roster in preparation for the Commonwealth Games and faced underperforming teams Canada and Spain. The quarterfinal was also aided by taking on Scotland, which has yet to win a cup quarterfinal match this season and almost certainly reached the quarterfinal because England chose to rest its primary squad for the Commonwealth Games as well. Then, the semifinal pitted Kenya against New Zealand, which, you guessed it, chose not to send its usual players. Fiji, however, was at full strength and proved a worthy foe in the final.
At the Commonwealth Games, Kenya looked much more mortal. New Zealand obliterated Kenya (40–7) in pool play, blocking Kenya from the medal round. With fifth-place up for grabs, the Kenyans were throttled by Australia (33–5) and lost to a generally forgettable Wales (28–24) to finish 8th.
While Kenya wilted at the Commonwealth Games, England rose to the challenge. Following a bronze medal in Dubai, England’s season had been largely mediocre, with four straight seventh-place finishes following. A fifth-place in Vancouver was then followed by a dead-last finish in Hong Kong. But, England did not run its A-side out for Hong Kong. It will in Singapore. There can be no question that England will be expecting to advance to the quarterfinal for the seventh time in eight tournaments this season.
That leaves France as the team with the lowest expectations in the pool. That should come as no comfort at all for American fans. Despite losing to both Wales and Argentina, it took a herculean comeback to close the match against France to avoid an American defeat to start Hong Kong. And the tremendous effort still just meant a draw. France dominated the challenge trophy competition, humiliating a full-strength Samoa (38–0), beating an Australian B-side (24–12), and hammering a Canadian team only missing Justin Douglas (33–7).
For team USA, the roster includes a great many usual faces and one potential debutant slotting in as the thirteenth-man, which will likely mean a cap if the injury bug continues to plague the Americans as it has most all year. In the exclusive list of players to have appeared in each tournament this season are just five men: Ben Pinkelman, Carlin Isles, Danny Barrett, Martin Iosefo, and Matai Leuta. As he has since Hughes went out injured, Pinkelman will captain the team.
Continuing a seven-consecutive tournament streak of inclusion in the lineup is Kevon Williams. A relative unknown heading into the year, he has become a valuable Eagle notching six tries in that span.
Also claiming his seventh cap of the season is international sensation Perry Baker. Despite “only” three tries for Baker in Hong Kong—five tries fewer than his average of eight over the four prior tournaments—Baker still leads the season standings with thirty-five tries. Those tries and a conversion are good enough for fourth overall in points (177). Also on the list of top try scorers, coming in at number five, is Isles with twenty-seven, including thirteen in the last two tournaments.
With Niua sidelined, Cody Melphy gets the nod and will be expected to serve a starting role. Another player to watch with Niua out will be Stephen Tomasin to fill the inside playmaker and distributor role that Niua has mastered. After missing Las Vegas and Vancouver with injury, Tomasin returned for Hong Kong and will be hugely important, especially since he will likely get the lion’s share of conversion attempts.
Set to earn his sixth cap of the season, with two of the prior caps coming while wearing the thirteen shirt, is Chris Mattina. Alongside him, also set to win his sixth cap this year, is Malon Al-Jiboori. And rounding out the twelve-man lineup is Brett Thompson, earning his third straight cap after not having been on the traveling squad since December 2015.
In the injury-reserve role is Tala Talapusi. Just eighteen years of age, if drawn into the squad, Talapusi will win his first cap. While most of the rest of the team was competing in World Series action in Hong Kong, Talapusi was battling for Tiger Rugby in the Hong Kong 10s tournament. Joining Talapusi in that competition was Cody Melphy along with several others who are recognizable to fans of the Sevens Eagles such as Pat Blair, Nese Malifa, Nick Boyer, and Naima Fuala’au. And for fans of collegiate rugby who will recognize Melphy from Life’s tremendous team last season, earning him CRC Dream Team selection, Lindenwood’s Lorenzo Thomas, also a 2017 CRC Dream Team selection, competed for the Tigers in Hong Kong.
The action gets under way on Saturday (4/28) and will finish Sunday (4/29). Make sure to catch the matches Live on ESPN3.