Cape Town Sevens Preview
After a triumphant showing in Dubai, the USA women’s team has headed back home with silver medals. For the men’s team, however, the destination is Cape Town, South Africa. Not only is the flight path different for the men and women, but the present trajectory of their respective seasons is as well. The women currently sit at number two in the world standings. The men, who finished last season ranked fifth are currently in their lowest position under Mike Friday. An 0–5 showing in Dubai has team USA tied for dead last and sitting in danger of relegation. While it is wholly unimaginable that the Eagles will be anywhere near relegation by season’s end, it was a disastrous start to a promising season.
From the opening minutes of the first match of the season, with just-named World Rugby 7s Player of the Year, Perry Baker, going down with a concussion, the season could not have started much worse. But the team can only go up from there and should absolutely be expected to push for a quarterfinal birth or better in Cape Town.
Baker remains out and has been replaced by Kevon Williams. Fans of the USA Eagles will recall Kevon Williams from this time last year as he was on the squad for both Dubai and South Africa, scoring a try in the latter tournament. Williams had remained largely on the periphery since, seeing action for the Eagles in San Jose last month. At the Silicon Valley Sevens, Williams’ four-try effort was out paced only by Stephen Tomasin’s six.
The rest of the roster from Dubai travels southwest to try and salvage the early fifth of the season. After sliding into the roster as Baker’s immediate injury replacement, and having started the final American match of Dubai, Naima Fuala’au returns to the thirteen jersey, hopefully to not be needed again in Cape Town.
Few looked sharp in Dubai, which has historically been a problem for team USA, as we discussed in the buildup to Dubai. Aside from periodic sparks of class, the team generally looked flat-footed. It is likely that the team’s off-kilter performance was due to an extended three-month offseason break for the squad, deemed necessary by Coach Friday for the team to get a respite ahead of grueling cycle that will, hopefully, culminate again at the Olympic games.
It is certainly possible for this team to bounce back to full form this week, but the Americans are not likely to push for a medal this time around. In fact, with the pool that awaits them, they will be hard pressed to make it into the top eight. As we discussed in the recap of Dubai, the Eagles are yet again in the toughest pool. They face the second overall 1 seed, the top 2 seed, and second strongest 3 seed. But that is the price you pay for poor results.
Slotted in Pool B, team USA will start its march back from the basement with an always tough match against the All Blacks Sevens of New Zealand. Since besting New Zealand in Las Vegas, last year, the Americans are on a three-match skid in the series, having lost (21–14) in Singapore, a tournament in which the United States reached the final, in Paris (27–14), and just last week (24–12).
Also in Pool B are Australia and Spain. As the Series’ newest team, regardless of how things go against New Zealand and Australia, Spain needs to be a team the Eagles defeat. In Dubai, Spain impressed with a win over France (14–12) in pool play, a thrashing of Russia (31–0) in the challenge trophy quarterfinal, and a win over Argentina (14–12) in the semifinal, before falling to France in the final (21–12). Put simply, even Spain will be a tough out, but one team USA should expect to make.
Australia, will likely be the make-or-break match of pool play. An opening loss to New Zealand, as seems fairly likely, will leave the Eagles almost certainly needing to win the last two pool matches to reach the quarterfinal. That means beating Australia in the second pool match. And Australia is coming off an excellent showing in November, winning the Silicon Valley Sevens with a come-from-behind victory against team USA in the final, and then following that up with a strong showing in Dubai. No team scored more points in Dubai pool play than Australia’s combined 104.
The Australians crushed Wales (38–7) and then heaped misery upon Russia (47–0). A tough loss to Fiji (26–19) in the pool decider is all that marred Australia’s opening day. On Day 2, England, on its way to a bronze-medal finish, bested Australia (26–19), before the Australians bounced back for consecutive wins over Kenya (19–12) and Samoa (22–17) to end up fifth.
But don’t count the USA out just yet. Under Mike Friday, the United States has an impressive record against Australia: 8–6. Last year alone, the Eagles went 4–1 with cumulative match points going an astonishing 145–45. Even adding the loss in Silicon Valley, the United States has won five of the last seven. If the squad can find its rhythm, there’s no reason the United States cannot make it six of eight after Cape Town.
A good showing is also important due to the recently announced format for the Rugby World Cup Sevens. Instead of the traditional pool-play model, World Rugby has announced a seeded-bracket approach. And the seeding for the top twelve teams will come from an aggregate of last-year’s Series points and the points for the first seven stops this year. Even after a disastrous start to the season, the Eagles are hanging on to the fifth seed, just ahead of Australia who closed to within four points after Dubai.
The action gets underway Saturday (12/9) in Cape Town and concludes on Sunday (12/10). You can watch everything live on ESPN3. And check back here for a complete recap of all the action.