Last year, team USA entered Dubai as the defending London Sevens Champion and with a great deal of excitement. Despite a disappointing loss to France in their second match, the Americans made history by not only registering the team’s first ever victory over New Zealand, but by beating New Zealand a second time to secure a third-place finish. This season, the Eagles entered with a great deal of trepidation after a disappointing ninth-place finish in Rio and with Head Coach Mike Friday and many other players coming off fifteens duties. Due to Coach Friday’s commitments to the fifteens Eagles, Assistant Coach Chris Brown took over the head coaching job both this week and next, though Friday was in attendance in Dubai to help out and occasionally become the loud speaker on the sideline. Although the 2016 installment of the Dubai Sevens did not prove to be as fruitful as it had been in 2015, there is a great deal to build on for a relatively young team that still managed to lay claim to some hardware.
In pool play, the opening match for team USA was a must-win against Scotland. The Scotts, although having struggled to build on a strong 2014–15 season for most of last year, finally broke through in London to win a first ever cup. The United States had not finished far behind the Scots, with a third-place result. For the Americans, a shot at another top three finish would almost certainly require a victory over Scotland.
The Scotland match can only be described as sloppy from the American perspective. Scotland struck first after a series of errors and missed tackles, to claim a 7–0 lead. Throughout much of the first half, Scotland was unable to break the American defense, but the inability to drag Scottish ball carriers to the ground prevented defensive pressure from forcing turnovers or even backing the Scots up. At the end of the half, Scotland stood in front one converted try to nil.
The second half saw Scotland steal the opening kick and soon looked to score a second try, although the apparent score was called off by the TMO. The Eagles won the resulting scrum and Maka Unufe took a strong run to just shy of the USA ten-meter line. Shortly thereafter, the American offense managed to put together some solid phases, sending Danny Barrett across for a try with four minutes remaining in the match. Madison Hughes’s usually sure boot was not in perfect form, and the missed conversion left Scotland in front 7–5. Scotland collected the restart and soon found space to add a second converted try. The Scots failed to win the restart kick, instead knocking it on. The ball got out to Perry Baker on the wing, who looked to catch the edge of the Scottish defense, but the turf gave way, causing Baker to slide into touch. With Baker’s pace and explosive acceleration, he may well have scored had he been able to keep his feet. Scotland won the resulting lineout but conceded a penalty with thirteen second remaining. The uneasy Eagles ultimately squandered the opportunity to diminish the margin of defeat when a pass intended for Martin Iosefo bounded into touch. Scotland won the lineout with no time remaining and kicked to touch to end the match.
After the tough defeat, the only path remaining for the Eagles was to soundly beat Uganda and then upset South Africa, a very similar path to what the United States had done in 2015. A resounding victory over Uganda seemed highly likely, given that it was the first appearance for Uganda on the World Series since 2007. South Africa had already beaten Uganda 46–0 earlier in the day. Despite expectations for team USA to post a similar result, things did not start well for the Eagles.
The Eagles won the opening kick but were instantly backed up in defense and knocked the ball own. Uganda won the scrum and found a gap. The runner chipped on, scooped, and scored, beating Folau Niua in the process to take the early 7–0 lead over the heavily favored Americans. Perry Baker won the restart and the Americans were able to answer back with a try from Martin Iosefo. It was the beginning of what would prove to be a big match for Iosefo. Stephen Tomasin, who received his first cap for the Eagles since 2014 was unable to convert the score. It was a kick Tomasin was expected to make. Uganda dropped the resulting restart and Maka Unufe was able to work to the Uganda five-meter before a turnover. Uganda then turned on a tough of Fijian magic to utilize several tremendous offloads to work deeply into the American half. Fortunately for team USA, Andrew Durutalo has returned to the squad and was able to force a penalty turnover at a breakdown. Unfortunately for team USA, the Americans were soon penalized, giving Uganda good attacking territory. Oddly, Uganda chose not to probe the American defense for long before kicking to touch to end the half with the slight (7–5) lead.
In the second half, team USA finally started to look like the team we’ve come to know the past two years. They won the kickoff, worked the ball to Iosefo whose hard work led to a try for Durutalo in the left corner. Folau Niua hit the tough, long conversion for the 12–7 lead. Uganda took the kickoff cleanly but soon lost the ball into touch. Durutalo took the quick throw and Danny Barrett powered his way to the Uganda twenty-two, drawing in several tacklers in the process. The ball worked out left to Iosefo who made a perfect step to draw in the final defender out wide for Uganda and passed to Tomasin for the try in the corner. Niua was unable to convert, putting the Americans up ten points. The United States won the restart and soon sent Iosefo over for his second try of the match. Niua’s conversion, again from the tricky left corner, was no good, leaving the Eagles up 22–7. Uganda knocked the restart on, and a short while later, following a controversial tackle on Danny Barrett that went unpenalized, Niua was able to get within inches of the line before offloading to Tomasin for his second try. Tomasin added the conversion from the right side to set the final margin at 29–7. The final restart kick was knocked on to end the match.
