Canada 7s Preview
Following arguably the biggest weekend in USA Rugby history, with both the men’s XV’s team winning the ARC title and the 7s team claiming the USA Sevens for the first time, the Eagles head into Vancouver in the unfamiliar territory of the top seed in Pool A. Another interesting result of winning in Vegas is that the drawing for seeds 3 through 4 in each pool was done by Danny Barrett and Carlin Isles, giving team USA a literal hand in controlling their destiny.
To get to where they are now, the Eagles have had to overcome more significant injuries than at any point in Mike Friday’s tenure with the team. That is not to say that he has not had to adjust to injuries in the past. Mere days before what would become team USA’s first-ever cup victory at the London Sevens, the long-time face of the team, Zack Test, went down with an injury, forcing Coach Friday to call in Thretton Palamo. And who could forget Kevin Swiryn going down with a torn ACL in the 2016 Wellington Sevens plate final. But the volume and the specific players going out this season have been massive blows.
It started a minute into the season when Perry Baker was concussed in Dubai. There went the 2017 Sevens Player of the Year for two tournaments. If you saw one of his tries from Sunday on SportsCenter, then you already know how much of a game-changer that was. It stunned the team enough to slip to dead last in Dubai before bouncing back to finish sixth in Cape Town.
In Sydney, where the Eagles finished fourth, the injuries piled on. Both Madison Hughes and Stephen Tomasin were knocked out for the remainder of the Oceania leg of the series and through the North American leg. Danny Barrett was also out for the bronze-medal match but was good-to-go in Hamilton and since.
In Hamilton, it was Martin Iosefo who was out for a match with an injury, but bounced back to compete on Day 2 and lead the Eagles to challenge trophy. Then, in Las Vegas, the injury bug bit Joe Schroeder and Maka Unufe. From the moment Schroeder went down, it was clear his shoulder was going to keep him out for the remainder of the tournament. Gracing the podium with his arm in a sling, it came as no surprise that he is also out for Vancouver.
But Schroeder was not the only injury in Vegas. In the semifinal, Maka Unufe took a lower-leg injury that initially had the team optimistic that he may be available for the final. But Unufe did not compete in the match against Argentina. Earlier in the week, USA Rugby reported that he is out for Vancouver and has been replaced by Brett Thompson. There is reason to question whether that is so as World Rugby, at the time of writing, lists him in the lineup for Vancouver.
The other twelve men traveling to Vancouver set to dawn an Eagles’ shirt are the eleven healthy men from Las Vegas––Carlin Isles, Ben Pinkelman, Danny Barrett, Matai Leuta, Malon Al-Jiboori, Folau Niua, Cody Melphy, Kevon Williams, Baker, Martin Iosefo, Chris Matina––and Nick Boyer. Boyer returns to the lineup for only his second time, having been called in for Hamilton to provide a twelfth man after Hughes and Tomasin went down in Sydney.
In Vegas, three Eagles made the Dream Team and a fourth was served one more in a litany of injustices by being excluded yet again. Pinkelman, Barrett, and Baker were each rightly selected for inclusion. But how on earth Folau Niua did not make the Dream Team and has somehow never made a Dream Team is beyond me. The when-healthy captain of the team, Madison Hughes summed up the general opinion well in a tweet:
— Madison Hughes (@MadisonHughes15) March 5, 2018
It’s one thing to acknowledge, as Hughes did in another tweet and as I have in many prior articles, that it is easy to overlook what Niua does because he is a great facilitator and is not always the man scoring the big tries––although he certainly has the best dummy-pass skills on the Series, which has resulted in thirty-five tries the last three and a half seasons––but that should not be an excuse for the World Rugby selectors. If you understand the game, as Niua’s teammates due, then you instantly see the injustice. The man is the sine qua non of the team. The Eagles dominate the Series in restarts and he’s the man who puts the ball where guys like Baker, Iosefo, and Barrett can get to it. He’s also the man who has connected with runners on kicks through the defense several times for scores. And, in Vegas, he was the man who landed 17 conversions for a team that scored only 22 tries, with 1 conversion taken and made by Carlin Isles. If you think that does not change games, look back at how many matches the United States lost prior to Madison Hughes taking over the kicking duties due to failure to connect on conversions. Niua has stepped in for Hughes and been remarkable. He was and is on fire and deserved a spot on the Dream Team.
The Eagles will try to do what they have never done in a single season before and no team has done this season: win two tournaments. In order to do so, the United States has a favorable, but not easy draw. Team USA will start with the non-core invitee, Uruguay. The Uruguayans looked much better in Vegas than their winless record would indicate. Still, the Eagles should be strong favorites.
But the next two matches are tough. They will first take on Canada, which is always tough, but particularly challenging in Canada. After losing to Canada in Dubai, the United States has won the last two. But Americans needing a refresher on how much Canada enjoys shattering team USA’s dreams need look no further than the 2017 Singapore Sevens final in which Canada claimed its first tournament title.
The final match of pool play pits the United States against Australia. The Australians won the cup in Sydney but have struggled mightily against the Eagles in recent years. Last season, team USA won four of five. This year, it has been two of three, including the pool decider in Vegas (28–7). There is, however, no two ways about it, beating a good time is always a difficult proposition and doing so multiple times is nearly impossible.
And the road to the cup will be even rougher in the cup round if the Eagles can make it. The quarterfinal matchup for Pool A will be against one of the top two seeds in Pool D. Unless Scotland or Russia can do the unthinkable and knock either Series leading South Africa or the only team to never miss a quarterfinal, New Zealand, out of the top two spots, the Eagles will be facing a date with one of the top two teams in the season rankings.
The action gets under way on Saturday (3/10) and will finish Sunday (3/11). Make sure to catch the matches on ESPN3.