Cape Town 7s Preview
Fresh off a third-place finish in Dubai that included not only a first-ever defeat of New Zealand, but a second consecutive victory over South Africa and a resounding second victory over New Zealand, the Eagles head to Cape Town, South Africa for the second leg of the 2015–16 HSBC Sevens World Series. The strong showing in Dubai places team USA in unfamiliar circumstances. The World Series now in its seventeenth season, for the first time, the United States is ranked in the top three of the series standings.
Probably the biggest takeaway across the board is that in Dubai there were six teams that looked capable of winning the tournament. That said, there were only six teams that looked able: Fiji, England, the United States, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. Fiji still sits atop the sevens world and, as Fiji coach Ben Ryan said after claiming the Dubai title, when each team plays at 100%, Fiji is the best. Since last seasons, that certainly has been the case.
Ben Ryan’s former team, England, though not as sharp as Fiji, looks its usual self. The English can win a tournament on any given weekend but likely will not win more than one. Since posting three-win seasons in 2002–03, 2003–04, and 2005–06, only once has England won more than a single tournament in a season (2008–09). Indeed, since the halcyon days ended with the 2006 Hong Kong Sevens title–the fourth in five years–England has had four seasons (2006–07, 2007–08, 2009–10, & 2013–14) without winning a single tournament. The prototypical norm, however, has been one tournament victory (2010–11, 2011–12, 2012–13, & 2014–15). This England side looks likely to follow the trend.
New Zealand still remains a force to be reckoned with later in the series but may be in serious danger this weekend. New Zealand has won more tournaments than any other team. The All Blacks Sevens’ dominance is most easily summarized by the fact that of the sixteen series championships, New Zealand has claimed twelve. Only Fiji (2), South Africa, and Samoa have managed to oust New Zealand from atop the series. For American fans who have spent over a decade watching day 1 with bated breath to see if the Eagles would reach the cup round, the All Blacks Sevens have never missed the cup round. This weekend, that might change.
New Zealand has not been on top of its game dating back to last season. Last year, the All Blacks Sevens won a single tournament. It was the poorest showing for a New Zealand team aside from 2005–06 and 2008–09 in which the team failed to win any tournaments. Though the team looked poised to bounce back from a rebuilding year, adding major star power with fifteens All Blacks Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam making the conversion to the short code, it was clear by Sir Gordon Tietjens’ selections for Dubai–excluding Williams and Messam–that he does not think those players quite ready for the seven-a-side game. Instead, Tietjens picked a side he thought could win the Dubai Sevens and South Africa Sevens. Instead, his team was decimated by injuries. With the lone exception of Wales in the 2010 USA Sevens that turned to American Jason Pye to help fill a depleted roster, I cannot remember a team that suffered more injuries in a tournament.
By the time New Zealand faced team USA in the third-place match in Dubai, Tietjens’ squad could boast at most six fully healthy players, losing one of that lot in the process. After Dubai, New Zealand was left with five healthy players. In light of those injuries, it is unsurprising that there are reports that Tietjens consulted with World Rugby organizers about the possibility of a forfeit to the Eagles. The injuries pose serious problems for the New Zealand infrastructure. The touring squad included a party of fourteen players, with two not on the active roster. As for the other five vacancies, Tietjen is left calling in for reinforcements from back home. Although few nations can claim to surpass New Zealand in ready-to-go rugby talent, the All Blacks Sevens only have a training squad of sixteen. This means that three of those five replacements will have to come from outside the existing infrastructure. Even under the best of conditions, sliding players into a new team can be a difficult task.
What complicates matters for New Zealand is that the fourth-place finish in Dubai slots the Kiwis into a very tough Pool D in South Africa. The pool includes Samoa, France, and Canada. A much healthier All Blacks Sevens side topped France 21-14 in Dubai and Samoa 24-21. It is entirely possible that one or both may be able to reverse that fortune in South Africa. Two losses for New Zealand should almost certainly send them to a first-ever bowl round appearance. Complicating matters is that team Canada is also a serious danger to add a second-ever victory over New Zealand. It is entirely possible that a team that almost never loses on Day 1 may actually end up 0-3 to start Day 2.
Although New Zealand finished higher than either of its traditional tri-nations rivals both Australia and South Africa look capable of winning the South Africa Sevens. It took a yellow card against a red-hot team USA for South Africa to find its only loss in Dubai. Australia looked much less crisp but no less dangerous. The Aussies lost to South Africa in the plate final in an instant classic, leaving Australia with a 3-3 record but losses to runner-up England, third-place USA, and plate-winner South Africa–a tough road for any side.
The great news for American fans is that team USA seems to have come back as a stronger side than the world-beaters of a year ago. Playing without Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo, the Eagles twice overcame late deficits against perennial powers to claim famous victories. Aside from a disappointing loss to France and dropping a match to England that the Eagles should have won, the team looked alright, but not great. It has come to the point where the Eagles look just alright and that equals a podium finish. Let us not lose perspective; two years ago, this team was facing relegation. Now, the Eagles can run onto the pitch, make countless errors and still steal one at the death from New Zealand. If the Eagles are going to add a second tournament championship to the trophy case, they will need to clean up the errors an indiscipline that cost them at crucial points in Dubai. If they can do that, there is no reason team USA cannot compete for the series crown.
Looking ahead to the pool draws:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|Fiji||England||United States||New Zealand|
Pool A should produce another perfect Day 1 for Fiji with the second seed coming down to the winner of Argentina vs. Scotland. The winner of that match will likely be determined by which way the ball bounces on Saturday. As between the two, Argentina would be the wiser bet, but it really looks to be a pick ‘em. Russia will likely need to wait until Day 2 to try and pick up a first victory in the young season. That said, Russia pushed Scotland in Dubai, coming up just short in a 17-14 loss. There’s an outside chance that Russia strings two strong performances together and sneaks into the cup round, but I certainly would not bet on it.
Pool B will provide a good indicator of whether England is ready to turn the corner and become a more consistent top-four team. Both England and South Africa should advance with the winner of that match claiming the top seed in the pool. The tilt to decide the top seed for the bowl round will be an interesting rematch of the Rugby Africa Men’s Sevens Championship that went the way of Kenya (21-17), and with it Olympic qualification. Zimbabwe will certainly be looking for revenge, but Kenya will enter as the clear favorite.
Pool C is certainly not an easy draw for team USA. Nevertheless, the Eagles featuring Perry Baker fresh off his first Dream Team selection will be the favorites to win the pool. Wales has become a persistent bowl semifinalist and Portugal has not reached the cup round in two years–last reaching in the 2013 South Africa Sevens. If team USA can defeat Wales and Portugal, the Eagles will have clinched a fourth consecutive cup round birth before heading into the likely pool decider against Australia. Coach Mike Friday is looking for consistency in his side and will need it to fend off a talented Australian side looking to get back to its winning ways.
Pool D is easily the most interesting pool draw in quite some time. With New Zealand vulnerable, Samoa not yet firing on all cylinders, team Canada looming, and a French team that won the bowl and was a matter of points away from competing in the cup quarterfinal above team USA, there is no shortage of talent in Pool D. This seems like a pool that could easily have three teams with 1-2 records at the end of Day 1. In the vacuum of uncertainty, the All Blacks Sevens remain the favorite to claim the top spot. Never count New Zealand out. If I had to guess, I think New Zealand overcomes adversity and wins the pool. But we’ll see.
The action gets underway Saturday (12/12) in Cape Town, South Africa and concludes on Saturday (12/13). Make sure to check back for a complete recap of all the action.