The match left much to be desired but was just enough to keep the pathway open for a birth into the cup round. With Scotland losing to South Africa (21–5) and then beating Uganda (35–14), Scotland’s points differential stood at +14. A victory by any margin over South Africa for the United States would have been enough to finish second. Anything short of victory, however, would mean falling to the second tier competition on Day 2.
South Africa struck almost instantly, with Cecil Afrika scoring thirty-two seconds into the match after the Blitzboks secured the opening kick. The Americans won the following restart, but lost possession after Perry Baker was able to find space to advance to the USA ten-meter line moments before a knock on gave a scrum to South Africa. The Blitzboks won a short-arm penalty in the scrum and looked set to break the American line. Instead, the Eagles forced a turnover but soon conceded a scrum at midfield. South Africa won the scrum, worked the ball to Seabelo Senatla who burst through the defense for the second converted try of the match, leaving the Eagles down 14–0. Baker made certain that the Eagles were not blanked in the half, when he was able to take a possession from inside the USA twenty-two, chipped over the South African defense, then kicked ahead twice before dotting the ball down in the right corner. Madison Hughes attempted the tough conversion and his kick banged off the right post, leaving the halftime margin at 14–5.
After back and forth play to start the second half, the Eagles broke through for a second try when Stephen Tomasin took an offload from Martin Iosefo from forty meters out for the score. Hughes’s conversion attempt from the left touchline slammed off the right post, again failing to add the points. South Africa won the kickoff and soon kicked ahead with the ball dribbling into touch at the USA twenty-two. The Americans won the lineout but a sloppy pass from Hughes to Maka Unfue hit the deck and South Africa scooped it up, sending Senatla over for a simple try in the left corner. The conversion was no good, leaving the match at 19–10. With no time remaining, Perry Baker added a consolation try in the right corner, and Hughes added the conversion to set the final margin at 19–17. If Hughes’s two close conversions before had been slightly to the left, the Americans would have posted their first victory over South Africa since Dubai 2015. Instead, the loss left team USA another heartbreaking loss from the top tier competition.
Day 2 in the second tier competition is always a rough place to be for teams with high expectations. The United States was not alone. Kenya and Samoa, each cup winners in last year’s competition, joined the Americans along with Argentina, which had finished fifth last year, and Japan, which finished fourth in Rio. By the same token, there was a surprise in the cup competition. Wales broke through to the cup round and ultimately a loss in the bronze medal match after posting only two cup round appearances last year.
For team USA, all that remained up for grabs on Day 2 was the newly rebranded challenge trophy, having replaced the bowl award in a series of changes that retired the plate, bowl, and shield awards in favor of gold, silver, bronze, and the challenge trophy. It is easy for teams with high expectations to come out flat on Day 2. A good example was how the United States looked in the first match of the ninth-place competition at Rio. The Americans defeated Brazil but looked lackluster in the process, and understandable byproduct of severe disappointment. While one might have rightly critiqued the team for that performance, no such criticism could be on offer in Dubai. Team USA looked clinical and dialed in the trophy quarterfinal match against Russia.
The match started with Danny Barrett winning the kickoff. A pass out to Perry Baker on the wing sent the speedster through for a try under the post. Madison Hughes added his first of several conversions to set the lead at 7–0. A second try came when Baker broke through a tackle and offloaded to Andrew Durutalo for a try in the right corner. Hughes’s conversion was just off and the lead stretched to 12–0. A third try came from Martin Iosefo who placed the ball under the post, giving his captain an easy conversion to push the lead to 19. Winning the third kickoff of the match–the other kickoff was a Russian knock on giving the United States a scrum in Russian territory–the Eagles added a fourth try when Baker picked the ball from a ruck and dotted it down under the post. Hughes added his third conversion of the match, giving the United States a 26–0 lead. Despite a strong threat for a Russian score before the half, the stiff American defense, coupled with sloppy passing from Russia, maintained the shutout at the break.
