Rugby World Cup 7s Preview
On April 28, 1883, the sport of rugby sevens was born in Melrose, Scotland. One hundred ten years later, the short-code version of rugby union had grown sufficiently in size and scope to claim its own World Cup competition, just six years after the fifteen-aside game first competed for the Webb Ellis Cup. Appropriately held in Scotland, that first Rugby Sevens World Cup saw legends of the sport such as Lawrence Dallaglio (who would become a dual cup champion in 2003) and David Campese (a fifteens World Cup champion in 1991) battling for the right to be the first nation to hoist the Melrose Cup. That year, it was England triumphing over Australia.
In 1997, the second Rugby World Cup Sevens headed to the legendary venue in Hong Kong, seeing Fiji claim its first Melrose Cup title in a thrilling final over South Africa. As the sport continued to grow, just two years later World Rugby launched the Rugby Sevens World Series dramatically increasing the level of skill in the sevens game. For the next decade, the Rugby World Cup Sevens remained the sports top prize as New Zealand held the cup aloft in 2001, followed by Fiji’s second title in 2005, and a shocking 2009 tournament in Dubai that saw Wales come away with the cup, defeating Argentina in the final.
2009 proved to be a monumental year for the sport. It saw the addition of the Women’s Rugby World Cup Sevens and, after years of hard work laying the foundation for the odd-shaped ball to return to the Olympic Games, the IOC announced that rugby sevens would be added at the 2016 Rio Games, putting Olympic gold on offer for rugby for the first time since 1924. Overnight, the focus and attention on rugby sevens exploded. In the United States, the first and most obvious sign of the change in perspective was the launching of the Collegiate Rugby Championship to bring high-level sevens into collegiate rugby. One need only look back at the rosters from even the first CRC and count the capped Eagles to see how big of an impact that shift in focus has played on the sport.
But, as all eyes turned to Rio 2016, the future of Rugby World Cup Sevens was very much in doubt. Just weeks before the 2013 World Cup in Moscow, World Rugby finally put the fears of the death of the World Cup to rest, announcing that the competition would continue and remain a quadrennial affair, though it would now alternate in two-year cycles with the Olympic games. That meant the World Cup Sevens would not be competed in 2017 but would wait an extra year for 2018.
Emerging as a first-time host, the United States leapt at the chance to bring the competition to North America. AT&T Park, home to Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants and former host to numerous football games, was chosen as the venue. But there was one more big change heading into this World Cup. Unlike the traditional pool-based competitions of years past that mirrored larger versions of Rugby World Series tournaments, this World Cup is purely knock-out based. After strong seasons for both the USA men and women, resulting in favorable seeding, the change in format appears likely to benefit both sides as they each look to lay claim to their first World Cup Sevens crowns.
Of course, for the United States women, an ultimate triumph at the World Cup Sevens would vault them into extremely rarified air. In the women’s game, only New Zealand has won both a fifteens (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 & 2017) and a sevens World Cup (2013). Semifinalists in each of the two other Rugby World Cup Sevens (2009 & 2013), just two more victories to close the competition and the Eagles could add another world cup to compliment the 1991 inaugural fifteens Women’s Rugby World Cup victory.
In a somewhat up-and-down season, the Eagles narrowly slipped to fifth place on the season standings, just edged out for fourth by a loss to Canada in the Paris quarterfinal. The team started the year with a shocking runner-up finish in Dubai before slipping to 8th and 9th in Sydney and Kitakyushu. But the Eagles finished the year strong with a bronze medal in Langford and a tough out in Paris.
The American women will start their run against China. Although China has qualified for every women’s world cup, in its two prior appearances the team has failed to progress past the bowl competition. The United States will be heavily favored in that match. A victory would mean a quarterfinal pairing with the winner of Russia vs. South Africa. Russia started the season well, finishing third in Dubai, fourth in Sydney, and fifth in Kitakyushu. The last two tournaments, however, saw Russia win only a single match. The current momentum should be on the side of the Americans. On the season, the two sides have met three times with the United States winning two. It started with a 21–12 semifinal victory for team USA in Dubai, followed by Russia winning 19–14 in the Sydney quarterfinal, and ended with the United States thrashing Russia (35–14) in Langford pool play.
