Canada 7s Recap
At the close of the 2015–16 season, it appeared that the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series had reached the zenith of parity. Just one year before, the United States, which had flirted with relegation the prior season, won its first cup at the 2015 London Sevens. The season that had just ended saw six different nations add cups to their trophy cases, including two first-time winners in Kenya and Scotland. The last two weeks, however, have proven that the series has never been more treacherous and the competition never more difficult.
Last week, Chile was the talk of the USA Sevens with a remarkable 5–5 draw against South Africa and challenge trophy quarterfinal victory over France. The defeat sent France tumbling to an eventual last-place finish. Still, the same lineups just one week later saw the Chileans winless, despite a dominating first-half against series-leading USA, and France just one win away from a worst-to-first reversal. It would have been the first time that a team made the complete turnaround in the same leg of the series. Kenya managed the feat in 2016 over the span of three tournaments finishing last in Vancouver and then winning Singapore, finishing seventh in Hong Kong in between.
Joining France in the final was a South African squad that looked a far cry from its old self in Vegas but on fire in Vancouver. The closest final score for South Africa on the weekend was within nine points. But things started remarkably well for the Blitzbokke and ended with the gold. Cruising to a 43–0 demolition of Chile before a 19–10 victory over Wales and 19–7 conquest of team USA, South Africa headed into the cup round with momentum. The South Africans used that momentum to thump Argentina (33–12), do the same to Fiji (31–12), and to hold off a remarkably in-form France (21–12).
For team USA, the 2019 Canada Sevens proved remarkably similar to 2018. In both, the Eagles entered fresh off hoisting the cup in Vegas with the most in-form squad. In both, the Americans dropped the pool decider to finish second in the pool, setting up a match with a difficult blue blood in the quarterfinal. And both seasons saw the Americans advance into the semifinal to set up a matchup that looked to be a sure bet in favor of the Eagles only to see the hopes of reaching the final dashed, followed by a disappointing bronze-medal match to finish fourth.
Now that the run of five consecutive finals for the United States is sealed in the history books, let’s put things in perspective. For starters, the finals streak may be at an end, but the semifinals streak is alive and well at six for six. That easily surpasses the team’s previous record of four in a row (2017 USA Sevens through 2017 Singapore Sevens). And the streak of quarterfinals (8) is on the cusp of tying the previous record of 9 (2015 Glasgow Sevens — 2016 Hong Kong Sevens).
We are now into the back half of the season, with six down and four to go. Heading into the year, the goal was a good season and a top-four finish to secure a spot in Tokyo 2020. It’s still possible for colossal failure in the final four tournaments to cost the team qualification, but the likelihood is remote. Despite missing the podium for the first time this year, the Eagles actually extended their lead in the overall standings ahead of second-place New Zealand. The United States currently leads with 113 points, followed by New Zealand at 106. Fiji moved up slightly on the Eagles with the bronze-medal victory to close to within twelve points at 101. Despite the triumph, South Africa sits a remarkable twelve points behind Fiji at 89. And, most importantly for Olympic qualification, the gap between USA in first and England in fifth is a breathtaking 33 points. All the way back at sixth with just 65 points, Australia appears to not be a threat to catch the Eagles with just four tournaments to go. As long as the Eagles reach the quarterfinals in each of the last four tournaments, it would take the United States losing every cup-round match and Australia winning each of the remaining tournaments to pull even.
For team USA, the first half of the season was unprecedented. But Vancouver was utterly forgettable. That is an important benchmark in the quality and accomplishments of this squad to call a semifinal appearance forgettable. Prior to Mike Friday’s anointment as savior of USA Rugby in 2014, the team had just three semifinals all-time. Since his arrival, the team has at least three in each season, combining for twenty overall.
At times, the Eagles played inspired rugby, twice overcoming steep halftime deficits to win. In the end, however, the team’s record for the tournament was just 3–3 and could easily have been much worse.
The opening victory over Wales was the comprehensive showing that everyone expected. With Wales struggling to avoid relegation, the Eagles had no difficulty dismantling the Welsh. Wales took a quick 7–0 lead before Carlin Isles rattled off the first two of his hat-trick of tries to put the United States on top. Martin Iosefo’s score along with conversions from Kevon Williams and Folau Niua set the halftime margin at 21–7 for the Americans. The second half proved more of the same. Wales again started with a converted try, but the match was soon out of reach when Isles claimed his third try. Madison Hughes joined the scorers’ table with a try and conversion, followed by Marcus Tupuola’s first career try. With Hughes’s second conversion, the final margin was set at 40–14.
The second round of pool play saw numerous major upsets: France, fresh off a last-place finish, upended Australia (21–17), New Zealand was pipped by Spain (26–24), and Canada beat Fiji (26–19). At halftime, it looked like team USA may join that list with Chile leading 19–7. The Chileans jumped out to a quick 12–0 lead before Kevon Williams got the United States on the board. In the second half, the much more talented squad roared forth, leading to an American lead thanks to a try from Ben Pinkelman and a brace from Isles. Hughes’s third conversion made it a seven-point contest with just enough time for Chile to level it. Instead, it was Stephen Tomasin crossing for one more American seven-pointer to make it 33–19 on full time.