In the second half, Maka Unufe started things again on the right foot by stealing the restart. The ball worked out to Barrett who stiff-armed a tackle to get inside the Russian twenty-two. Folau Niua then took the ball and cross-kicked to the left corner in goal and the perfect bounce fell into the hands of Hughes for the try in the corner. Hughes added the conversion with a good strike from distance to extend the lead to 33–0. Russia took the next restart well and put the Americans under pressure. Twice Russian wingers looked to have the edge but were deprived a chance for a line break with poor passes. Ultimately, the next score would be for the Eagles as debutant Don Pati found a gap and ran untouched from midfield for the try to the right of the posts. Stephen Tomasin added the conversion to stretch the lead to 40–0. In the end, Russia added a five-pointer after the hooter to make it 40–5 in the resounding victory.
The victory sent the Americans on a collision course with Kenya. After taking three of four against the Kenyans in the 2014–15 season, Kenya held the 2–1 advantage last year. Few teams draw more attention and excitement on the circuit than Kenya, and for team USA, the match would prove to be a good litmus test for where the team really was.
The match started with the Eagles winning the kick, working the ball outside to Baker who was bottled up, then back inside to Danny Barrett who broke into space for a try under the post a mere forty seconds in. Madison Hughes added the conversion. Kenya collected the restart but soon saw the whole widen when Baker was able to force a turnover by kicking a loose ball forward, scooping it up, and offloading it to an unmarked Hughes for a try and simple conversion. Kenya was able to answer back shortly before the half. With little time remaining before the break, Kenya was able to steal the restart and add a second score to cut the American lead to 14–12 at halftime.
The Americans stole the second half kickoff and passed it out right to Hughes who fended off a tackler and scored under the post. Hughes added his third conversion to compliment his brace of tries and spread the lead to 21–12. Kenya answered back to close the gap to 21–19. The final restart came with 2:23 remaining in the match. The Eagles won a penalty on the kick and Folau Niua kicked to touch. The untidy lineout was cleaned up by the Americans and passed out to Baker who looked to score, but managed to step into touch back at the twenty-two. The Americans slapped the lineout ball back to their own ranks, but Kenya was able to get the possession. Nevertheless, the Americans were able to regain possession off a penalty with under a minute remaining. With thirty-two seconds left, the United States won a penalty at the Kenya twenty-two. The Eagles chose to take it slowly in order to let the clock dwindle down. Ultimately, the Eagles worked to the five-meter as time expired. In a tremendous show of good team sense over individual glory, Baker picked the ball from the back of a ruck and likely could have scored, but chose to boot for touch to end the match with the win.
Despite the hard-earned victory, the United States still registered 8 missed tackles against only 19 made. Tackling was generally poor the entire tournament and hopefully will not continue to be a problem next week in Cape Town.
The victory set up a final match against Samoa for the inaugural challenge trophy. The matchup was somewhat fitting given that Samoa was the opponent for the United States in the Eagles’ first ever cup final–although that was a sound loss for the Americans. The Americans struck first when Andrew Durutalo took a pass from Martin Iosefo for a try after a line break by Madison Hughes worked the ball to the Samoa five-meter before a high tackle brought him down and gave the Americans a penalty. Hughes added the conversion. Samoa fired back for a converted try to level the match. Perry Baker soon broke the deadlock with a perfect kick over the Samoan defense, which he caught perfectly in stride for a try under the post. Hughes added the conversion to make it 14–7. A try from Matai Leuta along with another Hughes conversion extended the lead at half to 21–7.
The second half saw a few more errors slow the American attack, but the United States still managed to add another when Don Pati broke into the Samoa twenty-two to ultimately set up a try for Stephen Tomasin. Hughes notched his fourth conversion of the match (eighth of the tournament) to make it 28–7. The final kickoff came with 1:45 remaining as Folau Niua’s usually excellent kicking went astray and the ball bounded into touch. Samoa ultimately added an unconverted score on full time, but the clear winner was the United States.
In the top tier competition, the medalists closely resembled the medalists in Rio. South Africa elevated itself from Olympic bronze to Dubai gold, Fiji stumbled from gold to Dubai silver, and one-third of team Great Britain–England–managed a bronze finish over fellow team Great Britain member Wales. After one tournament, the series standings are:
Unfortunately, despite the solid Day 2 and claiming the challenge trophy, team USA has not been rewarded with a favorable draw for the upcoming South Africa Sevens. The Eagles are the three seed ahead of Russia but behind Dubai champion South Africa and fifth-place Australia. It is a pool that team USA could win, but will be hoping for a victory over Australia and a repeat victory over Russia to return to the cup round. It looks to be the most difficult pool this upcoming weekend in Cape Town.