If team USA can repeat its consecutive semifinal appearances, a monumental roadblock will likely be waiting in New Zealand. Had the United States not derailed New Zealand in Dubai, the powerhouse nation would have claimed the World Series title. Instead, despite winning each of the last three tournaments, that fifth-place finish in Dubai left New Zealand just two points behind Australia. But there is no two ways about it, the defending World Cup Sevens champions are the current team to beat. In Series Play, New Zealand posted a jaw-dropping record of 28–2. Add in the team’s triumph at the Common Wealth Games, and the record expands to 33–2. The only two loses were to the United States in Dubai and Australia in the Sydney final.
On the season, team USA faced New Zealand five times, going 1–4. When team USA lost, the margins were not close: 45–14, 31–0, 31–12, and 33–10. But it merits note that less than twenty-four hours after being drubbed 45–14 to finish pool play in Dubai, the Eagles came out and beat New Zealand 14–12. The odds are against team USA but they are world beaters playing on home soil, so do not count them out.
The American women’s roster is filled with Olympians and fifteens World Cup veterans. Heading into the World Cup, the two players that you absolutely need to know are Alev Kelter and Naya Tapper. You cannot watch five minutes of team USA and not instantly recognize how amazing those two players are. They are surrounded by a lot of other great talent in captain Nicole Heavirland, Ryan Carlyle, Lauren Doyle, Kate Zackary, Cheta Emba, Joanne Fa’Avesi, Jordan Gray, Abby Gustaitis, and Kris Thomas. A less familiar face in the squad, but a standout from her debut in Paris, is Ilona Maher.
Where the USA women have proud a tradition at the world cup, the men have a long history of disappointment. In six appearances, the men have never finished above thirteenth, a feat matched four times. Under Coach Mike Friday, the squad has only once finished lower than thirteenth in international competition, which was the last-place finish in Dubai to start the year. But a season of all-time lows was also matched with an all-time high as the Eagles held aloft the USA Sevens cup in Vegas. An injury-riddled lineup led to inconsistent outings but still produced a squad capable of beating anyone. Only three teams faced team USA this year and came away without a loss: South Africa (1–0), Ireland (1–0), and Kenya (2–2–0). Against the rest of the field, the team went 34–2–19 for a 61.8% win percentage.
With this year’s setup, a win in its first match will seeteam USA surpass its previous best finish at a world cup. Having finished fifth in last year’s World Series and some strong showings early this season, the team qualified as the fifth overall seed. That means an opening match against the winner of Wales vs. Zimbabwe. Despite a season in which it never reached the cup round, the 2009 World Cup champion, Wales, should come out on top of Zimbabwe. Wales closed the 2018 campaign with consecutive challenge trophy final losses and managed to best what had been a red-hot Kenya to finish seventh at the Commonwealth Games.
For the most part, the Eagles have handled Wales in recent years. Since 2015, the United States has gone 11–2 against the Dragons. The two loses in that stretch were in the opening match of the 2017 London Sevens, in which team USA finished fourth, and the infamous 2017 Dubai Sevens. With a healthy roster, the Americans should come away on top, though it is never a sure thing.
If the Eagles advance, they will face the winner of England vs. either Samoa or Uganda. Samoa should defeat Uganda, but the Ugandans put together a respectable showing in Dubai pool play as the non-core invitee, losing to eventual Series Champion, South Africa, only 19–10, Canada (22–17), and Kenya (29–14). And the side managed a victory over Russia later in the tournament. It would repeat its victory over Russia in Cape Town but was less competitive in its other matches. Similarly, Uganda was easily overmatched in the Commonwealth Games, defeating only Sri Lanka. But Samoa has not been a dominant power for years and is always vulnerable to a mistake. Equally, Samoa could surprise England in the round of sixteen and make a run to the World Cup.
The likely opponent for the Eagles in the quarterfinal is England and that is a tough draw at the moment. England started the year well with a bronze medal in Dubai before four-straight seventh-place finishes. A fifth-place outing in Vancouver got the team back on the right foot. Although a team playing as England finished last in Hong Kong, that was in reality a B-side with the top team held out for the Commonwealth Games. That top side finished with a bronze in the Commonwealth Games and then made it three straight semifinals to finish the Series, snagging a bronze and silver medal in the process.
On the season, the United States and England have been a very even match. It was not until the final stop of the Series that England slid past team USA for fifth-place in the standings. And, in their four meetings, it was the Americans coming away with the slight advantage, going 2–1–1. The Eagles won in Vegas (17–12) before losing to England in Singapore (19–14). Even though England was surging to close the season, team USA went undefeated in the last two matches winning 31–14 in London and finishing with a draw (21–21) to the eventual runner-up in Paris.