The come-from-behind victory over Chile secured a spot in the quarterfinals for team USA, leaving the pool decider against South Africa to decide who would face Argentina or England. Despite a couple serious threats in the first half, including what looked like a sure path to points to end the half, the Eagles trailed 14–0 at the break. Midway through the second half, Tomasin capped off a tremendous American effort with much of the hard work done by Isles to close the gap to just seven points. The Blitzbokke responded with an unconverted try to make it 19–7, leaving the Eagles in the second seed in Pool A.
As Day 2 got underway, the Americans had a lot to learn from struggles in Day 1. Despite the first-day setbacks, it looked initially like the Eagles had drawn the simpler road to the final by losing to South Africa. A quarterfinal contest with England, a squad the Americans had beaten three times to that point in the season, was all that stood between the Eagles and a semifinal appearance against either Samoa, which the Americans blanked (27–0) in the Vegas final or France, the team that had finished dead last in the same tournament.
A first-half yellow card to Madison Hughes and three tries to the English, left the United States facing a 19–0 whole when they came out for the second half. The Eagles took the kickoff and won a penalty almost immediately. Folau Niua booted the penalty to touch inside the England ten-meter line. The Eagles won the lineout and worked the ball out to Hughes who used some masterful footwork to get by the England defense for the first try in the comeback. Hughes then hit the conversion from halfway between the post and the touchline to make it 19–7 with five minutes to go.
Ben Pinkelman made the restart difficult for England, looking to have forced a turnover. Instead, it was a knock to give England the scrum feed. England was unable to do much with its minute of possession before surrendering a penalty and the ball at the midway point of the half. The ensuing possession saw the Eagles hammer to inside the England five-meter line, where they won a penalty. Iosefo took the quick tap at the five and hit Pinkelman for the try under the post. Hughes hit the vital conversion to make it 19–14 with just under two minutes to play.
The Americans then won the restart with Martin Iosefo being taken out in the air for a penalty at the England ten-meter line. Niua kicked to touch ten meters out from the England try line. The Americans won the restart and put England under immense pressure with the final three-dozen seconds ticking away. Another England penalty was had at the five-meter line and the Eagles saw space with the hooter sounding as Tomasin wrapped around the England defense for a try on full time to level the contest. Standing at 19–19, Hughes had one of the bigger kicks of his storied career from just to the left of the post. The all-time leader in points for team USA tacked on two more to his record to send the Americans into a semifinal match with France.
It was the third straight tournament that saw the Americans play France. The French went down in the first two but looked good in each, dropping the Sydney pool contest 7–0 and the Las Vegas pool matchup 19–10. Perhaps looking ahead to what seemed a sure-bet sixth consecutive final, the Eagles could not get out of their own way. They threatened to score early into the contest but gave-up a penalty and quick try to put France in the lead. The French never looked back, rattling off thirty-three unanswered points before Tupuola’s second career try mercifully brought the match to a close—France 33, USA 5—with France booking its fourth ever birth in a final and first since 2012.
Having missed the final, the Eagles still had a chance to make it six podium finishes to start the year. Instead, Coach Friday did, as he has many times before in bronze-medal matches, went with a starting lineup that included all but one of his usual reserves. The approach nearly paid off. A converted try by Kevon Williams in the first half was sufficient to keep the Americans within five at the intermission. Following an unconverted score by Fiji to make it 17–7, Coach Friday brought in Hughes, Isles, Iosefo, and Brett Thompson to provide a surge of energy to make the final push. It instantly paid dividends. Fiji was shown yellow on the restart and the man advantage coupled with fresh legs saw Isles in for the score. Hughes connected on the conversion to pull team USA to within three. The hopes of another famous comeback were dashed when Vilimoni Botitu grounded Fiji’s fourth and final try, putting the Fijians on the podium: Fiji 24, USA 14.
The loss in the bronze medal match allowed Fiji to creep two points closer to the United States on the overall table. It also gave Fiji a 3–1 lead in the season series. Only Fiji can claim a winning record against the United States this season. The Americans now sit at 27–9 on the season with three losses to Fiji, a 3–3 record against New Zealand, and at least one win over every core team. Only Argentina (1–1), South Africa (1–1), and France (2–1) have even a single win against the United States. England (4–0), Spain (3–0), Kenya (2–0), Samoa (2–0), Wales (2–0), Australia (1–0), Canada (1–0), Japan (1–0), Scotland (1–0), and Tonga (1–0) have each fallen in every contest against the Americans in 2018–19.
The series takes a brief break before returning on April 5th for the Hong-Kong-and-Singapore leg of the tournament.