Cape Town 7s Preview
One week removed from a silver medal in Dubai and laying claim to a vital top-four spot in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings, team USA travels south to Cape Town, South Africa with eyes not only on vital ranking points but on capturing a first-ever cup title in the Southern hemisphere.
The finals appearance in Dubai marked only the fifth trip to the finals in the Eagles history (2010 Adelaide, 2015 London, 2017 Singapore, 2018 Las Vegas & 2018 Dubai). It also moved the United States to a tie with Kenya for the eighth most finals appearances. It will take at least eight more finals to catch seventh-place Argentina. For comparison, New Zealand sits far beyond anyone at the top of the board with 92 finals; Fiji follows with 70; and South Africa is at a distant third with 57.
As a result of reaching the Dubai semifinals, team USA secured a top seed in the Cape Town pool draw. The silver medal means the Americans sit atop Pool B and will pair with a competitor from Pool C for the quarterfinal matchups. Joining team USA in Pool B are Argentina, Spain, and Japan. Aside from potentially Pool D, it was the best draw of any pool.
Dubai champion New Zealand was “rewarded” with what is most likely the toughest pool matchups. Sitting atop Pool A, New Zealand will be pushed for the top seed by South Africa, with both squads focused on a cup victory. But the bottom of the pool is not to be overlooked. After a brief stint as the best team in the world, Samoa has been the example of inconsistency the past several years. In Dubai, Samoa edged Argentina, pushed South Africa, and then narrowly escaped non-core invitee, Zimbabwe. The effort was not enough to reach the cup quarterfinal, but a strong day 2 showing still meant a challenge trophy victory.
At the bottom of Pool A is Zimbabwe. In addition to pushing Samoa to the wire (17–15) in pool play, Zimbabwe played well above expectations in Dubai. The team was dismantled by South Africa (31–0) to start the competition but then played close matches with both Argentina (22–19) and Samoa to close pool play. Day 2 was less promising, as Canada beat Zimbabwe with ease (38–5) and Wales made it a winless day for the African contingent with a 14–10 victory.
The in-form All Blacks Sevens will be strong favorites to do what they have done in every single HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series tournament to date, which is reach the quarterfinal. The smart money would be on New Zealand and South Africa moving to the quarterfinal, but the order of seeding will almost certainly come down to their final match in pool play in front of a heavily partisan South African crowd.
Pool C is also a meatgrinder on paper. Headed by England, which has been in excellent form since claiming bronze at the Commonwealth Games in April. Since then, England has reached four straight semifinals on the Series and the World Cup Sevens final in July. A bronze medal in Dubai, with a narrow (15–14) defeat of Australia has England looking for its first cup since the 2017 Vancouver Sevens. England has a history of success in Cape Town, having won the competition in 2016.
In order to do so, England will have to get by the always dangerous Fijians, who finished fifth in Dubai after a loss to team USA in the quarterfinal. They will also have to avoid meaningful, but far from impossible, upsets by France or Kenya. Kenya played abysmally in Dubai but competing on its home continent with scores of Kenyan fans in attendance will likely lead to a much more inspired effort. France, on the other hand, is just a team waiting to nip someone. Last season, the French reached one quarterfinal and won four challenge trophies. But they also registered three dead-last finishes. They finally got their upset in the Rugby World Cup Sevens when they shocked sixth-seed Australia (22–17) and played a solid match against eventual champion New Zealand (12–7).
Pool D is the pool most likely to have some surprising results. Australia is the top seed, having finished fourth in Dubai. The Australians have a history of following brilliance with mediocrity, as exemplified by the shocking defeat to France in the World Cup. Last season, Australia reached three semifinals, snagging a gold, silver, and bronze medal across those three appearances. But the team also missed the quarterfinal on three occasions, including twice in the last four tournaments.
The second seed in Pool D is fairly close to wide open. Scotland comes into the contest with the honor but is not a certainty to finish in the top two after Day 1. After consecutive London Sevens crowns (2016 & 2017), Scotland reverted toward its mid-card status last season, four times losing in the challenge trophy quarterfinal. At no point did the Scots finish up 7th, which is precisely how they did in Dubai. Canada had a moderate showing in Dubai that could turn into a much brighter outing in Cape Town. And then there is Wales, a team which has some bright points in its history but was also one of only two core teams to not reach the quarterfinal last year. The other was the since-relegated team Russia. By comparison, non-core invitee Ireland competed twice and reached two quarterfinals. The Welsh have not seen a quarterfinal since 2017 in Sydney.
For team USA, sitting atop Pool B, the key will be staying healthy and taking care of business. The first matchup will be with Japan. The Americans have not competed against the Japanese since 2017 due to Japan having been relegated for the 2017–18 season. Since a 2014 loss to Japan in Scotland, the United States has utterly dominated the series, going 9–0. The Eagles will look to get things started well in Cape Town by extending the streak to 10–0.
The same can be said for team USA against Spain. The two sides met last week, with the United States dominating (29–0). A victory over both Spain and Japan should secure a quarterfinal bid for the Americans. But it is far from certain who will come away as the top seed in the pool. With England and Fiji the likely opponents for either top-two seed in Pool B, there is no easy path through the quarterfinal.
Argentina is a foe with whom the United States is well acquainted. Last season, the two nations faced off nine times on the Series. They met in each of the first five tournaments, with Argentina taking the first three contests. Team USA swung the pendulum in the fourth, winning the Challenge Trophy in New Zealand against Argentina, then repeating that result at the next stop in the Las Vegas cup final. Team USA won three of the next four contests to close the Series season up 5–4 on Argentina. The competitiveness of Argentina was a monumental improvement after being dominated by the United States (5–0) in the 2016–17 season. But, in their last meeting, it was Argentina claiming the win. The two teams met in the fifth-place match of the World Cup in San Francisco, with Argentina dominating the Eagles (33–7).
Team USA returns the same lineup from Dubai and will be poised to register another top-four finish to keep the dream of automatic Olympic qualification alive.
The action gets under way on Saturday (12/8) and will finishes Sunday (12/9). Make sure to check back for a complete breakdown of all the action.