Were I a betting man, I’d bet for the Eagles to reach the semifinal. Since Mike Friday took over the squad in 2014, team USA has reached at least the semifinal in every international tournament on American soil: fourth at the 2015 and 2016 USA Sevens, third at the 2017 USA Sevens, second at the 2017 Silicon Valley Sevens, and first at the 2018 USA Sevens.
Advancing to the final would likely mean defeating the reigning back-to-back World Series Champions, South Africa. The Blitzbokke, despite three World Series season titles, twenty-nine cup victories, gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and gold at the 2013 World Games, has never won the Melrose Cup. In fact, South Africa has only reached one semifinal, which was en route to a loss in the 1997 final to Fiji.
Still, South Africa is an incredibly tough matchup for the United States. In their lone meeting, this season, South Africa came out on top 29–7 in the Vancouver bronze-medal match. Last season, South Africa took six of seven, only losing the last meeting 24–12. The year before also saw South Africa command the season series, taking three of four. Only 2014–2015 saw team USA avoid defeat in multiple matches against the Blitzbokke, winning one and drawing another in six outings.
For team USA, a season of injuries has finally given way to a top-flight lineup. Perhaps the only player who may have been in the lineup but for injury is Joe Schroeder. Everyone else that would be Coach Friday’s top choice looks to have made the squad. After a season largely spent on the sideline, Madison Hughes is set to captain the squad. He is joined by try-scoring machines Perry Baker and Carlin Isles. With Baker, the 2017 World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, hampered by injuries, Isles exploded back into the spotlight, claiming the series try-scoring title (49). Despite a concussion that knocked him out of Dubai and Cape Town, and missing both London and Paris, Baker still finished fourth overall in tries (37).
Two other players who have missed action due to injuries are Stephen Tomasin and Folau Niua. Both are healthy and ready to go. Niua is widely thought to be the best restart kicker in the game and has a field awareness matched by very few without whom there is almost no chance for the Eagles to lift the cup. Also back to health are Maka Unufe and Matai Leuta. Many, me included, thought the injury to Unufe in Vegas would end the American’s quest for the cup. Although the side was able to come away on top even with Unufe out, it is a much better squad with him in it.
With all of the injuries, a handful of players had the chance to step up and far exceed even the lofty expectations for them. Perhaps none have risen to the occasion more than Ben Pinkelman who captained the side in Hughes’s absence. But he is not alone in placing a big stamp of success on the season. When the year started, Kevon Williams was not on the top of anyone’s mind. He was not in the squad for Dubai, came in to Cape Town to cover for a concussed Baker, and tabbed only for thirteenth-man duties in Sydney. From there he has been invaluable andearned a more permanent spot in the lineup in the process.
But there just may not be another player in all of 2017–18 to have risen to the occasion more than Martin Iosefo. Always a talented competitor, Iosefo has been a fixture of the squad for years, making it tough to remember that he was not in the original lineup for Rio. It took a day-three injury substitution for him to become a full-fledged Olympian. Looking at him in 2018, it is impossible to imagine a time when he was not among the greatest in the sport. Just look at the video of his Sports Center moment in Las Vegas back in March to see a snapshot of his greatness.
In a year marked with injury after injury, only four players competed in every stop of the series. Along with Iosefo, Isles, and Pinkelman, Danny Barrett made his presence felt all season long. The consummate enforcer, Barrett hammered in seventeen tries and even one conversion to help propel the United States to a strong year even with the setbacks.
Rounding out the squad is Brett Thompson. After being out of the lineup since 2014, Thompson was tabbed for a roster spot in the last five tournaments, accounting for four tries in the process.
Two players who are great assets but hopefully unnecessary in San Francisco are Chris Mattina and Pat Blair. Mattina has twice served as the thirteenth man this season, including a huge spot coming in Vegas and helping the team win the tournament. A bit more surprising is Pat Blair as the fourteenth man. Blair is a veteran Eagle but has not earned a cap since Singapore in 2016. Undoubtedly, his experience is an asset even if his inclusion a slight surprise.
The action gets under way Friday (July 20th) and concludes Sunday (July 22nd). If you can’t make it in person, make sure to catch it on the NBC family of networks.